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Ellen Gray | Presenting the Mormons from many sides

THE MORMONS. 9 tonight and tomorrow, Channel 12. I GREW UP IN a religion with what some might regard as strange beliefs.

THE MORMONS. 9 tonight and tomorrow, Channel 12.

I GREW UP IN a religion with what some might regard as strange beliefs.

Virgin birth. Water into wine, wine into blood. Bread into body.

And, of course, the biggie: Resurrection of the dead.

But I've lived my life on the East Coast of the United States and largely in places where Roman Catholics formed, if not a majority, a sizable minority. The first U.S. president I can remember was Catholic.

So while I've occasionally been asked to explain why I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I've never been asked to explain Catholicism, which has been around in some form for a couple of thousand years.

This, I suspect, is what it might be like to grow up as a Mormon in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't this big, mysterious religion less than 200 years old but simply a way of life for many people with a set of agreed-upon beliefs that nevertheless might seem strange from a distance.

Tonight and tomorrow, PBS attempts to bridge that distance a bit in "The Mormons," a four-hour co-production of "Frontline" and "The American Experience" in which filmmaker Helen Whitney ("Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero") traces the history of Mormonism from founder Joseph Smith to the present day.

It's a day in which LDS members - from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to Senate majority leader Harry Reid - aren't just in the mainstream but part of the power structure, and more than half the estimated 12 million members of this American-born religion live outside the United States.

Though Whitney's version is perhaps less incendiary than that in Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven" - which juxtaposed the story of the rise of LDS with that of a double murder committed by members of a fundamentalist splinter group - it's not a whitewash.

Dissidents get their say on both the church's controversial history and on its present-day dealings.

In a piece last week for the LDS-owned Deseret Morning News, TV critic Scott D. Pierce noted that Whitney devoted what might be considered a disproportionate amount of time - more than 19 minutes - to an 1857 incident known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre (in which Mormons were among those implicated in the deaths of more than 100 men, women and children).

In an article on the church's Web site, there are also hints its leaders won't be happy with the time devoted both to the Mormons' history of polygamy and to breakaway groups that still practice it but don't belong to the church itself.

But though the visit to a middle-class family of polygamists straight out of HBO's "Big Love" is intriguing, it's not as memorable as the time spent with a Mormon family whose opera singer daughter is dealing with a terminal heart condition.

Mormon practices, from marriages meant to last long past death to baptizing the dead who in life didn't get the chance, may remain puzzling to the rest of us even after they're explained.

But what shines through "The Mormons" is Whitney's enthusiasm for allowing people of faith to talk about that faith.

And that's the kind of talk - from people of all kinds of beliefs - that it might be good to hear more of.

'Rock' and a hard place

Could Alec Baldwin be right to think that controversy regarding his acrimonious custody dispute with ex-wife Kim Basinger could hurt NBC's "30 Rock"?

On Friday, in a previously taped interview on ABC's "The View," Baldwin again apologized for the phone message in which he called daughter Ireland "a rude, thoughtless little pig" and said he wanted to leave the Tina Fey sitcom - and acting altogether - to protect his fellow cast members and the crew and to pursue his work combating "parental alienation."

By the time "The View" interview aired, NBC had already put the kibosh on that idea, and with good reason.

While the show has improved immensely over the course of the season, and writer/star Fey has established herself as an onscreen presence, Baldwin's Jack Donaghy remains the rock - jagged as it might be - of "30 Rock."

Nevertheless, on Thursday, the already renewed show's season finale drew a paltry 4.8 million viewers, according to the preliminary Nielsens. That's down a bit from the previous week's 5.15 million, and down even further from its season average of 5.7 million.

That number might improve as Nielsen families hit their DVRs, "30 Rock" being one of the shows that benefits most, percentagewise, when time-shifting's counted, according to Nielsen.

So really, it's probably just a coincidence that our last view of Baldwin this season was as the hospitalized Donaghy fended off Fey's Liz Lemon, who was jokingly threatening to "pull the plug" on him.


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