Sunday, November 23, 2003

Television turns its eyes to God

Spiritual themes thrive on prime-time

By Bill Goodykoontz
The Arizona Republic

The devil may be in the details; God is in the television show.

In Joan of Arcadia, to be exact, where a nondenominational, somewhat-mischievous Supreme Being appears in various guises to a teenage girl, who is understandably clueless - even more so than teenage girls tend to be.

The show (8 p.m. Friday, Channels 12, 7) actually uses God by name, an unusual move for any TV show not called Touched by an Angel. In its effort to be all things to all people at all times, such a thing might turn some viewers off. Joan is the better for tackling that risk head-on.

Afterlife embraced

It's just one of several new and upcoming shows that have some sort of connection to the world beyond. They don't just feint in the direction of the afterlife, they embrace it. That's different for TV anyway; it's certainly different that so many shows are doing it at the same time. No matter the reason - and no one, not even the people involved with the shows, seems to know for sure why it's happening - the climate of uncertainty makes it feel right.

In addition to Joan, whose title character lives in a small town called Arcadia, is Fox's upcoming Wonderfalls, about an overeducated young woman working as a trinket-store clerk to whom inanimate objects talk; Showtime's Dead Like Me in which a young woman is killed by the falling commode of the Mir satellite and becomes part of a team of grim reapers; and Fox's Tru Calling (8 p.m. Thursday, Channels 19, 45), where a young woman who works in a morgue can go back in time a day to help selected corpses avoid the way of all flesh.

Another midseason show, airing on Fox is Still Life. It's narrated by a cop who was murdered on his first day on the job. And let's not forget Six Feet Under, HBO's drama. Set in a funeral home, death is as large and looming a character as any the actors portray.

Perhaps it's just coincidence, though I'd bet not, that most of these shows are among the best dramas on television right now.

What gives? In TV, trends are like hot babes or gorgeous guys - you don't have to do much work to spot them, since they're mostly in the eye of the beholder. But this life-beyond business isn't just a matter of a surfeit of cop shows or a return to lighthearted family comedies. This is a little deeper than television usually treads.

"I'm not sure it's a morbid fascination, but I think it's the inevitable, and I think it is something that we don't understand fully, and it's always interesting to explore things and find answers as you go," says Jon Harmon Feldman, an executive producer for Tru Calling.

He's right. None of these shows, even the self-conscious cable show Dead Like Me, is morbid. Perhaps the young female leads most of them employ soften the blow a bit. Or maybe they're just well-written, well-executed projects.

"I think our show, actually, in a very interesting way, celebrates life because there's a girl who has the power to prevent death," Feldman says of the show. "And so, it's sort of exploring both life and death in equal measure."

And life beyond death. Television's had plenty of horror shows that deal with ghosts and vampires and such, but with the exception of good-natured goo, such as Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel, religious issues are usually avoided, much as they are in polite conversation. (Politics, too, with the exception of The West Wing.)

No longer. Something's going on here, and even the people who create these shows don't sound clear as to what.

"I could go into the Jungian philosophy of the collective unconscious," says Barbara Hall, who created Joan. "Or I could go with just, there's something in the zeitgeist right now, that people are thinking about this stuff. I think Sept. 11 might have had something to do with it."

Wishful thinking

Maybe with death replayed so often, in a world where no one can guarantee that such a horror won't be visited upon innocent people again, there's a desire to believe that the dead aren't really gone.

"I think there's a wish fulfillment that everybody in this situation would have that if you lost a loved one as close as your son or your brother, that they would be hanging around and watching," says Dawn Parouse, an executive producer for Still Life, a midseason replacement show that's not yet on the air.

Another theory, courtesy of Teresa Blythe, a Tucson, Ariz., writer and co-author of Watching What We Watch: Prime-time Television Through the Lens of Faith (Westminster John Knox Press; $19.95).

"I think it's like the sign that Mulder had in his office (on The X-Files) - I want to believe," Blythe says. "People want to believe. We know that life is hard. We want to make sense of it. We're struggling, even people who have faith."

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