HBO's "His Dark Materials," "Gemstones" Take Leap of Faith
Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, speaks as Ruth Wilson looks on in HBO's "His Dark Materials" panel at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
  • BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP)
  • --

HBO's forthcoming fantasy series "His Dark Materials" and its new televangelist comedy "The Righteous Gemstones" bring wildly different worlds to the screen, yet both grapple with the same central problem: How to take on religion without degrading and demeaning viewers' beliefs.

"His Dark Materials" is based on the novel series from author Philip Pullman that has been embraced by atheists and condemned by believers for its villain, a powerful quasi-religious organization called the Magisterium.

But the show's executive producer Jane Tranter told a TV critics' meeting Wednesday that the show and the books are a critique of authoritarian organizations of all kinds, embrace spiritual themes and are "not an attack on religion.

"Philip Pullman talks about depression, the control of information and the falsification of information," Tranter said. "There is no direct contrast with any contemporary religious organization."

The show's 14-year-old star Dafne Keen said to her the Magisterium is another version of Big Brother in George Orwell's "1984." She's just now reading it for the first time, she said, after finishing the three "Dark Materials" books to prep for her role of Lyra, a girl who uncovers dark secrets through her elders. The show also stars Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson.

Asked whether he thought controversy would accompany the fall premiere of the show, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys said the makers were "very thoughtful" in their treatment of religion.

"It didn't give me concern," Bloys said.

"The Righteous Gemstones," which premieres August 18, portrays a sometimes sincere, sometimes sleazy family of televangelists, milking them and mocking them for laughs.

But creator and star Danny McBride said he sought to make a show his aunt, a minister in Atlanta, would find funny.

"When I say we're not taking aim at people's faith, I'm being honest," said McBride, the man behind previous HBO shows "Eastbound and Down" and "Vice Principals." ''I'm not just saying it to try to shy away from controversy. ... Ultimately I'm not taking a swipe at her or what she believes in, I'm setting a story in a world she's familiar with."

McBride said the goal of the show is "not to be a takedown of anything.

"When Hollywood decides to take on religion, I think they make the deadly mistake of lampooning people for their beliefs, which is not something I'm interested in doing," McBride said. "I would not go and pass judgment on other people. For us it's about lampooning a hypocrite, lampooning somebody who presents themselves one way and is not that way."

The rest of the Gemstones cast were asked about their religious experiences.

John Goodman, who plays patriarch Eli Gemstone, said he remembers a lot of "splendor and screaming" in the Protestant church he was forced to go to as a child in Missouri.

Adam Devine, who young pastor Kelvin Gemstone, who tries to make Christianity fun for teens, said he spent his Catholic childhood jealous of friends whose megachurches had "rock-climbing walls, and video games to play. We just had a hard wooden bench."

The souls and spirituality of the characters in "His Dark Materials" take the shape of animal companions that they talk to, known in their alternate universe as "daemons."

Star James McAvoy said he dwelt on the spirit of his character's wildcat companion in his portrayal of Lord Asriel.

"Wow, I'm a snow leopard. OK. You've got to look at yourself, and talk to yourself, that way," McAvoy said, noting the series is based on his favorite books.

Miranda, who plays Lee Scoresby, a cowboy pilot with a jackrabbit daemon, said he was such a fan of the books that he signed up before even hearing what role he would have.

"I would have played James' snow leopard if they'd let me," he said.

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