You could make one helluva drinking game out of Joan of Arcadia: Bend your elbow every time God makes a cameo. Bonus chugalugs if you figure out before Joan does what earthly form the deity has taken. Thus far, for example (and I'm going to capitalize the pronouns here, not to reveal my own convictions, but for the sake of being clear about Whom I'm talking about), He/She has appeared to Amber Tamblyn's Joan Girardi as a cute boy, a grumpy cafeteria worker, a haughty electrician, a bespectacled little girl in a playground, a winsome mail carrier, and -- well, the cute boy again, because, let's face it, God really wants to keep Joan's (and a big chunk of her cute-guy-liking audience's) attention. During each appearance, He/She imparts wisdom to our backpack-toting high schooler that is intended to pass as revelation, but instead falls into cliché: ''You're an instrument of God,'' says bespectacled-girl God; ''I want you to fulfill your true nature,'' says electrician God.
To Tamblyn's credit, she manages to make sour dubiousness a sainted virtue, rendering Joan's reactions suitably nonplussed or even downright sarcastic. ''Oh, God -- you are just a three-ring circus, aren't you?'' she says wearily after a particularly coy encounter. Like so many people who've been visited by divine apparitions from biblical times (and like all the poor devils plagued by Roma Downey and Della Reese), Joan has reason to be jaundiced. After all, one of her brothers, Kevin (played by Jason Ritter, son of the late John), has recently been consigned to a wheelchair, the result of an auto accident. Her father, played by Joe Mantegna, is the new police chief in the fictional town of Arcadia, and he's just the sort of bracingly cynical cop you'd expect from a member of the David Mamet School of No Crapola Practiced Here.
By contrast -- and boy, does this show need a contrast -- there's Mary Steenburgen as Joan's mother. Steenburgen learned her TV-series lesson after that debacle with her husband, Ted Danson, the glum 1996-97 sitcom ''Ink'': While avoiding both wink-wink cuteness and deadpan coldness like the plague (hey, once you start invoking God, everything takes on Old Testament punning, doesn't it?), she imbues ''Joan of Arcadia'' with a serene lovingness.
Show creator Barbara Hall (the woman behind ''Judging Amy'' -- Hall seems to have a thing about judgment) appears to have taken an amusing aphorism by the genial Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton -- ''the image of a God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of the wisdom of a mustache'' -- and turned it into a shrewd gimmick: She doesn't actually have to load up ''Joan of Arcadia'' with fully formed plots from week to week (although there are subplots involving some very trite cases Mantegna's Will Girardi must solve). Joan merely has to encounter God and learn a little life lesson in each episode. That way Hall can keep spinning these things out (''Let's see.... Oooh, oooh, I got it! This week, God is...that guy in the commercials who says 'Can you hear me now?'!'') from here until doomsday or syndication, whichever comes first.
Why is this mechanically contrived show so instantly popular that it has already sent our avid Alicia Silverstone, and her beleaguered ''Miss Match'' on NBC, scurrying to a later time period? Well, there's the acting. In a TV universe chockablock with sullen teens, Tamblyn's moodiness is notably nuanced. Then there's the genre: As a former Friday-at-eight occupant, NBC's ''Providence'' proved there's a big audience for spirituality. (NBC tried to attract these viewers, but ''Miss''ed with Silverstone's dramedy; forget a later time slot, this sweet patootie of a show deserves a chance on another night.) ''Joan'''s God is not all-accepting and forgiving. Instead, we get the Old Testament Jehovah: full of commands, vengeful, and capricious (thus the small-town crimes Mantegna tackles).
Then too, I quote Chesterton again: ''You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.'' Which is to say, ''Joan of Arcadia'' soothes its audience by having it identify with Joan -- the logic therefore being, you're special, you can make a difference -- without asking people to make any real sacrifices or take any real chances, which is what lay-people call illogical and what believers call a leap of faith. Either way, it sure can be cozy, and cozy tends to get better ratings than clever. In other words, Alicia Silverstone would have had a better chance if, instead of Ryan O'Neal, her father was her Father, and the show had been called ''Match Made in Heaven.''