Who wants to be a millionaire, when you could be hanging out with God Almighty? NBC hopes audiences will be asking that question as it goes up against Fox's game-show juggernaut with "God, the Devil and Bob," a new animated series from Matthew Carlson, whose created the oafish sitcom "Men Behaving Badly" in 1996. The show, (premiering Thursday, March 9 at 8:30, before moving to Tuesdays), sounds edgy enough that two Midwestern affiliates have refused to carry it. That news, no doubt, has NBC execs tossing their caps in the air with glee.

But there's little here to give offense, and plenty of clever dialogue, sharp characters and firm plotting. True, God takes the form of an affable, wise old man, a convention that is theologically shallow but can't possibly still be shocking. The deity and traditional religious beliefs are, by and large, treated with respect, and the show even makes a few meaty theological points. But will that be enough to defeat the tidal pull of vicarious wealth? Hey, Carlson: feeling confident?

The idea behind "God, the Devil, and Bob" is promising, though not strictly fresh: God, disappointed in mankind, resolves to destroy Earth unless one representative human can prove it's worth saving. God allows the Devil to select the human subject, who turns out to be Bob Alman, husband, dad and beer-slugging, boss-annoying, good ole boy assembly-line auto worker ("Not my best work," God sighs). The first three episodes show how Bob resists or rallies to his role as humanity's last hope. ("That sounds like a lot of work. What's in it for me?" Bob asks. God retorts, "This isn't new stuff. It's written down in books, scrolls, stone tablets. What do you want me to do, scribble it on a bar napkin for you?") Bob comes through his dilemmas, which center around his family, as the hapless hero.

What is fresh here is the writing, which starts strong and keeps going. An ad hoc focus group of friends and leaders from my church watched with me, and laughed pretty continuously from the opening scenes. In a pre-credits exposition, God explains that Bob is the test case who will determine whether the world continues or ends. A shaft of light illuminates the couch potato watching TV, and he begins to float upward in its beam. He looks at the bottle in his hand and says, "Wow, this is good beer!"

How do you depict God or the Devil in a cartoon? You treat them like, well, cartoon characters. Here God resembles fuzzy-bearded Jerry Garcia, wearing a T-shirt and white slacks and small square sunglasses, which he peers over silently in response to dumb theological questions. The character, appealingly voiced by James Garner, has a folksy authority that is less reminiscent of a Deadhead gathering than of Mayberry. On the family tree of depictions of God, Garner's is a close cousin to George Burns' charming old deity in the "Oh! God" movies, but less wizened.

The Devil fits another stereotype: slim, elegant, fussy, offended, with a mandatory British accent. You've been seeing this guy ever since Peter Cook in "Bedazzled." Alan Cumming's rich, whiny voice contributes just the right amount of oblivious self-parody to the character. "It's a festering pit of agony and despair!" snaps the Devil when God asks politely about the state of affairs in hell. Then, brightening, the Devil adds, "Oh! I put in a koi pond."

There are moments when the prissiness makes one wonder, particularly in light of his close-cropped yellow hair, meticulous goatee, and lavender skin. But in the second episode the Devil tries to date Bob's daughter, and in the third he tries to bed Bob's wife, so if this is a closeted Devil he's certainly overcompensating.

The danger, of course, is that this treatment trivializes things that are awesome and terrible and beyond speaking. Animation can remedy this somewhat better than live-action, by showing characters morphing into something more like their true selves. As we watch, God transforms into a majestic being hundreds of feet tall, and the devil into a vicious and mighty fiend. When the two shake hands, the Devil whirls in agony. We are reminded that the innocuous guises are just masks, and where ultimate power lies.

The problem with this reduced view of God is larger than this one TV show; it's the general cultural preference to see God as a buddy. Because of God's immeasurable holiness, there is an immense gap between him and us fallible humans. That can be solved by our drawing closer to him, through self-surrender to his person and will, or by reformulating him so he's more like us, making his will a comfortable fit.

The latter solution is the easier one, of course, and has prevailed for the last few decades. Eventually the innate human hunger for real holiness will re-emerge, and we'll see a return to mystery, awe, and wonder. In the first episodes, at least, Bob's God is not a buffoon; he's consistently wise and strong and true, and always wins, and the Devil is always humiliated in defeat. Hey, it's a start.

Other characters are less even. Bob himself (voiced by French Stewart) has not established a consistent personality line; sometimes he's a nice guy and loving daddy, sometimes he's appallingly callous, sometimes he's a sleaze. God pulls a reluctant Bob away from a topless bar where a young woman named Jasmine is just starting her act. He looks Bob steadily in the eye and says, "Later you can watch Jasmine cry in the shower as she tries to wash away the shame." Bob responds, "Shower...so she'd be naked, right?" The plot requires a character who is all-too-human but whom we can identify with and feel some affection for. So far, these scattershot elements are not coming together into one coherent person.

Other characters are more successful. Wife Donna (Laurie Metcalf) is a familiar type, the sitcom middle-aged housewife, sharp and deadpan, who leaves her shirttail out over a broadening figure. The youngest child, Andy (Kath Souci), is developed well in quick strokes, a sweet and appealing boy.

There are problems, though, with the older child, adolescent Megan, voiced by Bart Simpson's Nancy Cartwright. Mopey, selfish, gossipy, lying, there's nothing to like about this kid. She's a walking bummer; she keeps a Nietzche poster over her bed. Even the Devil in disguise as a young boy trying to date her is repelled: "I forgot how depressing 13-year-old girls can be!" he exclaims as he vanishes in a puff of smoke. This character needs at least a few appealing characteristics.

While Carlson is shopping for good qualities for Megan, he might pick up a few for the Devil's goat-legged sidekick, Smeck--or find a hellish way of killing off this unnecessary, Disneyish afterthought entirely. My focus group was united in disliking him, thinking his material labored, unfunny and out of tune with the rest of the show. "He even looks like a different kind of animation," one teen said.

Which brings up the unfortunate matter of the show's look. With excellent voicing and writing, NBC has here all the elements of a fine radio show. Aside from the backgrounds, which are atmospheric and achieve a convincing gritty realism, what's on screen looks slapdash.. Characters are too angular, built of pipecleaners and paving tiles. Enormous flat heads perch on spaghetti necks, and they have way more teeth than any cartoon character (aside from The Grinch) needs. Ironically, it is the unpleasant demon Smeck who looks more rounded and thus more three-dimensional and "real."

Back to the drawing board, as God might say; what you've got here is well worth saving.

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