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In a word, writer-producer John Masius was attracted to "Providence" (8 tonight, Channel 2) by the definition of it.

"I always loved the word," Masius explained to critics here. "I always thought that the definition of providence as 'divine guidance and God's will' made it a special place."

After two weeks, NBC is defining "Providence" as a hit. Despite critical slams normally reserved for something starring Pauly Shore, it is NBC's highest-rated freshman drama since "ER."

I called the pilot -- in which Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) returns to her hometown from her shallow life as a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles -- "watchable" because of its star and sweet attitude and gave it three stars out of five. That lukewarm endorsement qualifies as a "rave" by the standards of others.

But who could have known that a show about a woman who has more conversations with her opinionated dead mother (Concetta Tomei) than with her father, the dog-loving veterinarian (Mike Farrell), would strike such a chord with Americans?

It was impossible not to love Sydney, who certainly got audience sympathy when she discovered her boyfriend the agent in the shower with another man. And that was even before he offered this explanation: "He's a client."

From that scene alone, you know "Providence" isn't your average family drama.

Besides Sydney, the Hansen children include a conniving younger brother and a pregnant younger sister whose wedding was ruined by her mother's death. The sister has since had the baby, allowing long-haired Sydney to play Auntie Mame.

Of course, critics have been wrong before about family shows, with "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched by an Angel" hardly getting enthusiastic support when they premiered.

Masius, who was Tom Fontana's former writing partner on "St. Elsewhere," said he was surprised by some of the vitriol in reviews.

"I thought going in, at worst, that the show would be treated as benign because it was coming from a sweet place," said Masius. "And at best, that maybe it would move people. . . . But all is forgiven."

In describing the charms of the city of Providence, Masius might as well have been describing Buffalo. "It's still a major city, but at the same time, still small enough that it had that small-town feel and a very accessible place to be and want to be from," said Masius.

Unquestionably the biggest attraction of the series is Kanakaredes, the hazel-eyed actress with frizzy hair who starred in twofailed dramas before this -- "New York News" and "Leaving L.A."

She's a Greek goddess from Ohio who still has the ability to look like the girl next door. Perhaps that's because she was the girl next door, growing up in a candy store operated by her grandfather.

She said the rule in the family was that children weren't allowed to put their hands in the huge vats of melted chocolate. But, of course, kids being kids, they'd do it.

"It was a great place to grow up, and I guess when you think of your own childhood you always take a little bit of yourself and your own history and your own experience when you're developing a character," said Kanakeredes. "And I certainly feel that part of the soul of Sydney is part of me and that love of family, even though they're disconnected and they're not in touch with each other."

She even enjoys staying in touch with Sydney's dead mother, a plot contrivance that Masius decided on during the pilot.

"Actually, Concetta, the whole time we were shooting the pilot, kept nagging at me," said Masius. "She goes, 'I don't understand why I have to die at the end of the second act.' So I said, 'How about the third act?' She goes, 'No, I have to come back.'

"We thought that we had something that, if it was used judiciously, could be a lot of fun, could also on some level deal with Syd's self-consciousness and also the whole concept of 'death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship.' And the fact that people are with you on some level no matter what.

"It was just something that I hadn't seen before and I thought it would be interesting to explore and I think it's turned out great. . . . And Concetta is a lot of fun to do that with. The thing that makes Concetta crazy is that I kept her in the same dress that she died in and the same hairdo. And for an actress, to have the same hair and makeup for eternity is a painful thing, at best."

Kanakaredes says she loves the dream scenes with Sydney's dead mother.

"As a woman going away from home and leaving at a young age and then coming back, the relationship that you have with your parents is so significant in the sense that sometimes you leave and you're an adult and you have your life. And you come back and you're an 18-year-old again in your mom's eye," said Kanakaredes. "And Sydney never got that chance with her mom to explore the adult relationship that they had. So it's a great way to get that chemistry going and to understand a little more about the character."

She thinks she understands why the show has experienced some early success.

"Not all of us can understand what it's like to be a physician and not all of us can understand what it's like to be an attorney, but everyone knows what it's like to have family. Everyone has a sister or brother or cousin and that whole relationship thing that sometimes you want to drop them off the roof and other times you love them to death. And that's the dynamic that's so special."

Masius is credited with being the creator of "Touched by an Angel" even though he left the series before it aired and his original pilot was dramatically altered. I suggested in my review that "Providence" probably was closer to his vision of "Angel."

After noting that they are two different shows and he is a different person than he was when he did the original, unseen "Angel" pilot, Masius explained the differences between "Providence" and the CBS hit.

" 'Touched by an Angel' was dealing with a certain spirituality at the time," said Masius. "But my idea of spirituality was a little more Old Testament than what 'Touched by an Angel' is now. I kind of think that my take on God is more vengeful than embracing.

"We're getting into weird issues for me here. It's a good question. I love this show because it's a family show. I love it because it is real. It's about a family. I mean, 'Touched by an Angel' is dealing with, in my mind, more about what people's fantasies are about not taking responsibility for their lives and hoping that there is a higher force out there that will, therefore, put them on the right path.

"In my feeling, people are more responsible. You are the person and you can change your life and you can make decisions that can affect other people and you can be responsible for the way that your world turns out."

That philosophy is manifested by Sydney's responsible decision to come home to Providence to change her life and her family's.

She's the angel in Masius' new series. And so far, NBC is in ratings heaven.

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