Network television has long believed in the teachings of teenage vampire slayers, talking cars, bionic crime fighters and planet-hopping ambassadors, but has had little faith in one otherwise familiar character: God.

Religious figures have occasionally scored in family-friendly programming, like the angel with a halo of gold on "Highway to Heaven" and the perfectionist pastor on "7th Heaven," but those shows were about as innocent and simplistic as a child's first Sunday-school class.

Now, thanks to programming on cable and in foreign countries, the Almighty is getting star billing, even though it's not always in pulpit-friendly fare.

On TNT's "Saving Grace," a booze-guzzling, promiscuous detective routinely challenges the good intentions of a gruff guardian angel who looks and behaves like an extra from "Sling Blade." A&E's "The Cleaner" centers on a recovering addict who addresses God as if he were an old drinking buddy, then fumes when he gets no response. The host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" treats organized religion and the Bush administration with equal distaste, an approach he builds on in his new documentary, "Religulous." On FX's "Rescue Me," conflicted firefighter Tommy Gavin sees dead people -- including Jesus Christ.

Foreign broadcasters have been even more adventurous with religious programming. That includes Canada's "Little Mosque on the Prairie," a sitcom in which Muslims move into a small town, and the BBC's reality series "Make Me a Christian," with contestants who include an alcoholic sexist and the manager of a lap-dance club.

Don't expect the U.S. broadcast networks to join the flock.

"You bring up God at a network meeting, and they look at you like you have two heads," said "Saving Grace" creator Nancy Miller.

For much of television's history, skittish executives could point to the National Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics, which discouraged programmers from tackling controversial subjects.

"The thrust of it was that religion should be treated respectfully," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council.

But the code was abolished in 1982. Since then networks have been scared off by two more daunting forces: wary advertisers and low ratings.

Risky attempts such as 1997's ABC drama "Nothing Sacred," in which a priest questioned his calling, and 2006's NBC series "The Book of Daniel," featuring a reverend who confided his troubles to a very hip Jesus, faced boycott threats and audience disinterest. They were quickly canceled.

"If you were from another planet and you were studying our human culture through prime time, you wouldn't know we had religion," said Bruce Forbes, a Methodist minister who teaches about religious studies and pop culture at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

Forbes, who lives part-time in Minneapolis, believes that executives altered their stance, at least slightly, after the success of CBS' "Touched by an Angel," a top 10 show from 1996 to 2000.

Forbes said "Angel" led to more signs of Christianity on TV, including "Promised Land" and "7th Heaven," dramas more about spirituality than theology. "The Simpsons" has routinely addressed religion -- Mark Pinsky's book "The Gospel According to 'The Simpsons'" concludes that about 70 percent of the episodes reference faith -- but cartoons traditionally get away with more than series that feature flesh-and-blood characters.

What about Joan?

One of TV's most intriguing and critically acclaimed efforts in the past decade was 2003's "Joan of Arcadia," in which a teenager sees God in more than 80 everyday people, from a school cafeteria worker to a Goth student. The CBS show was canceled after two seasons with an average audience of 9 million fans.

That kind of viewership may sink a network series, but it's enough to sustain a hit on cable, where executives embrace controversy and edgy programming.

"Networks are scared of offending someone. They're still trying to be all things to all men," said Dudley Riggs veteran Peter Tolan, who co-created "Rescue Me" with star Denis Leary. "We [Denis and I] don't care about anything, so we'll put anything out there."

The devil-may-care attitude has worked. The struggle of Leary's character to rationalize his sinful habits with his Roman Catholic upbringing is a major reason why the series has garnered six Emmy nominations, including two for Leary's searing performance.

Jonathan Prince, executive producer for "The Cleaner," said it was inevitable that television finally tackled religion with what some may perceive as irreverence.

"It was the last untouchable icon to fall. Everything else has been done," he said. "We've seen men and women on TV who have a traditional relationship with God, where they stand in awe and tremble. But -- and this is not a slam at the religious right -- we've seen a lot of spiritual leaders exposed as charlatans and crooks and liars. I don't know if audiences today would trust the 'Highway to Heaven' guy."

Prince said this type of exploration wouldn't be possible without a big-name, popular star at the helm. In his case, that's Benjamin Bratt, star of "Law & Order," "Miss Congeniality" and an endless number of erotic dreams.

"Navel-gazing isn't very good on TV -- a character just thinking about his life -- but when you look like Benjamin Bratt, it becomes a little more interesting," said Prince. Because of positive audience response, he said he's increased the time dedicated to "God talk" from 5 to 14 percent since the premiere.

"Saving Grace" creator Miller also heaps praise on her Oscar- and Emmy-winning star, Holly Hunter.

"If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't be on the air," she said. "The character of Grace has to be relatable, and in the hands of Holly we're secure."

But even a big-name star might not be enough for networks to emulate their cable brethren. Not that they won't continue taking a chance every now and then. NBC plans to launch a midseason series called "Kings," which will explore the trials and tribulations of the Bible's David. Ian McShane, formerly known for his Satanic-like rants on "Deadwood," will play a major character. Creator Michael Green promises that his main character will "have a complicated relationship with faith and with God over time."

Turning that into a network success story may make slaying Goliath look like a breeze.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431