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On the tube: 'Joan of Arcadia' has it all

Friday, September 26, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Tv Editor

If you like family dramas ...If you like cop shows ...If you like fantasy series ...If you like quality programs with complex characters, intelligent dialogue and a unique point of view, then you need to get acquainted with "Joan of Arcadia" (8 tonight, CBS), the best new broadcast series of the season.

The show focuses on the Girardis (family drama), who have been through a lot in the past two years. Four months ago, father Will (Joe Mantegna) took a new job as chief of police (cop show) in the small town of Arcadia. A year-and-a-half ago, oldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter), a jock, was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident.

Mom Helen (Mary Steenburgen) works in the local high school office, much to the chagrin of 16-year-old daughter Joan (Amber Tamblyn) and her younger brother, amiable science geek Luke (Michael Welch).

Out of the blue, Joan begins hearing God speak to her (fantasy series), first in her sleep and then at school where she's confronted by a cute boy -- "Orlando Bloom-ish" says one of Joan's friends -- who claims to be God and knows everything about her. He wants her to "fulfill her potential" and gives her suggestions how she can do that.

At first, Joan is incredulous, but gradually, she believes him, even though he refuses to answer many of her questions, posing questions instead. She suggests he's pretty snippy for God, but he explains, "If I'm snippy, it's because you understand snippy."

Clearly, this is no "Touched by an Angel," a well-meaning but simple series. "Joan of Arcadia" has greater depth, not only in its exploration of the Joan-God relationship, but also in dealing with Kevin's newfound disability.

At its heart, this is a family show written with confidence by Barbara Hall, who developed "Judging Amy." She will really make her mark with "Joan" -- if viewers tune in, the ratings are decent and it's not canceled in the great tradition of shows too good for TV. So this is where I make my plea: Please watch. This is a series that deserves to be seen.

The entire cast contributes to the show's success, especially Tamblyn, whose mix of disbelief, frustration and a sincere desire to believe and trust this God is palpable. In next week's episode, God suggests Joan have some pride, beginning with her school work. She asks him, "What about humility?" He replies, "Humility isn't actually humility unless you're already good enough at something to be humble."

This is one smart God. But God remains forever mysterious, appearing to Joan in a different human form each time, from a cafeteria worker to a little girl on a playground. He's also a funny, mischievous character. When Joan mispronounces "anti-climactic," God sasses her, "Anticlimactic. Anticlimatic means you're against the weather."

Entertaining, thoughtful and with enough elements to appeal to virtually every member of a family, "Joan of Arcadia" is television that seems, well, heaven-sent.

'MISS MATCH'

Alicia Silverstone is as cute now as she was in "Clueless," and the premise of the hour-long romantic comedy "Miss Match" (8 tonight, NBC) suits her style. But it would make a much better movie than a TV show. Already by next week's episode, the premise wears thin.

Silverstone stars as Kate Fox, a divorce lawyer who moonlights as a matchmaker for women and men, even architect Michael (Pittsburgh native David Conrad). He's obviously perfect for her, but Kate still sets him up with other women.

It all begins as a lark, but soon Kate is charging $1,000 for her services, which includes such personal touches as this suggestion: "Oh, and Richard, 25 pushups before bed!"

Interspersed with the romances are divorce cases and a thread about Kate's relationship with her father (Ryan O'Neal), who heads the law firm where she works.

NBC obviously hopes the "Providence" audience will return to the network for this show, but "Miss Match" is neither funny nor romantic enough. Most importantly, when a show struggles to come up with a worthwhile story in week No. 2, it's clear this star and this show is not a perfect match.

'HOPE & FAITH'

Kelly Ripa, co-host of daytime staple "Live with Regis and Kelly," has an army of fans, but even they may be turned off by her unsubtle new sitcom.

Ripa stars in "Hope & Faith" (9 tonight, ABC) as Faith, a daytime soap star whose career collapses when her twin characters are killed off in a murder-suicide. She moves in with her comparatively uptight sister, Hope (Faith Ford), and family, including three smart aleck kids.

When the oldest teen girl complains about having no cool clothes to wear, her younger sister sasses, "Nothing a boy hasn't felt you up in."

This is part of ABC's reconstituted TGIF family comedy lineup?

The adult sisters squabble like children, and Hope says Faith has "big, fake boobs."

"My boobs are not ... big," Faith replies.

And then they engage in a knock-down, drag-out food fight.

Ripa has good comic timing, and she and Ford are believable as siblings, but aside from a few chuckles, "Hope & Faith" is too obvious, too loud and too obnoxious.

'THE HANDLER'

Joe Pantoliano, who won an Emmy Sunday night for losing his head on "The Sopranos" last season, joins the good guys as an FBI agent who trains younger agents to go undercover in this gritty crime drama.

Tonight's premiere of "The Hand-ler" (at 10 on CBS) introduces Pantoliano as Joe Renato, a man with great concern for his undercover agents, who is unopposed to lecturing a married agent when the man starts sleeping with another woman. Joe also has a brother, fresh out of prison.

Fans of dark drama -- think "EZ Streets," but without a continuing story and not nearly as dark -- will be intrigued. But "The Handler" airs opposite "Boomtown," and it's likely one of the two shows won't survive. At this point, I'm getting nervous about the future of "Boomtown," which is the better show. But "The Handler" is an easier show to watch -- none of that messy character stuff or continuity to worry about.


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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