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Buffy The Vampire SlayerAnd Word Was Given Unto the Networks
By Alessandra Stanley
Monday 22 September 2003, by Webmaster
The last time God spoke regularly to a girl on television was on the 1967 sitcom "The Flying Nun." This season, on three different shows, God is commanding girls to clean their rooms, get jobs and solve crimes.
The religiosity pervading popular culture - from Elaine Pagels’s best-selling study of a Gnostic text, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," to the lyrics of rock groups like Evanescence ("My God! My Tourniquet,/Return to me salvation") - has also rubbed off on television.
This week networks will present a staggering array of new shows, each one painstakingly chosen to tap into viewers’ latest moods. A surprising number of executives have put their money on piety, and this season’s spirituality is far more peculiar than past feel-good shows like "Touched by an Angel."
CBS has "Joan of Arcadia," a gritty crime drama about a high school student whose visits from God converge with the police work of her father. Fox has two: "Tru Calling," another moody crime drama where God, not forensics, guides the heroine, and "Wonderfalls," a sitcom in which a benevolent higher being uses a sarcastic young slacker to work his wonders. Advertisers who complain that there is no novelty or break-out surprise to the 2003-4 season are not looking closely enough. An eschatological shift in programming can be found all across television, from HBO’s "Carnivāle," a 12-part battle between Good and Evil set in the Depression, to Showtime’s "Dead Like Me," in which the dead return to earth to help others make the transition to the afterlife, albeit in a hip, sardonic way. But the spiritual power awarded pretty, nubile heroines is by far the most striking element, a backlash against Buffy, Zena and
Since the earliest folk legends, fairy tales and medieval witch hunts, women’s gifts have been portrayed metaphorically as magical powers for good or ill. And television has kept up the custom, from to For the past decade Buffy the Vampire-Slayer and the many imitators who use supernatural powers to combat sinister forces of evil were television’s fantasy image of modern girlhood: super-empowered Alpha girls, the Veronicas of the Archie Comics triangle.
Buffy is off the air and out of vogue. CBS is hoping to replace her with a latter-day Joan of Arc.
Some scholars see this as a result of the post 9/11 mood. "We have moved into a more conservative moment, searching for deeper meaning, a moral compass, a more reassuring force that is greater than ourselves," Janet R. Jakobsen, director of the Center for Research on Women at Barnard College, explained. "Buffy faced malevolent forces that she could fight. People now seem to be seeking a force greater than ourselves that is benevolent." (Buffology, as the show’s fans refer to their still-extant cult, is also closely analyzed in academic circles.)
Americans are among the most religious people in the world, and faith has always been a pillar of American culture. Its expression in popular culture, however, comes and goes in cycles.
Ms. Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, is not the only best-selling author preaching a relaxed-fit faith. Currently, her "Beyond Belief" is No. 23 on the New York Times extended nonfiction Sept. 28 best-seller list (at nytimes.com/books) and is being only slightly outsold by "The Art of Happiness at Work," the Dalai Lama’s latest spiritual self-help book, which is No. 20. (His sales may have been enhanced by his recent multicity tour of the United States; tickets to the sold-out appearances were auctioned on e-Bay.) And "The Lord Is My Shepherd," a meditation on the healing wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, by Harold S. Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," is No. 22 on the list.
Movies have also picked up the thread. Mel Gibson’s privately financed film, about the Crucifixion of Jesus, with dialogue in Latin and Aramaic, has offended some even before its release and has not yet found a distributor. But nobody seemed to mind the heavy-handed Christ imagery in and its sequel.
Today’s spurt of spirituality, at least the kind expressed by DMX, the rapper who ends his concerts with a prayer to Jesus, seeks a cozier, more direct connection to God: open, low-maintenance and not bound by strict orthodoxy, be it Roman Catholic or Buddhist.
"Joan of Arcadia" takes that homily to heart. Joan is a typical teenager (smart-mouthed, moody, underachieving), and God appears to her in human forms she - and TV audiences - can readily accept: a cute teenage boy, the school cafeteria lady and the local TV news anchor. When her father, a preoccupied police chief played by Joe Montegna, snaps off the television while God, as anchor, is giving Joan instructions only she can hear, she shrieks in frustration. He retorts with classic parental sarcasm, "It’s a crime against God to turn off the TV?"
Not all the most interesting new shows invoke a higher authority, of course.
Joe Pantoliano, whose character Ralph Cifaretto was famously decapitated in the 2002 season finale of HBO’s "Sopranos," goes over to the law enforcement side in CBS’s "Handler." He is an F.B.I. agent who trains and handles undercover agents. And without divine inspiration. The Fox drama a Romeo and Juliet story set in the Los Angeles pornography industry, has no better angels in the plot. Nor does "Las Vegas," a similar NBC drama wrapped around the casino business, although at the last minute the network changed the job description of one comely young female character from escort to "special events coordinator."
"The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," the new CBS show by David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal" ), is not about friars. Mostly the show seems to be a defiant jab at Fox, the network that yanked his last creation, a drama about three sexy young women in a San Francisco law firm, after only two episodes last fall. Mr. Kelley’s latest effort showcases the exact opposite: three fat brothers in their 40’s in a small town.
And some of the attractive young women doing good deeds this season are doing them without heavenly guidance. NBC’s "Miss Match," starring Alicia Silverstone as a divorce lawyer by day who moonlights as a matchmaker by night, has no religious implications. Her power lies mostly in her intuition and shopoholic charm. That persona, so delightful in the 1995 movie can seem dated in the post Lizzie McGuire television era.
On the other hand the movie "Mean Girls" will be released later this month in theaters. Written by the "Saturday Night Live" star Tina Fey, "Mean Girls" is a comedy about high school cruelty in the and "Clueless" vein, which suggests that some themes are eternal.
The heroine of "Cold Case," a homicide detective on a mission to solve forgotten murders, has a saintly righteousness, but there is no suggestion - in the pilot at least - that she hears voices. The same is true of "Karen Sisco," a crime drama about a single-minded federal marshal based on the Jennifer Lopez movie
Younger heroines, it seems, are the ones getting guidance from beyond, though interestingly their shows are shaped as complex family or crime dramas to attract adult audiences as well. For instance the heroine of "Try Calling" was a witness to her own mother’s murder as a child. And 10 years later a higher power allows her to relive past moments and redress heinous crimes, which she does in between trying to salvage her messed up older siblings, who pointedly declare their atheism.
None of these young women are particularly cheerful, let alone saintly. The heroine of "Wonderfalls," who hears from God through a wax lion and the eagle on a quarter, is downright surly. The latest batch of TV fantasy girls are as cheeky as Buffy was, only there is nothing campy or arch about their God-given power to do good unto others.