Guiding Light

In a scene from the new CBS drama "Joan of Arcadia," a stranger speaks to the teenage Joan and tells her he is God.

After a few of these conversations, Joan finally asks him, "Why are you appearing to me?"

The man replies, "I'm not appearing to you; you're seeing me."

Joan thinks she may be going crazy, but it turns out the mythic town of Arcadia is not the only place in TV land where the spirit is rising.

"Joan of Arcadia" is just one of a half-dozen or so new network series whose characters deal with the spiritualistic in some form. Some are dead, some talk to the dead, and some get good ideas - divine and possibly otherwise from - umm, plastic lions and brass monkeys.

Of course, angels and destiny are not a new topic for writers. "Highway to Heaven" and the just-canceled nine-year hit, "Touched by an Angel," had faithful audiences. But this season is more heaven-bent than usual, if also a bit darker and more ambiguous about just how good otherworldly influences always are. And given TV's increasing hunger for young audiences, Della Reese and Michael Landon have given way to pretty under-25-year-olds.

"Joan" creator Barbara Hall suggests Jung's concept of the "collective unconscious" may explain the synchronicity, saying, "There's something in the zeitgeist right now that people are thinking about this."

Without question, she says, the events of 9/11 deepened people's willingness to talk openly about issues of life and death, God, and fate.

"For whatever reason, there is something in the air that people are willing to take a look at or have a discussion about spiritual issues," she says.

Although 9/11 may have focused people's interest in life- and-death issues, interest in these issues is much bigger than a single event, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "We don't need 9/11 to explain this. We've got 5,000 years of religion before we had this. People are interested in spirituality and God. At the end of the day and [in] the dark of the night, people are concerned about this."

Touched by a tchotchke

Ms. Hall is not the only writer inspired by Soldier-Saint Joan. Todd Holland, executive producer of the new "Wonderfalls" on Fox, says he has always been fascinated by the French teenager who led armies into battle just because voices told her to.

Mr. Holland has teamed up with show creator Bryan Fuller - who also penned this summer's successful Showtime series, "Dead Like Me," about a teenage girl who serves as a Grim Reaper, guiding people to the afterlife.

In "Wonderfalls," they have created Jaye, an underachieving, overeducated 24-year-old who gets unsolicited directives about how to help total strangers (some unreceptive tourists included) from the tchotchkes in the Niagara Falls gift shop where she works. The Fox show revels in the coming-of-age angst that made "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place" so successful - but with more emphasis on the metaphysical than physical this time.

"Where do your influences come from?" asks Holland. "Is it God? Is it Satan? Is it indigestion?" He says he flirted with naming the show, "Surrender to Destiny," because it also deals with free will. Jaye doesn't have to follow these voices. Or does she?

"Opportunities come," says Holland. "There are great quests and great opportunities that arise before us, and we have to see them and answer the call or not."

Destiny also is the question at the heart of another Fox drama, "Tru Calling," which was inspired by the hit indie film, "Run, Lola, Run." That movie, says executive producer Dawn Parouse, "was about, How do you change fate?"

Tru Davies (played by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" alum Eliza Dushku) is a young morgue worker who can hear corpses pleading for help. When she decides to intervene on their behalf, she instantly begins to relive the day that led up to the death. Sometimes she will be able to prevent the death. But not always, Dushku says.

"You already feel like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. And then, all of a sudden, when you're really asked to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, it's so overwhelming," she says.

"It's interesting to see where they're going to triumph and see where she'll fail and see just how she deals," she says, adding that the show is also perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale about trying to play God. "Everyone would want to say that they would do the right thing, and yet at times, nobody's perfect."

Guilt and redemption are big issues in yet another Fox show, "Still Life," about a family picking up the pieces after the prodigal son, Jake, is killed in the line of police duty. In a twist reminiscent of the bestselling novel "The Lovely Bones," the dead man narrates as he tries to unwind the messy pieces of his human life.

"No family is ever perfect, or on the point of being whole," says executive producer Dawn Parouse, who says she thought of her show before Alice Sebold's novel came out. This sort of limbo, of course, works well for serialized drama because there's always some new unfinished business to explore. "Hopefully, they won't be whole for a long time," she adds with a small laugh, "and Jake will keep watching and insinuating himself into their lives."

As with any religious effort worth its salt, there's a sort of Bible for the way the spirits conduct themselves, several show-runners say.

In "Joan," says Hall, "God can't directly intervene, he can only work through people." More important, she adds, "He can't choose one religion over another."

'Entry-level religion'

In other words, says pundit Thompson, spirituality on TV is catholic, with a small "C," meaning everyone is included, for one simple reason - advertisers don't want to alienate any potential viewers. "These shows are about adapting religion to the marketplace," says Thompson. They aren't about practicing religion. They're about feeling good about religion in general."

He likens them to the musical prelude before a religious service. "They're what I call entry-level religion."

But Hall, for one, drew her inspiration from some fairly complicated thinking.

"My own spiritual beliefs and my belief approaching the show came from science, from physics," she says, adding that she reads scientific books for fun. "My tag on the show is that it's about physics and metaphysics, because you can't have one without the other." She recommended that her entire writing staff read several books, including "God at the Speed of Light," a book she says "marries spirituality and physics," and "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," by Julian Jaynes.

"Still Life" executive producer Marti Noxon says shows with spiritual themes are a logical result of trauma from Sept. 11. But she underlines Thompson's point that these issues are hardly new. "You know, there's two inevitabilities: death and taxes, she says. "And TV shows about taxes are just not that interesting."

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