Posted on Sat, Oct. 04, 2003
This fall, TV shows surprising faith
By Charlie Mccollum
Knight Ridder News Service
This season, it seems as if, like Joan of Arcadia, television will be seeing a lot of God -- or at least some kind of higher power.
Joan of Arcadia is a twist on the Joan of Arc story, as is the Fox midseason show Wonderfalls, in which a greater power speaks to a sullen young woman through inanimate objects such as a plastic lion.
In Fox's Tru Calling, which is set to premiere this month, a young woman will be able to save the lives of those who died before their time. Still Life, another midseason drama on Fox, is a variation on Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, with a lead character who has been dead for more than a year. And on Showtime's Dead Like Me, a self-absorbed teen-ager dies in a freak accident and becomes a grim reaper, grappling daily with death and the afterlife.
The new shows are a very different breed. Morally ambiguous, sometimes sardonic and emotionally dark, they suggest that receiving a higher calling from a higher power is not easy to live with and that there are far more questions about the nature of faith and the afterlife than there are answers.
As new grim reaper Georgie Lass says glumly in an early episode of Dead Like Me: "Everybody dies. That's just the way it is. I'm told I'm not supposed to argue or question or even try to understand."
The creators of this new spiritual TV have slightly different views of why so many similarly themed series have emerged at the same time -- a time when television is dominated by simply digested police procedurals, reality series and family comedies.
Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia, says she "could go into the Jungian philosophy of the collective unconscious. Or I could go with: There's something in the zeitgeist right now, that people are thinking about this stuff."
But, she adds, "I do think Sept. 11 had something to do with it . . . and caused people to start thinking about the religion and faith in their lives. But for whatever reason, there is something in the air, that people are willing to take a look at or have a discussion of spiritual issues."
Just how far do the shows go in their examinations? It varies. Tru Calling is close to a traditional science fiction/fantasy series. Still Life keeps its plot rooted in family-drama elements. But others are taking some real risks in terms of asking viewers to immerse themselves in rather difficult questions of faith.
Most of the shows decline to get into explicit discussions of the nature of God or the specific beliefs of organized religions. In the case of Wonderfalls, says Fuller, "everybody involved has a different idea of what that higher power is. All the voices speak from one godhead or god source, but what that is I don't think anybody knows.
"We didn't want to be too pretentious in defining that higher power as anything . . . well, definable. I don't think anyone is qualified to do that."
"The out I leave myself is that early on, God says he won't answer any direct questions because, metaphorically speaking, it's pretty clear that God simply will not explain to us what is going on. Part of God is that he is -- or she is -- a mystery. It's part of my Joan of Arcadia rules that the mystery can never be solved."