Smells like teen spirituality

Why have the networks brought us four -- count 'em! -- new shows about rebellious young heroines in touch with the supernatural world? God only knows.

Published October 13, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Apparently someone took Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" a little too seriously. This year, not one or two but four new shows focus on angst-ridden young women in touch with spirits from the great beyond. In fact, Showtime's "Dead Like Me," CBS's "Joan of Arcadia" and Fox's "Tru Calling" and "Wonderfalls" have so much in common, it's downright unnatural.

Each of these shows features a lead character who is rebellious and unconventional, has strained relations with her family, and considers herself powerless to change the status quo -- that is, until that fateful day when some spiritual force steps in and forces her to take action. Naturally (or supernaturally), her actions result in all sorts of miraculous, magical goodness, including improved family relations, the salvation of a wide selection of addicted, codependent or otherwise diagnosable strangers, and a rapidly developing crush on a supercute guy.

While it's unclear whose Kool-Aid these shows' creators were drinking when they developed that conviction that the world was waiting with bated breath for a cross between "Buffy," "Six Feet Under" and "Touched by an Angel," the mixture of pessimism and dewy-eyed sentimentality, cynicism and faith in the unknown, and angst and happy endings certainly seems in keeping with post-9/11 America. With economic uncertainty at home and increasingly perilous relations overseas, it makes perfect sense that a handful of networks have simultaneously backed shows with a vulnerable but world-weary young heroine facing down the realities of that big, bad, scary world out there -- but only for a second before everything that's confusing and uncertain turns out to be warm and friendly in the end. And we'll make it, too, we're assured, if we can manage to nurture a blind faith in some power greater than ourselves. You know, like God, or the Dalai Lama, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whatever works for you.

More surprising than the similarities between these shows, though, is the fact that they're all pretty good, particularly when compared with the chirpy shallowness of "Miss Match" or the bland uniformity of the latest batch of procedural dramas. All four shows are cinematically interesting and feature dynamic "Fight Club"-style editing and hyperactive special effects, and their heroines are believable and oddly likable in their own ways.

Tru (Eliza Dushku), the star of Fox's "Tru Calling" (premiering Thursday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m.), might be the most conventional of the four lead characters, with the big doll eyes, glossy lips, and stylishly tousled locks that someone is clearly hoping will make her the next Jennifer Garner. Tru is also the least conflicted character of the three. Yes, her mother was murdered when she young, but this has merely given her the gift of communicating with dead people. Other than that, she's just graduated from college, has lots of friends and has firm plans to attend med school. Tru's family is another matter: Her brother is a ne'er-do-well gambler, her sister is a coke addict, and her father is remarried and too involved with his new family to care. Still, Tru's only rebellious behavior is sleeping with one of her professors. While in real life, this would mean that she has major daddy issues that she should discuss with a qualified mental health professional, on TV the professor is cute and seems to like her, which mostly tells us that she's a badass.

Of course we're rooting for the cute friend who has a big crush on her -- less ego, better sex, no endless professorial blathering. But Tru can figure it out. Look how well she handles it when dead people start groaning at her to help them. While we'd be more likely to hide in our closets, cover our ears and mumble, "This is not happening! This is not happening!" Tru goes running hither and thither through the city streets, "Run Lola Run"-style.

Despite the cheesy promos, though, "Tru Calling" isn't a bad show, and Dushku brings an intensity to her character that renders the most predictable scenes a little more watchable. The plot actually has a lot in common with the "Law" half of "Law & Order": Tru questions the dead girl's obsessed ex-boyfriend, then talks with her creepy current boyfriend (married and sorta violent -- red flag, or too obvious?), only to circle back to the obsessive one again until a twist reveals the true story. But when Tru is sent back in time to set things straight, she also takes the opportunity to sort things out with her siblings, resisting the urge to hang up abruptly this time, or becoming a little more confrontational about the cocaine thing. Indeed, the world seems to rest on Tru's shoulders, but she looks pretty calm about it. Plus, we have a hunch that it's all going to work out just swell in the end, come hell or high sister.

Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas) from Fox's midseason show "Wonderfalls" also has a messed-up family, but one with the sorts of problems that are more comic than weightily dramatic, in keeping with Fox's current nutty-dysfunctional-family theme. Jaye is an underachiever, working at a gift shop and living alone in a trailer park in Niagara Falls, N.Y., until the tchotchkes at her shop start talking to her. When a little red lion figurine instructs her to set her sister up with the UPS guy, for example, Jaye is reluctant at first, but the lion won't shut up until she obeys its commands. Thus, Jaye sets about changing the world, one random task at a time.

"Wonderfalls" is my favorite of these shows, thanks to the clever dialogue and unforeseen plot twists, which manage to seem heartfelt without clashing with the show's edgy, absurd tone. Dhavernas is ordinary yet interesting as Jaye, and she manages to make the transition between cynicism and sentiment without losing her believability as a character. But more important, while the other shows get weighed down in moralism or sidestep tough questions for pat answers, there's a weird, almost existential sense of optimism buoying "Wonderfalls," an acknowledgment of the frailty of life that makes the touching scenes all the more affecting.

