Ken Tucker
March 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

The women of Wonderfalls and Joan of Arcadia turn godly gimmicks into revelatory TV.

It sounds at first like a sexist trend, or the premise for a very evil Fox reality show: Vulnerable young women receive signs or hear voices that give them orders they feel they must obey. But in the case of the new Wonderfalls and the ever-more-intriguing Joan of Arcadia, it’s proving to be a revelation — a blessing, even.

Wonderfalls is about Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a disaffected 24-year-old from a well-to-do family. She’s opted to ignore her recent degree from Brown, live in a trailer, and work in retail — specifically, a glum gift shop near Niagara Falls. Bored and sullen in that poker-faced, ”what-ev-er” manner of her generation, Jaye is startled out of complacency one day when a small wax toy lion talks to her. In fact, a number of inanimate animal objects do: a fish mounted on a restaurant wall, a ceramic cow creamer. They all tell Jaye to do unlikely things — to staple a woman’s untied shoelace to a counter, to refrain from giving a neighbor misdelivered government checks. And like morality-powered Rube Goldberg machines, these commands, once heeded, set in motion a series of unforeseen inevitabilities that end up bringing joy to the people Jaye temporarily inconveniences. (Why does Jaye obey? Because if she doesn’t, the animals badger her unmercifully. Hey, it’s like comedians say: Buy the premise, you buy the joke.)

Cocreators Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me) and Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle) benefit from the performance of Dhavernas, a remarkably self-possessed young French-Canadian actress who gives subtle shadings to moodiness. They’ve also surrounded her with a novel home base (the dowdy High and Dry Trailer Park is chockful of oddballs), and Jaye’s posh family includes Katie Finneran as her hyper, barely out lesbian lawyer sister and smooth pros Diana Scarwid and William Sadler as her parents.

Holland (who directs occasionally) is investigating an interesting theme: how intelligent young people cope with (by joining in, opting out of, or commenting ironically upon) the difficulties of modern life — self-centered parents, a lousy job market, and the pressure to hide one’s intelligence, lest a girl seem uppity or, even worse, earnest. Holland shoots heightened reality via zooming close-ups and quick cuts that render Jaye’s disorientation ours. It works: Each of the four episodes I’ve seen is better than the one preceding it.

As for Joan, I gave it a rough time when it premiered last fall (too much God talk, too little humility). But lots of people, including my wife, liked the show — a sure sign I missed something — which compelled me to stick with it. Now I get what creator Barbara Hall is doing: deploying good TV as a form of divine intervention, telling stories that urge people to look around at the troubles and joys of others.

In recent weeks, Joan has featured nuanced subplots about the difficult time her mom (Mary Steenburgen) has had as the high school art teacher. (I loved the snitty reason her predecessor gave when quitting: ”I have a degree from Parsons; I studied with Judy Chicago!”) Joan’s wheelchair-wielding reporter brother (the adorable Jason Ritter) found hot love with his editor (Sydney Tamiia Poitier). But it’s Amber Tamblyn’s Joan, with her weight-of-the-world slumping shoulders and Job-like acceptance of her fate as a chosen one, who makes the show’s gimmick work, even when the God sidling up to her in human form is a meat-cleaver-holding butcher. And the thought occurs: Tamblyn, daughter of actor Russ (West Side Story, Twin Peaks), Ritter, and Poitier are all celebrity progeny; they must have interesting conversations.

Joan and Wonderfalls can be watched back-to-back on Friday nights. Joan abides by early-evening standards, but Wonderfalls makes the most of the fact that Jaye, in her 20s, can go out and get blotto after a hard day of folding souvenir T-shirts and listening to talking toys. There are times when I think the drinking age should be lowered: I mean, that Joan episode where mean students passed around a picture of our hero in her skivvies? Joan looked like she coulda used a couple of boilermakers at the end of that mess…

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