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TV answers a higher calling

Sunday, September 14, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had shattering, immediate effects on all walks of American life. Two years later, the residual effects can be seen in the types of stories writers are bringing to television.

Illustration by Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette

Related article

A list of the new shows with spiritual themes


A wave of spiritually themed programs is about to hit the airwaves, and many of the people working on these shows attribute the shows' existence, at least in part, to Sept. 11.

Several of the programs focus on mortality, some depict unexplainable God-like forces and one focuses on an epic battle between good and evil.

Already, Showtime airs "Dead Like Me," the story of a dead teenager turned grim reaper. Executive producer John Masius, who conceived of the "Touched by an Angel" pilot and created "Providence," which featured the ghost of a mother, said the root of this groundswell is 9/11. He also attributes it to a newfound sense of mortality among baby boomers writing for television and networks' tendencies to copy what's successful (e.g., HBO's mortuary soap opera "Six Feet Under").

"Maybe there's a sense of examining your life a little bit more," Masius said. "Some people talk about the post-9/11 thinking, that you just don't know when your time is up, and this show kind of resonates with that."

HBO's "Carnivale" explores a religious mythos in its moody, twisted Depression-era story of a carnival worker with the ability to heal and a Methodist minister who may be doing the devil's work.

"Religion is a theme that comes through in it because it was important in that time," said creator Daniel Knauf. "We're really talking about hearts and minds and people trying to gather souls, and you can't do that without some sort of religious subtext."

Knauf, a practicing Catholic who attended parochial school as a child, said it made sense that the devil or his agent would take on the guise of a minister.

"When you think about it, if the devil was going to come here, is he going to be a politician? No one trusts politicians. If you're the devil, you're going to come as a religious leader."

He said "Carnivale" draws not only on Judeo-Christian influences but also on bits of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Executive producer Ron Moore said the show's roots deal with eternal themes of the struggle between darkness and light.

"It does examine questions of faith, and it does examine the nature of man," Moore said. "It's not afraid of sort of exploring that terrain, which I think is sort of an interesting thing to tackle on television."

Spirituality isn't new to television, but this bumper crop is more than viewers usually get. In May, CBS's "Touched by an Angel" ended its nine-year run. Before that, "Highway to Heaven" performed weekly good deeds. Earlier this year, ABC tried a series called "Miracles," featuring a Roman Catholic priest who investigated modern miracles. The same network struck out in 1997 with the critically acclaimed drama "Nothing Sacred," about a Catholic priest and the staff at an urban parish. Even Fox's long-running UFO drama "The X-Files" confronted questions of faith and belief.

On CBS's new fall drama "Joan of Arcadia," God takes different human forms to speak directly to teenage Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), who is flabbergasted by the attention.

"There's something in the zeitgeist right now," said "Joan" creator Barbara Hall. "People are thinking about this stuff. ... There is something in the air that people are willing to take a look at or have a discussion about spiritual issues."

Hall developed "Judging Amy" and was influenced in creating "Joan" by her own experience rediscovering religion in her personal life and through past professional work.

"I remember writing this episode of 'Chicago Hope' in which Peter MacNicol's character, who was dead, came back and was able to answer questions about the afterlife and how the universe works," Hall said. "I remember having the best time writing that."

She also had an interest in the Joan of Arc story and wondered what it would be like for a modern girl if God were to appear to her.

Hall declines to identify the religion she practices, but she said the prospect of writing dialogue for a deity is daunting. To help guide her, she came up with 10 commandments to follow in writing the series.

"It's not a matter of trying not to offend people," Hall said. "It really has to do with my actual beliefs, that I can't be flippant on this subject and I can't be removed from it. It has to come from a real psychological and philosophical place."

In "Joan," God will not answer direct questions about the whys and wherefores of his existence.

