God Be With You 

This season the creator pops up in the unlikeliest of places.

Joan is what might kindly be called an underachiever. She’s drifting through school, more caught up in her social life than academics — that is, until God shows up. But Joan’s God is not a wrathful or vengeful god. He’s God for the new millennium, a God who wants Joan to make more of herself, a God given to hinting rather than demanding. When he pops up as the driver of a street sweeper outside Joan’s school, he identifies himself by reminding Joan that “sometimes you like to practice French kissing yourself in the mirror” and then tells her “I give suggestions, not assignments.”

But when Joan takes God’s suggestions, good things happen — not to her necessarily, but to strangers and friends alike. In God’s domino theory of doing good, when Joan takes his advice and gets a job, her paraplegic brother decides to stop wallowing in self-pity and get his life back on track. And when Joan — again with God’s urging — decides to enroll in an advanced chemistry class and does a paper on combustion, her dad ends up arresting Arcadia’s fire chief on arson and corruption charges.

The producers evidently believe in the ripple-effect theory of religion. And who’s to say that’s not perfectly rational. Not Joan. And not me.

“Joan of Arcadia” is intriguing television, not least of all because it leads viewers to think about good and evil on Friday nights, not just on Sunday mornings. Only the worst of cynics could watch this appealing drama and its attractive cast without wondering, “How would I react if God personally appeared to me?” Amber Tamblyn as Joan, Mary Steenburgen as her mother, and Jason Ritter as her paraplegic brother lend an easy credibility to the show’s premise, while Michael Welch as her nerdy-smart younger brother adds a certain soup‡on of cynicism, although he has yet to figure out exactly why Joan is so off-center lately. The only fly in the cast’s myrrh is Joe Mantegna as Joan’s father. He’s as wooden and flat as ever. Luckily, he doesn’t detract all that much from the show’s charm.

Later this month, God pops up in “Tru Calling,” a crime-procedural drama debuting on Fox. Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) stars as a bright college grad who winds up working in a morgue when her medical internship falls through. She’ll hear murder victims — or is it God? — asking for her help and will then be whisked back in time far enough to take a shot at preventing the crime.

The third in this season’s trinity of such dramas is “Wonderfalls,” which Fox plans to debut in midseason. Caroline Dhavernas as Jaye Tyler will hear inanimate objects — God, again? — in a Niagara Falls souvenir shop telling her how to better the lives of her friends and family.

Television has a way of seizing on a popular idea and running it into the ground. (Westerns and reality shows are good examples.) So don’t be surprised if God starts popping up as entertainment all over the tube soon. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as he’s the benevolent God and not the Jim Jones Kool-Aid God.

Execs at the networks have to hope we’ll take to heart what Joan’s father says in one early episode. God is talking to Joan through a TV news anchorman. Her father wants her to study. When dad turns off the TV, Joan freaks. “Yeah,” her father says sarcastically, “It’s a crime against God to turn off the television.” S

“Joan of Arcadia” airs Friday nights at 8 on CBS. “Tru Calling” will air Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Fox beginning Oct. 30. Fox has not announced a debut date for “Wonderfalls.”,/i>


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