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FALL PREVIEW - TV

God help her

The creator of 'Joan of Arcadia' wanted to do something that scared her. The result, an unusual family drama with weekly visits from the Supreme Being, seems to have done the trick.

September 14, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Barbara HALL needs to focus on rewriting a script in her small, comfortable office at Sony Pictures Entertainment, but the interruptions won't stop. An assistant comes through the closed door with a memo she needs to approve. A publicist sits on a couch, seeing to last-minute details about a coming interview. The phone rings and rings.

But Hall has a higher calling, and her demeanor remains cucumber-cool. As she occasionally fiddles with her short blond hair, her body language is that of a producer-writer relaxed and in control.

Her face bears no traces of the anxiety she has suffered the last several weeks, the sleepless nights, the stomachaches. She's canceling a lot of her outside engagements, and she sees her social life shrinking as she becomes increasingly consumed with her newest, diciest project. While her 11-year-old daughter sleeps in the middle of the night, she wanders around their Pacific Palisades house, often winding up in solitary 3 a.m. meditation sessions.

Although hundreds of others -- network and studio executives, producers, writers, actors, cameramen, grips, secretaries, assistants -- are also keeping their fingers crossed about the uncertain future of the enterprise, the burden is heaviest on Hall's shoulders. There are times when Hall feels isolated, alone in her mission.

One focus of Hall's simultaneous excitement and angst is whether critics and audiences heap praise on her main characters. While other new shows have big stars such as Whoopi Goldberg and Charlie Sheen attached, Hall has a co-star without a trailer or entourage but is arguably the most well-known -- and certainly the mightiest -- name in the universe: God.

The all-knowing, all-seeing character is a key focus of "Joan of Arcadia," CBS' risky, often riveting new family drama from Hall about a 16-year-old girl who discovers that she can see and talk to God. The deity appears to Joan in various forms -- as a cute teenage boy, a brash cafeteria worker, a little girl. The plan is for God to appear a few times per episode, played each time by an unknown actor (at least that's the plan for now). The series stars "The Ring" and "General Hospital" alum Amber Tamblyn as Joan; Joe Mantegna as her father, police chief Will Girardi; Mary Steenburgen as her mother, Helen Girardi; and Jason Ritter and Michael Welch as her brothers Kevin and Luke.

In describing the process of introducing a new series, particularly one with this subject matter, it's hard not to evoke biblical imagery. If it is nowhere near as profound as Genesis, the launch of this unusual show -- from the early casting sessions up through shooting of the first few episodes -- involved its own acts of creation. For several weeks, actors, producers and production crews worked to build the entire "Joan of Arcadia" universe that once existed solely in Hall's mind.

Producers and directors gathered regularly in small offices to discuss "tone," tearing down almost line by line of dialogue in each scene to establish the emotion, as well as figuring out how to make the physical production smoother and more cost-effective. Specialists in charge of finding locations, makeup, props, lighting and other divisions also conferred regularly before episodes to break down each scene in minute detail to determine what's needed on the set.

While the fickle and unpredictable taste of audiences make the launch of any new show difficult, especially on network television, the concept of "Joan of Arcadia" presents extra challenges that other new shows such as "Arrested Development" and "Threat Matrix" are not facing. The show is premiering at a time when the sensitivity over religion, as evidenced by the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the judicial building in Montgomery, Ala., has once again become a hot national topic.

The subject of God in popular entertainment has its own baggage. The recent "Bruce Almighty," in which Jim Carrey played an ordinary man given God's power, was a major hit, and the "Oh God!" films featuring George Burns as the Supreme Being scored with audiences. But the last TV project to feature God as a character, the animated "God, the Devil and Bob" was yanked after a few weeks. That series portrayed God as a man who looked like the Grateful Dead's late leader, Jerry Garcia.

In commercials and previews, Hall and CBS are attempting to inform audiences that they should not expect another "Touched by an Angel" with "Joan of Arcadia." For one thing, the character of Joan is not religious, but God talks to her nonetheless. The show's tone is grittier and unlike "Touched by an Angel," the series is grounded in exploring God more from a metaphysical perspective than a religious standpoint.

Besides, it's one thing to be merely touched by an angel and quite another to interact directly with the Supreme Deity.

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