Ted Haggard: Scandalous debuts tonight on TLC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Ted Haggard: Scandalous wants to be a lot of things, but it falls down in the end because it fails to be the one thing it needs to be: an incisive portrayal of the man at its center. Billed as a one-hour special by TLC but feeling much more like the pilot for a prospective reality series (the TLC screener contains an entirely disconnected scene that plays after the credits have rolled and has nothing to do with anything else and takes place after the events of the special, perhaps indicating much more footage was shot for this than is seen here), the special is uneasy about really pushing Haggard or the people in his family to speak honestly about the situation that led them to having to clean out the barn in their yard to put on a megachurch. There are phenomenally moving moments in Scandalous, moments that will be particularly resonant for viewers who’ve been burned by evangelical Christianity. But there are also moments where the bullshit meter is off the charts.
The basic idea of Scandalous is right there in the title. Ted Haggard was the highest profile of the many sex scandals that rocked the weird nexus of politics and hardcore religion that is the Christian conservative right. Accused of engaging in gay sex with a prostitute whom he also purchased meth from, Haggard has only admitted to some of the allegations to this day, most notably admitting to accepting a hand job from the prostitute after a massage, but the damage was done, and Haggard was forced to abdicate his position at the top of Colorado Springs’ influential New Life Church. He’d once been considered one of the most influential men in American politics, able to bend the ear of the president, and now, he was confined to his (admittedly huge) house, only his kids and wife to keep him company, the phone ringing off the hook with people angry with him for what he’d done.
When Scandalous begins, Haggard has gotten it in his head to get past the scandal. It’s three-and-a-half years later (the events depicted take place in the early summer of 2010), and Haggard thinks enough time has passed. He wants to start a church that will be for people who don’t feel welcome at other churches, like himself. He keeps calling it a church “for sinners,” and the implicit “like me” is heard in the air but rarely stated, because the special, in general, is squeamish on pinning down just what Haggard believes now beyond vague generalities and in a sense of his own ability to overcome just about anything, with the help of his loving family. He announces the church will open four days before he plans to hold the launch party at his house, in an old, junk-filled barn. While he sets his kids to cleaning up the barn and making it presentable, he and his wife, Gayle, embark on a media blitz and also travel the Colorado Springs area, talking to mainly drug addicts, trying to help them out and persuade them to attend his new church. The structure of Scandalous resembles most closely Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, only instead of healthy eating, Haggard is traveling the city, trying to get people to come back to a God that seems marginally more inclusive than Haggard’s last version of God.
Or does He? The greatest failing of the special is that it resolutely refuses to get Haggard on record about what he now believes to be sin, outside of stuff pretty much everybody can agree is wrong. He’s chastised less for cavorting with a man and more for cheating on his wife. If homosexuality is proclaimed to be a sin, that would turn off too much of the audience, and the only people who come close to suggesting such a thing in the course of the special are the angry people who call in to radio shows and ring up Haggard at home to berate him about how the New Testament says he should never hold a position of authority again (the Christians of Colorado Springs are evidently very into the dogma of Paul’s epistles, and one guy tells Ted he’s nothing more than a “Second Peter, chapter two merchandizer”) or ask him, husky voiced, perhaps joking, perhaps suppressing something, whether he “has a craving for a man’s touch.” Everything Haggard says SOUNDS nice, much more in line with what Jesus taught about reaching out to the disenfranchised and downtrodden in local communities and building relationships with them than anything the culture Haggard came out of has said on the subject in years, but it also sounds like it’s built up to make Ted Haggard look great, not to build a truly inclusive church where people can come together in love and acceptance.
Watching Scandalous, it’s almost impossible not to come to two separate conclusions: Ted Haggard is lying about what he did in 2006 (even his generally supportive kids seem skeptical about what he says transpired), and he’s simultaneously come to again believe that homosexuality is wrong. Because the audience for the show is likely to be fairly evenly split between former Haggard acolytes who want to see what he’s become and curious gawkers, it refuses to spell all of this out, choosing to leave it barely expressed, in a way that actively harms the central subject. The true religion of the special isn’t Christianity; it’s reverence for Ted Haggard, the man who didn’t know what else to do with himself but preach, so he started a church. (It’s, indeed, kind of creepy to note how much the special has actively edited out the words “God” or “Jesus,” as if it’s trying to pull a fast one on the audience as to what it’s actually about.)
There are moments when the Haggard who is still rocked by what happened and by the desires he doesn’t want to have but still feels peeks through. He’ll be talking to a parishioner about how hard it is to overcome an addiction, how the craving never really goes away, and for just an instant, the sense that this is a man who can’t run away from a fundamental part of himself will chase itself across his face. Haggard clearly comes from the generation of fundamentalists that believes homosexuality is a choice, all evidence to the contrary. (His kids seem to come from the line of thought that believes homosexuality is predisposed to some degree, and that’s cool, so long as you don’t act on it, which just seems self-defeating.) Yet he’s struggling with how deep this thing goes, with how little he can control it, and in the few, faltering moments when that becomes evident—like a monologue he gives about how he doesn’t think ANYone has the answer as to where sexuality stems from—the special becomes real and human and moving.
But most of the special isn’t like that. It’s a good PR puff piece, designed to make a troubled man look good, the last stop on the trail that brings people back to a position of public goodwill again. Because the special is conceived as such, it’s unable to really push Haggard, to try to get a better sense of who he is. And for all of its other good qualities—particularly a keen sense of how the fundamentalist Christian community is so insular and closed off to people who are not in it as to be roughly the exact opposite of most of the things Jesus actually taught—the special simply doesn’t work because it presents the man who sits at its center as someone who has refused to do the really hard work of self-reflection, instead treating his new church as a chance to redeem himself, not try to help others find redemption. By refusing to develop a point of view on Ted Haggard, the special becomes vague and centerless.