“Save Me,” the new NBC comedy premiering on today, Thursday, May 23rd, stars Anne Heche as a Midwestern housewife named Beth Harper who awakens from a near-death experience believing she can communicate with God. The show, which is being burned off two episodes at a time in the summer, is unlikely to have much of a future, but it is part of a tradition of series in which a character believes he or she has a direct line to the divine. What’s interesting about these shows is just how much the involvement of a lowercase or uppercase god is defined and made explicit and how closely the representation fits with an established religion — and often the enlightenment is presented as potentially just a sign of mental illness rather than a message from a higher power. Here’s a look at some of the predecessors of “Save Me” and their takes on the almighty.
Joan of Arcadia
Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), the protagonist of CBS’s excellent and sadly short-lived 2003-2005 drama, started to receive visits from God after she promised she’d do anything he wanted if her brother survived the car accident that left him a paraplegic. God proceeded to turn up in a variety of forms in Joan’s life — as a little girl, a dog walker played by Tamblyn’s father Russ, an exchange student, a homeless man — instructing her to do tasks the point of which are, at first, rarely clear. Joan is told to try out for the school play, to hold a yard sale, and sometimes to work on things that are even more confusing, like keeping her friend’s artwork out of a show. The wry portrayals of God in the series felt too secular for some religious groups, but the show’s warm, funny approach to the divine as incorporated into the life of a Maryland teenager was charming: “Why do people always try and discern my deeper meanings? This is the kind of thinking that starts wars,” huffed God, speaking through a woman working out. Joan, like others on this list, might have just been cracking up, but the show balanced her missions with the mistakes a well-meaning but impulsive high school girl might make, allowing the show to also be a very fine portrait of life at a certain age.
There was mystery behind the hallucinations in Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim’s 2008-2009 ABC dramedy “Eli Stone,” but also a medical explanation. The title character, a San Francisco-based lawyer played by Jonny Lee Miller, started seeing things thanks to an inoperable brain aneurysm — though his visions also led him into good deeds and even to his predicting an earthquake. The series was heavier on the whimsy than “Joan of Arcadia” — some of Eli’s hallucinations involved George Michael, appearing as himself, and often lead to imagined musical numbers involving other characters — as the show aimed to be about faith and the desire to help people without being explicitly religious. Still, the sense that the things Eli was seeing came from a higher power was reinforced by a second season premiere that cast Sigourney Weaver as a therapist who counseled Eli and who, in a twist, turned out to be a potential vision of or from God.
God, the Devil and Bob
Created by Matthew Carlson (“Malcolm in the Middle”), this 2000 animated comedy angered religious groups, and ultimately only four episodes were aired before it was canceled (the low ratings didn’t help). The series portrayed God (voiced by James Garner) as a beer-drinking guy who looked like Jerry Garcia, and who seemed to spend a lot of time hanging out with the Devil (Alan Cumming, who stepped in to take over for Robert Downey, Jr. after, perhaps appropriately, a relapse). Bob (French Stewart) was a Detroit auto plant worker serving as God’s not terribly qualified messenger after an opening incident in which he was selected (by the Devil, who was hoping for global destruction) to save the world by redeeming humanity. The religious backlash was unearned — the show was at heart a sly family sitcom, and its blithe portrayal of the divine was intended for humor, not maliciousness. Eventually, the 13 episodes that were made were released on DVD.
The Book of Daniel
Another quickly canceled NBC series, “The Book of Daniel” was (sense a pattern here?) a controversial title starring Aidan Quinn as a prescription painkiller-addicted Episcopal priest who engaged in regular conversations with Jesus (played by Garret Dillahunt). His character, Reverend Daniel Webster, struggled to be a good minister and head of his family, though his wife tended to drink, his daughter (Alison Pill) was arrested for selling pot and his brother-in-law took off with the church’s funds. Despite a certain overload of issues (not yet mention: a lesbian affair, a promiscuous adopted Chinese son dealing with prejudice, a dead twin and more), the show was well reviewed for its performances and the intelligence of its writing, including the scenes with Jesus, which served not as a point of prophecy but more as a means for Daniel to talk through his problems (and receive laid-back advice, including a suggestion not to tailgate).
My Name Is Earl
Greg Garcia’s “My Name Is Earl,” which ran on NBC from 2005 to 2009, had karma instead of God. It was the idea of karmic retribution, as garned from an episode of “Last Call with Carson Daly,” that spurred Earl J. Hickey (Jason Lee) to start making up for his misdeed after putting them down in a list, if only to start turning his life around by having his good deeds returned to him in the form of positive things in his life: “Do good things and good things happen — do bad things and bad things happen.” Even though Earl doesn’t really seek out any deeper exploration of the idea of karma in the Buddhist or Hindu sense (though sometimes it came to him, despite his bewilderment), the show did essentially serve as a non-deity focused, Eastern religion-influenced sibling to shows like “Joan of Arcadia” and “Eli Stone,” with Earl going on a journey that began as self-motivated and eventually became one of genuine spiritual change, an underlying theme that was a pleasing contrast with the stylized redneck characterizations and settings.
Highway to Heaven/Touched By An Angel
After all these series that dealt with stylized and sometimes edgy depictions of characters communicating with the divine (or at least believing they are), it’d be remiss not to point out a couple of straightforwardedly Christian-themed series. The main characters in “Highway to Heaven” (which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1989) and “Touched By An Angel” (which ran on CBS from 1994 to 2003) also spoke to God, but it was only part of the gig — they were angels. Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) got assignments from “The Boss,” and went around helping people with him friend Mark Gordon (Victor French), while Monica (Roma Downey) worked in “search and rescue” in tandem with her angelic supervisor Tess (Della Reese). Both shows suggest heaven could be a little bureaucratic — Jonathan was on probation and on earth earning back his wings, while Monica was working her way up to a promotion. While much softer in tone and prone to preachiness (heh) than the shows mentioned above, they also managed to have longer runs and to avoid the public ire of religious groups — that’s TV for you.