God returns to prime time tonight.
That's the larger news connected to the debut of the new CBS drama Joan of Arcadia, about a high school girl to whom God suddenly starts speaking. It is one of three new network dramas - arriving this fall and midseason - that feature young women who hear voices.
It's not clear who exactly is talking to the lead characters in the other two dramas, Tru Calling and Wonderfalls, both of which are on Fox. In Tru Calling, a recent college graduate discovers she can relive a day and uses that newfound power to avoid tragedy. In Wonderfalls, another recent college graduate working in a gift shop in Niagara Falls suddenly finds knickknacks and tchotchkes talking to her.
Maybe God, maybe not. Even as a mini-trend, three series out of 39 is rather tenuous, especially since Tru Calling looks like a series headed for quick cancellation and Wonderfalls was pulled from the fall schedule and put on hold until later in the year.
But there is no doubt about the presence of God at the center of Joan of Arcadia. Two people in tonight's pilot identify themselves as God to Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn) - a hunky boy her own age and a cranky lunch lady at Arcadia High. As God explains it, he does a lot of morphing when making such appearances.
There's not much doubt, either, that the presence of God near the center of the series is part of a larger pattern discernible elsewhere in recent popular culture.
In feature films, there is The Passion, directed by Mel Gibson and starring James Caviezel as Jesus, which is yet to be released. But it has already caught the culture's attention because of its controversial subject matter.
In books, while God has yet to crack the Top 10, the Top 50 best-seller lists for nonfiction do include such titles as The Lord Is My Shepherd, by Harold S. Kushner, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, by Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton.
And no television series - including Joan of Arcadia - is doing more with God than Carnivale, the weird new 12-week drama from HBO set in a traveling carnival during the Great Depression. But, again, Carnivale does not look like it is going to be a mainstream ratings winner for HBO like Sex and the City or The Sopranos - two decidedly ungodly series.
It's important to note the lack of a God-centered mega-hit, because without a ratings or box office hit, there is no evidence that any of these films, books or television series is connecting with the American public in a meaningful way. Popular culture is starting to speak about God, but how many people are listening?
Furthermore, there is always a tendency when finding a pattern in popular culture to overstate the case. Even the opening sentence of this article about God returning to prime time could well be challenged by the 8 million or so viewers who have tuned in every Monday night for the last three years to Seventh Heaven, a winning WB series about a minister's family.
This context is important because Joan of Arcadia could be television's first God-centric hit. But if it achieves such success, the explanation won't be as simple as the fact that God plays a major role in the narrative. There's a larger context and pattern into which Joan of Arcadia fits, and God is only one part of that package.
The WB has already tapped the winning formula when it paired Seventh Heaven with a new family drama, Everwood, on Monday nights last fall. Everwood stars Treat Williams as a famous surgeon who quits his New York City practice after his wife is killed in an auto accident and moves with his two teen-age children to small-town Colorado.
He says he is looking for "fulfillment" that he didn't find at the top of his profession in Manhattan. He started to find such meaning last season in the realm of family, heartland and a simpler working life as a small-town general practitioner - and Everwood went on to become the most successful new drama on all of network television.
In tonight's pilot for Joan of Arcadia, Joan tells God (appearing in the form of a good-looking teen-age guy), "I'm not religious, you know."
"It's not about religion, Joan," God replies. "It's about fulfilling your nature."
She and the other members of her family are looking for fulfillment, too, just like the Treat Williams character. Like the family in Everwood, the Girardis moved from a big city to Arcadia after a terrible accident that has deeply scarred their household: Joan's older brother, a former high school baseball star, was in an auto accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. The anguish and aftershock of that trauma threatens the marriage of Joan's mom (Mary Steenburgen), who teaches at Arcadia High, and dad (Joe Mantegna), the new police chief in Arcadia.
This is the formula: heartland, family, simpler professional life and a search for deeper meaning. God is part of that in Joan of Arcadia - but only a part.
To a large extent, the appeal of series like Everwood and Joan of Arcadia - as well as Seventh Heaven - is in the answers they offer as to how one should live in the wake of 9/11. Everwood, with its sudden death of a loved one and move away from New York, was more obviously a response to the attacks and new sense of American vulnerability, but Joan of Arcadia is just as much part of the same symbolic discourse.
God talking to women - and men - in prime time isn't new. Remember that angel named Monica (Roma Downey) on CBS' Touched by an Angel? Or, how about Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon or Promised Land with Gerald McRaney? And what about Patty Duke as a minister who talked to God in NBC's Amazing Grace in 1995?
But Joan of Arcadia has one other thing none of these had - a hard edge and a savvy sense of humor that keeps the drama from ever feeling saccharine or sappy.
"OK, so, let's say you're God," Joan says to the good-looking boy who just ID'd himself as such. "I want to ask you some questions."
"No," he says pre-emptively.
"No?" Joan says, surprised.
"No. As a general rule, I ask the questions," he says.
"Are you being snippy with me?" she asks incredulously. "I can't believe this: God is snippy."
Snippy is good in the world of prime-time television. Think of Simon Cowell on American Idol. Maybe America is ready to listen to what God has to say - a snippy God talking to a feisty teen-age girl who would rather be left alone.
Joan of Arcadia airs at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).