Guided By Voices

God told me to hide in this locker: Amber Tambyln in 'Joan of Arcadia'
CBS Worldwide Inc.

Although we as a nation are supposedly religious, we're not a terribly spiritual people. It's not a surprise: The idea that forces beyond your control will buffet you as you fulfill a walk-on role in some cosmic scheme is directly at odds with the American myth of self-determination. The result: We are a nation of control freaks with a history of using religion to justify choices we were going to make anyway.

So it's a little surprising to see two shows on the dial this fall wherein average American women discover they've been singled out by some divine agency to act as its representative on Earth. Tru Calling's Tru Davies hops back through time to prevent wrongful deaths in a conceit best described as Groundhog Day meets The Sixth Sense. And Joan of Arcadia's eponymous heroine has her adolescence complicated by ceaseless demands from her Lord and Creator. One of these shows is quintessentially American in that it ignores the mystic; the other plunges headlong into the tension between American pragmatism and graceful submission to the divine. One of these shows is laughably bad; the other has the potential to be very good. Guess which is which?

Joan of Arcadia has managed to depict Joan's struggle with the very idea of faith in a way that doesn't alienate the reflexively devout or the atheistically inclined. Joan of Arcadia's God comes from the Oh, God! You Devil school of divine temperaments, appearing in the humblest of guises and making requests that range from the baffling to the cruel. You can expect no reassurance that there's a good reason for his orders. If Joan's God were the one in the famous "Footprints," He'd be a beach bum collecting shells somewhere to your left.

The teenage Joan, played with uncanny insight by Amber Tambyln, does a great job of evoking the parallel between the usual turbulence of adolescence and the unrest familiar to anyone who's tried to square their beliefs with their daily life. My early complaint about the show was that Joan was coasting on divine instruction for a while without experiencing any of the disappointment that goes with submitting to a fate you didn't choose. But recent episodes have shown that Joan is not getting a free ride from above. Therefore, my only complaint is that the show employs Mary Steenburgen, whose neurotic pushover shtick grates like the 49th Hail Mary after confession.

The conceit behind Tru Calling could have been interesting. Not only is Tru set apart from other people by her role as customer-service rep to the dead, but she's further isolated by virtue of living in her own universe where the rules of time are different. Yet Tru rarely gets frustrated by her mission-driven déjà vu. If anything, she uses it to be everything to everybody, thus fulfilling the wet dreams of time-management consultants and women's magazine editors everywhere.

Ostensibly, Joan has more cause to be a martyr, but it's Tru who's always climbing up on the cross. It's a curious fit: Unlike Joan with her divine mandate, Tru is driven by her own personal demons. So saving other people from untimely deaths is merely a novel form of therapy. Moreover, Tru doesn't seem to believe in anything other than herself. Sure, dead people talk to her and Tuesday has a funny way of repeating itself--but all this is apparently as mysterious and burdensome as a zit on date night. Joan, by contrast, manages to convey a sense of the divine in something as mundane as a family dinner.

If Tru embodies the willful self-determination of your average American, Joan is who we'd all like to be--shoehorning belief into a life we can still call our own.

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