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Small-town charm elevates ‘Three Wishes’

Amy Grant's new NBC reality series makes the most of its concept
/ Source: The Associated Press

I am frankly amazed by “Three Wishes,” NBC’s dreams-fulfilling reality series.

I’m amazed that it is so well done. Amazed how, despite my resolve to maintain cool skepticism, it tugs at my heartstrings and makes me feel a little better about the human race.

I’m also amazed that, after two airings, it hasn’t made more of a splash.

NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly was quoted as predicting “Three Wishes” would “pop” in the ratings. I thought so, too, especially considering the big promotional send-off it got from the network. Plus, it not only borrows but compounds the single-family formula of ABC’s feel-good hit, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” So how could it miss?

Surely you know the premise. Host Amy Grant, along with sidekicks Carter Oosterhouse, Eric Stromer and Diane Mizota, descend upon a community to make dreams come true for its most deserving members.

A Wishing Tent is erected on Main Street (“Three Wishes” only serves small towns, and small towns always have a Main Street), where Grant and her lieutenants bear witness.

“Nobody ever asks an adult, ‘What do you wish for?”’ Grant noted during a recent interview. “For me hearing what they want, it’s like 200 short stories in an afternoon. It’s fascinating!”

Although regularly scheduled 9 p.m. EDT Fridays (where, trailing ABC and CBS last week, the show lost nearly one-fourth of the 8.4 million viewers who had tuned to its premiere), “Three Wishes” this Friday will air a two-hour special at 8 p.m.

Originating from Brookings, S.D., the episode interweaves stories about a New Orleans family left homeless by Hurricane Katrina; a terminally ill father who is facing the future bravely but worries about the wife and kids he may soon leave behind; and a 13-year-old local girl with dreams of being a pop star.

This plus-size “Three Wishes” is too much of a good thing: too much hugging, too many tears.

Even so, how could I not be touched when (SPOILER ALERT) the community outreach led by Brookings’ mayor results in a second chance for David and Giselle Sparkman and their two children, relocated from their cots in the Houston Astrodome.

The family of Bill Logue, who has an inoperable brain tumor, gets merchandise like a new car and backyard landscaping (with product plugs attached). But they are particularly thrilled by the gift from the local university: full scholarships for all five kids and Bill’s wife, Jacqueline, who wants to earn her degree.

Through all this largess, Grant remains a warm, reassuring facilitator. But the Grammy-winning singer — who has scored with Christian music fans as well as mainstream listeners — admits she was surprised to be tapped as the “Three Wishes” host.

“I said to NBC, ‘I don’t know if I have the skill set you’re looking for. But I’m used to being around people, and I’m used to having strangers tell me their life story, and I feel like I have something I could offer the show: It would be an awfully nice gesture to have a free concert at the end of every visit to a town, for all the people that don’t get picked for a wish.”’

That is how each episode concludes, with this week no exception. From the stage at a picture-perfect open-air performance, the Sparkmans are officially introduced to their thousands of new neighbors. And Bill Logue is surprised by a reunion of friends flown to Brookings from across the country.

The spirit of “Three Wishes” strikes an almost shocking contrast to the latest prime-time trend.

Dead-set as never before on creeping us out, the networks have plucked from the gloom new fall shows like “Surface,” “Invasion,” “Night Stalker,” “Threshold” and “Supernatural,” plus psycho-killer-fests “Killer Instinct” and “Criminal Minds,” and a grisly addition to forensics fare, “Bones.”

The challenge for TV’s creative corps: ramping up the dread on TV entertainment to stay out in front of our real, routine jitters — our state of high alert, war and natural disaster.

Spooked as we are by what’s happening in real life, we’re invited to retreat into fiction’s worse fears. We are meant to find relief in the knowledge that our problems aren’t as frightful as the ghoulishness dramatized on the screen.

But rather than stewing in the evil and enigmatic, “Three Wishes” occupies itself with resourceful, task-oriented storytelling. Wishes are voiced, wishes are addressed, with an elevating outcome. Solutions unfold in a manner that, within acceptable limits, appears genuine, and not — as with too much “reality” TV — like real life modulated for the cameras.

“The humanity side of it goes far beyond what winds up in this 44 minutes of edited television,” declares Grant, who, more than window dressing for each episode, says she spends four days onsite at each community, talking with the citizens and getting involved.

“I think the real impact of this show and the ripple effect it has on these towns — there’s no way to capture it on TV.”

No matter: “We don’t do it for the TV.”

She is there to grant wishes, she insists, “and we just let the cameras capture whatever they can.”

It might come as a surprise to the producers of “Three Wishes” — or any TV series — to hear their star say the show isn’t, in fact, all-consumed with itself.

But what if this one really does have a larger mission?

What if “Three Wishes,” the series that might seem too good to be true, is really as good as it seems to be? Is that more than wishful thinking?