This year the question of which new fall shows to review proves unusually easy. For two new series feature a character familiar to readers of this magazine: God. In CBS’s wonderfully inventive new drama Joan of Arcadia (Friday, 8-9 p.m. ET), the teenage Joan, daughter of the local police chief, has a problem: the high-school student finds herself visited by God. This dilemma is of course a staple of television and, especially, of movies. Jim Carrey ran into that problem this summer in Bruce Almighty, with Morgan Freeman playing the Lord of Hosts.
In Joan of Arcadia the eponymous heroine is asked in each episode to complete a task for the Almighty. Joan’s God, however, does not look like Morgan Freeman (or, for that matter, Alanis Morissette or George Burns, to mention some other incarnations). In fact, God doesn’t really look like anyone at all. One of the show’s most enjoyable tropes is that the Lord pops up in the guise of random people in Joan’s daily lifean interesting theological point, when you think about it. In the pilot episode, for example, God appears as a tough-talking lunchroom lady, who bluntly reminds a skeptical Joan of her mission. My favorite incarnation so far comes in the second episode, where the Lord appears as a little girl on the school playground and addresses the question of miracles to Joan, who has hopes that her brother, paralyzed in an automobile accident, can be healed.
I have to admit that I’m a sucker for TV shows and movies where the Almighty makes an appearance, since God’s behavior in such venues is usually an accurate barometer of popular thought about religion and spirituality. So, for example, how does Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty explain free will? How does Alanis Morissette of Dogma explain suffering? I’m also curious to see how the writers will tackle what you might call God’s personality. On that count, the God of CBS seems believable, even familiar, engaging in behavior that many contemporary Christians might expect from the Lord. In his first appearance to Joan, for example, God appears not as a burning bush, but as a young man her own age. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, he explains.
Not surprisingly, Joan’s reaction runs along the lines of some familiar scriptural characters. She doubtseven after God recounts to her (as Jesus did to the Samaritan woman at the well) an abbreviated version of her life. One of the wittier proofs that God offers Joan in the first two shows is this knowledge of her inmost thoughts, as the New Testament would say: Sometimes when you’re alone, that hideous song from Titanic’ makes you cry!
In the beginning, however, Joan is hard to convince. Let’s see a miracle, she says to the young man before her. (Her request would not have been out of place in first-century Palestine.)
In response, God points to a tree.
Big deal, she says. It’s a tree.
You try making one, says God.
But while God approaches Joan in ways she can understand, he maintains his (or her) independence and essential otherness. God remains, if not the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, then at least a mysterium. Early in the series Joan asks if she will be forced to do what God asks. In response, God (as a sanitation worker) tells Joan that she is perfectly free to follow God’s way or not. Free will is one of my better innovations, he says, I give suggestions, not assignments. O.K., so it’s not Karl Rahner, but that’s pretty good for network TV.
Each show will see God giving Joan just such a small suggestion. In the pilot she is asked to find a part-time joba relatively easy task, especially compared with what some other women have been asked to do, like leading the French army to victory or reforming the Carmelites. In the second episode she is asked simply to start fulfilling her true nature (shades of Thomas Merton’s true self) by taking pride in herself and living up to her potential in school.
In an especially nice touch, Joan is never told precisely why she is being asked to undertake these tasks. (Are we ever?) On the other hand, Joan will not have to wait until the beatific vision to discover the effects of her actions, but just until the end of the episode. Rooting her on (but ignorant about her divine mission) are her parents, played by two superb actors, Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen, and her two brothers. I’m rooting for Joan, too, who each Friday night on this satisfying and enjoyable new series will try to find God in all things.
God also appears, albeit less overtly, in HBO’s compelling new drama Carnivàleone of those multipart HBO shows, like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Sex and the City, whose schedule is impossible to figure out for everyone but the prophetic. (For the record, it began on Sept. 14 and will run for 11 more Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.)
In the opening credits of this equally inventive show, a series of ominous images appears on screen (Michelangelo’s The Damned, Tarot cards, Depression-era soup kitchens, poor farmers and so on). These images are accompanied by a portentous voiceover telling us that somehow, before the explosion of the nuclear false sun at Los Alamos, there was magic in the world as well as nobility and unimaginable cruelty. We’re also told, To each generation is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. All this doubtless came as a surprise for most HBO watchers. The last thing one expects after the amoral bedhopping of Sex and the City is a big fat dose of Manichaeism.
Set in the Dust Bowl (boy, is it ever: the dust budget alone is probably more than most network series), Carnivàle follows the progress of Ben Hawkins, a young man who, after the death of his mother and the foreclosure of his farm, reluctantly joins up with a passing carnival, which boasts a full compliment of attractions: a bearded lady, a snake charmer, a strong man and two fortune-tellers. Ben’s secret (besides the fact that he is a fugitive from a chain gang) is his ability to heal people of their illnesses and infirmities.
On the other side (though who is dark and who is light is still difficult to discern) is Brother Justin, a fundamentalist preacher plagued with apocalyptic dreams and visions. In the first episode he confronts a woman who has stolen coins from the collection plate. As the penitent stands before him in his study, silver coins suddenly start flying from her open mouth: five, then 10, then 20. In a few moments coins cover the floor. Brother Justin responds by commanding the poor woman to drop to her knees and beg forgiveness from God. (Another response might have been, While you’re at it, we need some money for a new roof, too.)
It seems that Brother Justin and Ben are on something of an eschatological collision course; one indication is that both have identical dreams. Indeed, according to HBO’s press release, the world in which they live, is actually a chessboard on which is played the ancient conflict between Light and Darkness, and they are key players in the battle. (The press release, by the way, reads like a chapter from the Book of Revelation.)
In their own ways, both Joan of Arcadia and Carnivàle offer viewers decidedly religious worldviews. Both focus on confused adolescents with a strange, divine gift. Moreover, both shows offer distinct theodicies, or explanations for suffering. Interestingly, in their attempts to explicate their theological worldviews, both shows refer explicitly to the rules. In Joan of Arcadia, God’s explanation for the paucity of miracles (particularly healings) is that God has created a world with rules (that is, nature), and it is within these rules that we must live. But human beings, living within these rules, are also called by God to help others through our actions. Such theology is underlined by the fact that for all of Joan’s intimacy with God, she is unable to effect her brother’s healing.
The rules in Carnivàle are different. In the third episode an old woman says to Ben: There’s rules, boy. You give life, you gotta take it from something else. This theology too is underlinedin a haunting scene where Ben heals a paralyzed girl. As the girl, now freed of her ailment, runs past the green fields, the crops wither and die. In Joan there is a surfeit of life, with no miracles; in Carnivàle, a surfeit of miracles, but only so much life to go around.
This fall season, then, viewers have two Gods from which to choose: the distant, somewhat vengeful and mysterious God of Carnivàle, and the personal, somewhat friendlier but no less mysterious God of Joan of Arcadia. While Scripture scholars might groan at such exegesis, you might say that the star on HBO this season is the traditional God of the Old Testament, and on CBS the God of the New Testament. Which of these innovative new series you will like may ultimately depend on which books of the Bible you prefer.