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On a mission

Times Staff Writer

Strong female leads -- Alicia Silverstone in NBC’s “Miss Match” and Amber Tamblyn and Mary Steenburgen in CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia” -- turn two already solidly constructed new series into special ones. As television has demonstrated again and again, the best actors in the world cannot redeem a badly written script or a weak idea. But they are the very thing -- especially given the economies of the small screen -- that makes a good idea great.

It is not exactly a miracle that “Joan of Arcadia,” a quirky family drama about a sullen teenage girl who converses with God, has managed to thread the maze of corporate approval to reach the airwaves -- not when one considers the thousand-year reign of “Touched by an Angel,” the many miles logged by “Highway to Heaven” and the evergreen dramatic ground that is the Sullen Teenage Girl. In fact, young women will be talking with God (or his deputies) quite a bit this fall, in Fox’s “Tru Calling” and “Wonderfalls” and Showtime’s already-in-progress “Dead Like Me.” No, the real miracle here is how deftly the show avoids the soggy cliches of redemption so many of its forerunners have embraced.

Joan Girardi (played by Tamblyn, a “General Hospital” veteran and daughter of actor-dancer Russ Tamblyn) lives in a big Craftsman-style house of the sort favored by TV art directors these days with her parents Steenburgen and Joe Mantegna, the town’s new police chief; wheelchair-bound older brother Jason Ritter, bitter and sarcastic; and science-geek younger brother Michael Welch, also sarcastic. Her normally troubled teenage life becomes abnormally troubled when God -- denominationally nonspecific but essentially Western -- approaches her one day, with “sug-gestions,” in the guise of “a really hot guy.” (“Is it kind of weird,” she asks, “that I have a crush on you?”).

He and/or She will later appear as a lunch lady, a newscaster, a guy fixing a streetlight, a little girl, and so on: It is a nice inspiration that divine wisdom speaks in several voices. And though it takes a certain hubris to write dialogue for God, at least he gets the laughs:

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“Stop squandering the potential I gave you,” says God, this time as a man driving a street sweeper. “Stop underachieving. Have some pride.”

“Pride?” Joan asks. “What happened to humility?”

“Humility,” God points out, “isn’t actually humility unless you’re good enough at something to be humble.”

God’s ways being mysterious, Joan is not told much about why they are having this relationship, other than there are some “errands” for her to do. (Leading an army against the English and Burgundians will probably not be among them.) She is an “instrument” and a “catalyst” and supposed to fulfill her “true nature,” a vague enough assignment that the writers will never have to settle on what it really means. (So far it’s meant getting a job in a bookstore and taking AP chemistry.)

Joan is neither filled with light by actually knowing God nor particularly intimidated -- she is perfectly capable of talking back to the Prime Mover -- but she is understandably on edge. Who needs another authority figure when you’re 16 and your life is already full of them?

The show’s one substantial flaw is the time it spends on Mantegna’s character Will Girardi’s job -- these “realistic” scenes, which constitute almost a parallel series within the series, are standard cop melodrama. Less convincing, ironically, than Joan’s confabs with the Almighty, they play as interruptions in, not additions to, the real drama, which happens within and around the family. Steenburgen as Helen has never been used this well by television; she paints a subtle and unsentimental portrait of motherly concern and practicality, pride and sorrow, and, like the gifted Tamblyn, embodies layers of emotional complexity most actors can’t achieve and most series don’t ask for.

Less ambitious than “Joan of Arcadia” but more perfectly balanced is “Miss Match,” confected for Alicia Silverstone by Darren Starr (of “Sex and the City”) and Jeff Rake (Starr’s collaborator on “The $treet”). Words like “frothy and “scrumptious” pop like champagne bubbles to the reviewer’s mind -- and “scrumptious” is not a word he has ever used. It is a candy-colored affair, bright with Southern California sunshine and leisure-time locations -- local sybarites will relish the dropped name “Burke Williams” -- and a world away from Joan’s Arcadia. Made to be merely charming and delightful, it is both.

Like Arcadia’s Joan, Silverstone’s Kate Fox is a woman with a mission -- missions, rather, and seemingly contradictory ones: She’s a divorce lawyer with a penchant for matchmaking (as in “Clueless,” her previous career high), an incurable romantic whose day job bears witness to the failure of romance. The series bears a passing resemblance to “Cupid,” the Paula Marshall-Jeremy Piven dramedy from a few years back, in that the principal in both ministers to the lovelorn -- a new challenge every week -- and is lovelorn herself, more than she knows.

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She left her Ralph Bellamy-type boyfriend in the pilot episode, and we know it is only a matter of time -- but how much time? -- before she gets around to claiming hunky architect David Conrad for herself instead of continually setting him up with the next Girl of the Week. The mechanics of this consensual delayed gratification -- consensual, that is, between the actors and the audience -- are no less rewarding for being so obvious.

If not as deep or nuanced an actress as Tamblyn or Steenburgen, Silverstone glows like the movie star she briefly was and moves with an old-Hollywood ease that brings to mind actresses long departed from this world. She acts with her whole face -- her eyes pop, her brow crinkles, her lips go off in seven directions at once. She is cuteness cubed and dressed as if for a window display yet convincingly in charge of herself and her surroundings; one has no trouble buying her as a lawyer.

As her father and boss, Ryan O’Neal -- purveying a mix of professional distraction, moral laxity and filial affection -- is given much to do, and he is, half-unexpectedly, marvelous. O’Neal’s gift for comedy, he has sometimes made it easy to forget -- if only through long absence -- is substantial, and he is as good here as he’s ever been, possibly better. Lake Bell is Silverstone’s statuesque bartending best friend, James Roday an amusingly shallow colleague and they are as near perfect as you could possibly require.

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‘Joan of Arcadia’

Where: CBS

When: 8-9 p.m. Fridays; premieres tonight.

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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Amber Tamblyn...Joan Girardi

Mary Steenburgen...Helen Girardi

Joe Mantegna...Will Girardi

Jason Ritter...Kevin Girardi

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Michael Welch...Luke Girardi

Creator, writer, Barbara Hall. Executive producers, Hall and James Hayman. Directors, Jack Bender and Hayman.

*

‘Miss Match’

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Where: NBC

When: 8-9 p.m. Fridays; premieres tonight.

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Alicia Silverstone...Kate Fox

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Lake Bell...Victoria

James Roday...Nick Paine

David Conrad...Michael Mendelsohn

Ryan O’Neal...Jerrold Fox

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Jodi Long...Claire

Creators, Darren Star and Jeff Rake. Executive producers, Star, Rake, Brian Grazer and David Nevins. Director, Star. Writers, Rake, Star, Jed Seidel, David Schulner, Marc Silverstein, Abby Cohn, Sherri Cooper, Robin Schiff, Colleen McGuinness.


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