When "Touched by an Angel" said its goodbyes last spring, many TV watchers surely wanted to give thanks to Martha Williamson for offering a tiny oasis on their television sets for the comforting notion that there is a God in the world who loves us. Maybe it's because, God help us, almost everything else on television looks like a frenzied dance at the foot of Mount Sinai, worshipping only sex and idols of gold, blithely unconcerned about the daunting prospect of eternal judgment awaiting their Hollywood handiwork.
Luckily for us, CBS has filled that hole in the schedule with another entry in that lonely genre. Let's call it the "theo-drama." One of the surprise hits of this dreary fall season is "Joan of Arcadia," a show created by Barbara Hall, who also gave CBS the hit drama "Judging Amy." Among the smaller audiences of Friday nights, "Joan" has consistently won its time period in the 25- to 54-year-old demographics that count.
Both CBS and Hall wanted to avoid making a carbon copy of "Angel," so instead of centering the show on a set of angels with rotating beneficiaries, this show centers on one normal, not particularly religious kid and her relationship with the Supreme Being, a dramatic variation of the "Oh God" movies. Despite the wordplay, our heroine "Joan of Arcadia" is a very average American teenage girl, in no way related to the medieval French saint. She's closer to Joan Osborne, whose hit "One of Us" (the song that wonders if God is "just a slob like one of us") is the show's theme song. God appears to Joan in different human guises -- a lunch lady, a telephone-pole repairman, a TV anchorman inside the boob tube -- and gives advice on how Joan can work His will in the world in the smallest actions.
The show's success in finding a Friday following could be due to more than the spiritual angles. Joan's mother is struggling with the tragedy that her athletic teenage son has become paralyzed from a car accident. Joan's father runs the town's police department, which faces difficult issues like police brutality. Their daily struggles and their involving characters are probably part of what makes the show click with viewers.
But the most interesting debate over the show centers on the troubles a religiously themed show has swimming in mass culture. Like "Angel," the struggles over God and faith in "Joan" are relentlessly nonsectarian. Hall created a "ten commandments" for the show, which include the religiously curious demand that "God can never identify one religion as being right."
How sad it is that this is what Hollywood deems necessary in order to win a time period.
To build mass appeal, imagine these shows as books: Few people buy theological tracts, but millions buy spiritually themed self-help books. As Time critic James Poniewozik noted, "reducing God to principles we can all agree on also means taking away much of what makes faith difficult. With this God, everything is a win-win, and all Joan's chain reactions are for the better."
Religious people watching the show might roll their eyes as Joan meets God in the first episode and asks, "Old Testament, Tower of Babel, the Burning Bush, Ten Commandments God?" God responds: "Well, I come off a little friendlier in the New Testament and the Koran, but yeah, same God."
Even as they popularize God, TV shows can seem to go a little far in demystifying and downsizing Him into just another wisecracking TV character who seems concerned with his public image. Joan's God doesn't do awesome things like split the Red Sea. He just tells Joan to join the chess club or try out for cheerleading, where she'll learn and grow. There is no "fear of the Lord" in this show. That presumes God passes judgment on man, and that's a concept that will never fly in Tinseltown.
For all the fussing over the fine points, "Joan of Arcadia" still deserves applause. It represents a weekly chance for families to sit together around the set, and seek together to wonder about how God makes his presence known in the world. It seriously beats the usual glut of tasteless sexual jokes or even TV "news" shows that mock the Scriptural accounts of the life of Jesus. For this thought-provoking, family-friendly show, CBS ought to get some letters of gratitude.