Reality TV may be better known for debauchery than devotion, but here comes Amy Grant to class up the joint.

The singer, best known for a Christian music career spanning more than a quarter of a century, is starring in the new NBC series "Three Wishes" (Fridays at 9 pm /8 pm Central time). The formula for the show is straightforward: Grant and crew roll into a small town, set up a large tent, and a huge throng of people show up, each with a wish, a need they're seeking to be fulfilled. Producers choose three wishes to tackle each week--three sob-inducing, heartstring-pulling, mercy-demanding, altruism-inducing wishes.

Wish-granter is a role Grant has been priming for her whole life, she said in a recent conference call with the media.

"I have never in my life felt so equipped for a job, ever," Grant says she told her mother after landing the gig. "I've never walked into a recording studio and felt like I was completely adequate for the job, ever. Because I don't have a very high range and I can't do a lot of vocal tricks.... But with this, I just felt very equipped, and it was great."

She is well aware of reality TV's less-than-Christian image-- "Temptation Island" anyone?--but believes "Three Wishes" bucks the trend. And, she says, she's not the only one who thinks that.

"Some of the people [who work on 'Three Wishes'] have worked on other reality shows, and I think we even have some people in the crew from 'Survivor,' and it's very typical for somebody to show up at their first day of work [on 'Three Wishes'] and go, 'Oh, thank goodness, a guilt-free job,'" she says. "Not every reality show could feel like that."

But while sex and scheming reign on reality shows like "Survivor" and "The Bachelor," there is a growing genre of programs that play to the heartstrings, with benevolent networks helping the needy fulfill their dreams (with an assist, always, from ubiquitous product placement). "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" comes to mind: the show builds new homes for worthy families, many of whom have disabled or sick children. Each home is tailored to the family's special needs, with plenty of frills and amenities thrown in, of course. The show seems to focus on--and play up--ever-more tragic stories every week; it's not just a new home, it's a new life for a well-deserving, wholesome family to whom life has dealt a cruel set of cards.

"Three Wishes," you might say, is "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" times 10. Or maybe 100. The latter takes sad stories and gives them a new home--much needed and very helpful, but ultimately leaving the blind child blind and the deaf parent deaf. "Three Wishes" takes those stories and aims to solve their problems, to the extent that is possible. The blind might not quite get the gift of sight, but disabled 10-year-old Abby Castleberry gets her life-altering surgery.

Abby is the focus of the show's first episode, its most dramatic and tear-inducing story. Horribly injured in a car accident, the 10-year-old survived but her activities are severely restricted and she--formerly a stand-out athlete--must wear a helmet to protect her now-fragile skull. "Three Wishes" gives her the best that medicine can offer, in the hopes that she will be able to live a fuller, more active life. And, along the way, Grant and colleagues build her a fully equipped play-house (big enough to be the envy of any adult, urban apartment dweller) that combines safety, fun, and physical therapy.

For Grant, the show is more than just a day job. Minutes before the phone conference with reporters, Grant says she got a call from Abby's mother--her daughter was heading into her final surgery. "I just said, 'Call me when she goes in, and I'll call home and get my family praying,'" Grant says.

Even the most cynical TV watcher will be rooting for Abby, whose eloquence and innocence make her perfect for the show. The episode's second wish, about a boy who wants to show his love and appreciation to his stepfather, begins to feel a bit contrived, but it is saved by the sweet earnestness and likeability of the boy and his family.

"There are no fingers crossed behind anybody's back."

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  • For at least some viewers, though, the third wish will bring out the eye-rolling in full force. The wish is expressed by a high-school cheerleading team on behalf of their dying coach: she--they--wish for a new high school football field. The unfolding of this storyline seemed disappointingly contrived, milking faux drama out of producers' attempts to get the project paid for by outside sources and finished in time for a big game. Left unaccounted for: If NBC is granting three wishes per week, why couldn't it foot the bill for the project in the first place?

    But such musings miss the point of "Three Wishes," which is banking on the strength of the stories it highlights and genuineness of the needs the wish-receivers express to overcome any sense that it is manipulative or overdramatized.

    "Some of the other reality shows you watch on TV, the people in the shows are aspiring actors or they want their 15-minutes of fame and they want to be written about in People and Us magazine and In Touch," says "Three Wishes" producer Andrew Glassman, who previously worked on some of the "Average Joe" shows.

    "This show is much different. These are not generally people who are seeking to be on television. They are people who are just caught in an emotional crossroads in their lives, and who genuinely are asking for a little help."

    The show celebrates the values of small-town America, or at least what Hollywood considers small-town community to be like. Each episode is set in a different small town, and NBC's marketing campaign for the series reportedly focused heavily on churches and pastors.

    At the end of many episodes, Grant performs a free concert, bringing what seems like the whole town together to sing, cry, and be grateful. There are plenty of altruistic wishes, like the woman who stood in line for hours only to say, according to Grant, "My wish is that the wish would come true for the woman who is standing in line in front of me." And there's also plenty of prayer, on the part of Grant and the townspeople she meets--though Grant says she wasn't sure whether the network would accept all those invocations of God. "I remember the first time saying, 'She's in our thoughts and prayers,'" she recalls, having expected the producers to steer her clear of such language. The producers didn't react, and moved on to the next scene. "I remember a little part of me said, 'Oh good, we can say that, OK.'"

    The show requires Grant to be more than just wish-granter--she's part psychoanalyst, too, working to discern what really lies behind people's stated wishes.

    "In Sonora [the California site of the first episode], a woman came up to me, and she was several years older than I am, she just looked kind of worn out. And her thing was, I want a complete body overhaul," Grant says. "And I said, let's get real. Time is ticking on all of us, and there's only so much we can do."

    "And I said, 'What's your real wish?'," Grant continues. "And she was quiet for a minute, and then she said, 'I want my husband to find me beautiful.'"

    Another time, Grant says, a Little League coach's wish was to have his woeful last-place team win a single game. The show did little things to help out--the correct prescription for the outfielder with glasses--but then took the players and their parents to meet and practice with the Texas Rangers major league baseball team. As the Rangers took the field for their game that night, the kids' names were announced to the packed ballpark along with the professionals.

    "What did that coach really want?" Grant says. "He wanted those kids to feel like winners. He wanted them to be paid some special attention."

    Whatever the specifics of the storylines, one thing is guaranteed: plenty of tears, of joy and sorrow, all around.

    "There are no fingers crossed behind anybody's back, and there's not another foot waiting to fall on this show. It is exactly what it is," Grant says of the show. "Does the swirling music make you cry a little bit? Of course, but we're all crying there too."

    When it comes to this sort of reality show, there are three main types of viewers: Those unafraid to sob uncontrollably, those who roll their eyes derisively, and those who do both simultaneously. "Three Wishes" gives all three plenty to work with, but is counting on the heart of small-town America to cry along with Amy Grant and the "wishees" whose dreams will come true week after week on the show.

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