Three Wishes

When I found out that Three Wishes‘ promotional campaign involved sending screeners to conservative churches, I steeled myself for some Republican Jesus version of the lottery. I expected to see an avalanche of white people arranged like crèche scenes, but with all the wife-beating, racism, sexism, and homophobia hidden away with the boxes of tangled Christmas lights.

In many respects, the first episode met those expectations, offering small-town living as a combination of clean thoroughfares, slowly undulating flags, and the weepy smiley denizens of a Sonora, California shire. And yet, despite my force field of cynicism, the show did move me. It’s difficult to watch young Abby, disfigured from a car accident that occurred when her father was driving, talk about her desire to get out and play with all the other little girls.

Three Wishes has its squad of road trip angels — host Amy Grant, accompanied by Carter Oosterhouse, Diane Mizota, and Eric Stromer — travel across the U.S., granting wishes to those who meet some unknowable criteria. They set up a huge tent in the center of the chosen small town and allow the crowd to gather and plead their pain. In the case of little Abby, they arrange to build a playhouse that accommodates her condition (she’s left with exposed sections of brain), pay the family’s huge box of medical bills, and see if plastic surgeons can reconstruct her face and replace the missing bone.

But my tentative admiration, in the form of an almost involuntary emotional response to human suffering, ended with my box of tissues. Though the stepson wanting to reward a great stepfather with a pick-up, the mother taking her huge adopted family to a movie, and the football team needing a new field that would cause fewer injuries were all stories that warmed my heart to varying degrees, the show’s pervasive corporate imprint makes the viewer suspect that these sponsors might be using sentimentality to burnish their brands.

Three Wishes is a veritable showcase for corporate largesse, and oh yes, self-promotion. Materials “donors” ensure that their logos appear with glaring tackiness. And oh by the way, because corporations are committed to doing good work (providing tools, lumber, equipment), we shouldn’t expect them to pay living wages. No matter that on any other day of the week, these same outfits lobby for tax cuts that affect government-assisted healthcare and unemployment benefits. Just as Wal*mart ships water to Katrina victims to divert attention from its pitifully corrupt record as an employer, Three Wishes’ corporate donors will most probably use every good deed to fend off some future atrocity.

In order to underline the show’s preference for charity and community solutions over government action, the cast rallies the town to some sort of carnival, complete with an Amy Grant concert, in order to pay for part of sweet Abby’s medical bills. Once you get the conservative political marketing angle, everything else falls into place. If you have poor people in your communities, you should take care of them yourself. Have a brain injury bake sale, people. You don’t need the Federal government. And if you’re lucky, Grant might breeze through with a twang and prayer wad of c-notes.

About an hour after the first episode was over, I went from being mildly irritated by its manipulations to being flatly pissed off. What does it say about our culture when a middle class family has to choose between having a home and piecing their daughter’s skull back together? After all, before Grant and company breezed through, Abby’s parents had foregone their daughter’s surgery, because they didn’t have the money. How many stories like Abby’s won’t attract a corporate sponsor and crooning pop star? Sure, we can cry in front of our television sets, but if it’s a moral imperative for Grant to give a child a chance as a normal life, doesn’t that same imperative apply to us collectively? If these individual cases fill us with a sense that justice must be done, why shouldn’t that same luxury be afforded to all poor people without health insurance?

Grant makes sure to mention her prayers often, chewing on her dimples, turning hope into something you beg for rather than create through political organization. After all, God and Amy Grant, in all their just bounty, have the right to say no to your wishes. Before then, at least you can audition your agony in front of the American public, and feel absolutely assured that Grant’s tits will not fall from her stylishly Amish wardrobe. Because it’s far better to be wholesome on the surface, and rotten at the core.