"Part of God is that he is or she is a mystery," Hall said. "It's part of my rules that the mystery can never be solved. And part of the reason is that we have tiny little pea brains and God is enormous. The show is really a lot about posing theological and philosophical questions and not about answering them. ... We don't try to cut the idea of God down to size because it can't be done."

Why God appears to Joan isn't explained early in the series. When Joan asks God why he appears to her, he says, "I'm not appearing to you, you're seeing me."

"The idea is that God is everywhere and available to everyone all the time," Hall said. "And for some reason, Joan has chosen to tap into this."

The Joan of Arc story also inspired "Wonderfalls." In this Fox drama, inanimate objects in the form of animals -- a monkey here, a lion there -- come to life before the eyes of a Niagara Falls gift shop worker and tell her to do things that lead to helping people.

Kittanning native Todd Holland created the series with Bryan Fuller, who dreamed up "Dead Like Me" just prior to inventing "Wonderfalls." Holland said the show's theme is "surrender to destiny"

"At its core, the series is all about the journey to grow up ... and where do your influences come from? She will always question her insanity [and ask], 'Is it God? Is it Satan? Is it indigestion?' "

Fuller was raised Catholic but was turned off by what he called "the rituals and punishment-oriented mentalities." He does believe in a higher power, "something greater than us," which is reflected in "Wonderfalls."

"These animals speak up and guide the main character, Jaye, to actions that need to happen in the world," Fuller said. One interpretation of the talking animal manifestations: A higher power is calling Jaye to action, tapping into the collective consciousness of humanity and using her as a tool to bring about good.

Fox's "Tru Calling" is the third new show to feature a woman who hears voices. People who've died an unnatural death speak to a young morgue attendant, who relives the day and tries to prevent the death. Executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman said his series did not arise from a morbid fascination with death.

 
 

The Ten Commandments of 'Joan of Arcadia'

  1. God cannot directly intervene.
  2. Good and evil exist.
  3. God can never identify one religion as being right.
  4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature.
  5. Everyone is allowed to say no to God, including Joan.
  6. God is not bound by time -- this is a human concept.
  7. God IS NOT A PERSON and does not possess a human person-ality.
  8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways.
  9. God's plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him.
  10. God's purpose for talking to Joan, and to everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things, i.e. you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.

-- Barbara Hall, creator of the new CBS series

   
 
 

"I think it's the inevitable, and I think it is something that we don't understand fully, and it's always interesting to explore things and find answers as you go," Feldman said. "Our show, in a very interesting way, celebrates life because there's a girl who has the power to prevent death. It's sort of exploring life and death in equal measure."

Last summer's literary hit "The Lovely Bones" told a story from a dead child's point of view. Similarly, Fox's "Still Life" is a drama about a family from the point of view of a twentysomething son who died a year earlier.

Executive producer Marti Noxon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") said "Still Life" is a response to 9/11, and offers a comforting response to confronting mortality.

"The notion that there's something beyond physical death is very, very compelling," Noxon said. "We are not going to say what [the dead narrator's] final destination is, but we are going to make it clear that where he is right now is sort of a way station."

Executive producer Dawn Parouse said the show also represents a sort of wish fulfillment. "Everybody in this situation would hope that if you lost a loved one as close as your son or your brother, that they would be hanging around and watching" and dealing with unfinished business, a theme that runs through both "Still Life" and "Dead Like Me" as characters keep watch over the family members they've left behind.

"Dead Like Me's" Masius said his series' message is to not take your time on Earth for granted.

"Some people talk about the post-9/11 thinking, the idea you just don't know when your time is up. This kind of show resonates with that kind of thinking," Masius said. "If anything, the show is fascinating to me because this girl is trapped between these two worlds: The one she left behind in which we watch that family disintegrate in a 'Lovely Bones' kind of way, and the other where she's trying to come up with a sense of self in the afterlife."

"Still Life's" Noxon had a more practical explanation of TV's latest trend: "There's death and taxes, and TV shows about taxes are just not that interesting."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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