- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

DAYTON, Ohio - God told me to write this story. But He left me to work out the details. He’s been talking through my television set, using a 16-year-old girl to impart messages of love.

Eerie. And it’s a trendlet.

So far this TV season, Joan, a high-schooler, has been getting gentle, at times baffling, messages from God, who shows up as everyday folks. Tru, a twentysomething morgue worker, gets thrust back in time to the previous day to avert someone’s death. And Georgia (call her “George”), a young temp worker killed in a freak accident, returns as a grim reaper. Like Joan, she gets life (or life-after-death) lessons.

The shows are “Joan of Arcadia” on CBS, “Tru Calling” on Fox and “Dead Like Me” on Showtime.

And Friday, Fox debuted “Wonderfalls,” in which Jaye, an underachieving twentysomething souvenir-shop worker at Niagara Falls, finds inanimate objects talking to her.

All four are young women adrift. Does this mean they’re more susceptible to supernatural influence? Or are they merely a desirable target demographic?

Other shows also have otherworldly elements. For the youngsters, NBC has “Strange Times at Blake Holsey High,” “the only boarding school,” a student brags, “with a hyperdimensional vortex in the basement.”

Some shows, though, have buff or angelic vampires, sisterly witches or crusading mutants. Those are long-standing fiction traditions.

The recent trend of regular people visited by benign supernatural phenomena is a stark change from the edgy “X Files” and NBC’s paranoid “Dark Skies.” And “Joan,” at least, has gotten a kinder reception from critics than did the popular “Touched by an Angel,” which had God’s messengers deliver His word to people who need His guidance.

Its recent progenitor seems to be “Early Edition,” in which a regular-guy tavern owner gets the next day’s newspaper and reads about a horrible tragedy, then spends the hour trying to avert it.

There are differences. “Early Edition” and “Tru Calling” mostly play for action, with last-minute, pulse-pounding saves. “Joan,” “Dead” and, it appears, “Wonderfalls” want to teach their heroines, and us, that doing good deeds isn’t easy but makes life better for all of us in mysterious ways.

Some of those views were pondered by Jim Farrelly, professor of English at the University of Dayton. Mr. Farrelly, UD’s resident pop-culture expert, also directs the film-studies program and teaches a course on literature of the occult. How eerily convenient.

Mr. Farrelly, an avid fan of “Joan of Arcadia,” has seen some episodes of “Tru Calling” and one episode of “Dead Like Me.” For starters, he says “a certain existential character” distinguishes the current shows from “Touched by an Angel”: “Monica, Tess, and Andrew were angels sent by God to handle human dilemmas and oversee changes of heart. They were extraordinary messengers with mandates from God, and their machinations always yielded a happy and sappy result.”

The new breed has a tougher job.

“Joan, Tru, George and Jaye, on the other hand, are no angels, just ordinary young women willing to believe that they have been chosen to try to make sense out of the messages they receive from the beyond. Their weekly stories seldom end happily, and the taste they leave in the viewer’s mouth is usually more bitter than saccharinely sweet.”

So why are they all young women?

“Obviously, they are better listeners than men,” Mr. Farrelly opined.

He also noted, “The angst of these young heroines with an attitude has struck a harmonious chord with viewers, especially those in the 18-49 market.”

And if they keep watching, it looks as though God will stick around.

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