Not surprisingly, CBS's "Joan of Arcadia" is a little more self-serious and family-oriented than the other three shows, fueled by lots of fretting and hand-wringing by Mary Steenburgen and Joe Mantegna, who play Mom and Dad. Of course, any show that takes as its theme song Joan Osborne's "One of Us" ("What if God was one of us?") isn't just boldly dorky, but is liable to make most viewers feel like they've been touched inappropriately by an angel straight out of the gate. Amber Tamblyn plays Joan, a high-school-age girl who gets in trouble regularly -- for mild offenses like sassing back, of course, as opposed to, say, peddling ecstasy or tucking a .22 caliber pistol into her Hello Kitty backpack. Joan's older brother, Kevin (Jason Ritter), was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, while her younger brother, Luke (Michael Welch), is a smart-talking brainiac, both of which leave Mom and Dad lots to struggle with quietly and quarrel about politely.

To make matters even more moral, Dad is a detective who solves heinous, faith-testing crimes. Luckily, Joan's got the illest connections around -- a direct line to the Big Man in the sky himself -- and despite that sassy mouth, seems likely to use her power for good, not evil. First, God appears as a cute boy -- you've got it -- on the bus! He tells her to get a job somewhere, but doesn't say why. Next, He takes the form of a snippy cafeteria worker who asks why Joan didn't follow her orders the first time. In the end, though, Joan resists the urge to tell God where he can stick it and is rewarded for her obedience by narrowly avoiding being a rapist's next victim. Gee, thanks, God!

I'd mention the unrealistic plot points and deus ex machina conclusion but, um, this is a show about a teenager who can talk to God, after all. Sometimes the layers of crime-solving and life-affirming lesson-learning can seem goofy and overly inorganic. Nonetheless, this show is head and shoulders above its only Friday night competition in terms of dramas, "Miss Match." And while "Joan of Arcadia" serves up just the sort of sentimental God-fearing tales that viewers nationwide should salivate over, it still doesn't approach the acid-reflux-inducing sap that "Touched by an Angel" dished out.

Even though Showtime's "Dead Like Me" should feel like a safe harbor in a storm of sentimental juju, its lead character George (Ellen Muth) is probably my least favorite angsty heroine, since her pouty face, eye-rolling and clownishly sarcastic voice get old after about, oh, half a second. "Dead Like Me," which premiered this past summer, is by far the darkest of the four shows, often resisting the temptation to reassure viewers that Good shall triumph over Evil. But then, George is dead, and is charged with witnessing a steady flow of deaths until her gig as a Grim Reaper is up. The truth is that this reluctance to offer satisfaction, or to gloss over the nasty realities of life and death, make "Dead Like Me" a tough sell. After all, without any close, lasting relationships to counterbalance the grimness of being a Grim Reaper, there's little comfort in watching George pout at her pancakes and wonder what the point of it all is over and over again. Not many of us want to be reminded of our mortality on a regular basis, not to mention the years we wasted glaring at our pancakes. "Wonderfalls" does a better job of making a healthy dose of skepticism and existential angst look full of possibility.

But then, as difficult as it is to admit it, the reassuring presence of an ordered spiritual world is a large part of what make "Joan of Arcadia," "Tru Calling" and "Wonderfalls" so compelling. What form will God take next? What good will come of this seemingly random task? The God presented here isn't vengeful, and he would never be so crude and savage as to demand the occasional first-born son or fatted calf, even if he kind of wanted one. This is a kinder, gentler spirit, one with flexible, liberal rules, for which the term "religion" feels as scratchy and confining as a cheap underwire bra. Most of all, in the face of the heart-wrenching bad luck of paraplegic brothers and cocaine-addict sisters, this spirit wants Sassy Spice to know that everything's going to get better.

And it's not like God or the Great Tchotchke or whoever it is just issues a decree announcing that things will improve. No, sir, he/she/it invites our heroine to help out. In all these shows, our heroine gets just enough information, and just enough control, to contribute to a positive outcome, but not so much that she might screw everything up by accident.

Yes, there's truly no end to the creativity and imagination we're capable of applying to our own wishful thinking. In a recent interview, Harvard sociologist Robert Wuthnow comments on the movement toward spirituality as a vague belief in "something else," since it requires very little commitment and few restrictive rules, particularly the sorts of rules that might become inconvenient the next time we're in Vegas. In an age of spiritual convenience, there are no existential crises, no bouts of depression or fear, that can't be conquered with a highly trained service professional or some other consumable salve -- a Reiki healer, "The Four Commitments" or some really nice foot lotion. With the big unknowns of terrorism and global turmoil lurking in the corner of our vision, the notion that a teenager with special gifts might turn things around for us isn't much of a stretch at all.

We're drawn to images and myths that soothe us. While it's not surprising that today's stories are focused on reassuring us that even the most frightening or saddening events have a purpose, it's funny how the universe always chooses the hottest little nymphs to deliver us from evil.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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