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.