Joan of Arcadia


Created by Barbara Hall

Starring Amber Tamblyn, Joe Mantegna, Mary Steenbergen, Jason Ritter, Michael Welch, Becky Wahlstrom and Chris Marquette

This show was cancelled at the end of its second season in April 2005 and I missed out on it when it was shown on, I believe, the Living channel in the UK. I’ve long wanted to see it, partly because of the cast, partly because of the comparison to the brilliant ‘Dead Like Me’, and partly because of the premise of the show and its take on faith, which sounded interesting. All I can say is, hoorah for R1 DVDs.

I haven’t made it into season two as yet, so my selection of the show as my discovery of 2007 from the past is based solely on the first season. It’s not just as good as I had hoped; it has exceeded my expectations. I can understand the comparisons to ‘Dead Like Me’, but like all of these shows the obvious influence is ‘My So-Called Life’. The supernatural element of the show might drive the narrative, but in some ways it is incidental to it. The relationship between the various characters is what really matters.

It’s sentimental and likes to resolve stories with a positive moral outcome, lacking the edge of ‘My So-Called Life’ in that respect, but these are not faults - and even if sometimes the resolutions are a little glib it is not a criticism.

The cast is great. I’ve yet to see Amber Tamblyn in anything where she has not impressed me. It’s been too long since I last saw Mary Steenbergen in anything and it has reminded me that I must check out her 1979 film ‘Time After Time’ again.

God: “Hey kid, it’s me. You need proof? Fine. Sometimes you like to practice French kissing yourself on the mirror.”
Joan: “Why do you have to be so mean? Look, that was my dad who turned you off last night, so if there’s some kind of penalty, then I…”
God: “Fine. He shall spend all of eternity burning in Hell.”
Joan: “No! No… No… No! My dad’s a really great man.”
God: “I’m kidding. There’s no penalty for turning me off. Hey, just because I speak doesn’t mean anyone has to listen.”
Joan: “Really?”
God: “Yeah. Freewill is one of my better innovations. I give suggestions, not assignments.”
Joan: “I feel a suggestion coming on.”
God: “Stop squandering the potential I gave you. Stop under-achieving. Have some pride.”
Joan: “Wait… In what, like, school?”

The obvious shows that ‘Joan of Arcadia’ (CBS 26 September 2003 – 22 April 2005) might be compared with are ‘My So-Called Life’ (ABC 25 August 1994 – 26 January 1995), ‘Dead Like Me’ (Showtime 27 June 2003 – 31 October 2004) and, of course, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (WB/UPN 10 March 1997 – 20 May 2003).

Another show often mentioned is ‘Wonderfalls’ (Fox 12 March 2004 – 15 December 2004), which I have never seen.

The first thing to note about these various shows is that they all emanate from different networks and with the exception of ‘Buffy’ they were all cancelled prematurely.

The next thing to note is the importance of ‘My So-Called Life’, which clearly had a huge impact on all of the other shows mentioned – perhaps omitting ‘Wonderfalls’, which I am not qualified to comment on. However, I must avoid the trap of assuming that ‘My So-Called Life’ suddenly emerged out of a black hole, any more than ‘Buffy’ came into existence without influences and pre-existing source material.

‘The Wonder Years’ (ABC 15 March 1988 – 12 May 1993) comes to mind and even, for all of its very obvious faults, ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ (Fox 4 October 1990 – 17 May 2000). ‘Party of Five’ (Fox 12 September 1994 – 3 May 2000) also comes to mind – and also ‘The X Files’ (Fox 10 September 1993 – 19 May 2002), although the influence of this particular show is more abstract. What is most obvious about these last three shows mentioned is that they were all broadcast on FOX and it seems apparent that network has been desperately searching for replacement shows ever since – and adopting an increasingly trigger-happy cancellation policy as part of this search. It does have the ratings hits ‘House’ and ‘Bones’ these days, of course.

‘Joan of Arcadia’ tells the story of the Giradi family. Will Giradi (played by Joe Mantegna) and his wife Helen (Mary Steenburgen) move their family to Arcadia in Maryland (the external shots of the town were actually filmed in Wilmington, Delaware) to make a fresh start, eighteen months after an automobile accident that left their eldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter – the son of John Ritter) a bitter, wheelchair-bound paraplegic. The family is completed by middle child Joan (Amber Tamblyn), and Luke (Michael Welch), the youngest of the three children.

Will Giradi becomes the new Chief of Police, taking over a police department that has been hit by media allegations of incompetence and corruption. He demands strict adherence to procedural guidelines and this puts him into conflict with his officers and the local District Attorney’s office. Helen works part time in the administration office at the local high school Joan and Luke attend. The School Principal is a distant figure and the Deputy Principal is a destructive influence who constantly stifles the creative urges of his students.

Kevin was a star basketball player at his high school and had a sports scholarship to attend the University of Arizona prior to his accident. His once very close relationship with his father is now fraught and distant. He is angry and bitter, prone to feelings of self-pity. Joan shows little aptitude for academic study and is constantly sent to the Principal’s office for various minor misdemeanours. She finds it hard to make friends at her new school, especially when circumstances conspire to bring her together with Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom), an aggressively hostile loner, whose sexuality is a matter of constant discussion amongst other students, and Adam Rove (Christopher Marquette), a troubled teenager who agonises about the death of his mother. He is written off by the school system as a “stoner”, which he isn’t, although he might be a high-functioning autistic.

Luke Giradi is a science geek who has a crush on Grace.

Joan is visited by God in the guise of a variety of outwardly normal people and instructed to undertake various seemingly inconsequential tasks that create a butterfly effect, affecting those around her. The first time she sees God it is in the guise of a “cute boy” who she crushes on (played by Kris Lemche – a Canadian actor who starred in the films ‘Ginger Snaps’ and ‘Final Destination 3’). God comes to her again in this guise, but on other occasions it is as a small girl, a mime, a garbage collector, a chess master, a naval officer, a homeless person, a substitute teacher, a flight attendant and a security guard, amongst others.

Joan: “Who are you?”
Cute Boy: “I’ve known you since before you were born, Joan.”
Joan: “I’m going to ask you one more time.”
Cute Boy: “I am God.”
Joan: “You’re what?”
Cute Boy: “God.”
Joan: “Don’t. Ever. Talk. To. Me. Again.”

Joan: “And, I’m supposed to believe you… because?”
God: “Because you have a feeling.”
Joan: “No, I don’t.”
God: “How about you believe me if I agree to overlook that promise you didn’t keep.”
Joan: “What promise?”
God: “Let’s see, that you would study hard, stop talking back, clean your room, and even go to church, if I recall, if I let your brother live.”
Joan: “How did you know about that?”
God: “Omniscient! Look it up.”
Joan: “So… you let my brother live, and now you’re here to collect?”
God: “No. I don’t bargain. That would be cruel.”

No one knows that Joan speaks to God – and no one seems to notice her talking to the various people whose guises God apparently assumes.

Joan: “That was close. Why didn’t he see you?” (Referring to her brother Luke)
God: “Just didn’t notice me. That happens a lot.”

The story leads us to the conclusion that this really is God, but it allows room to speculate if these conversations with God are actually delusions or hallucinations, if we so wish.

Subjects tackled include a serial killer who targets teenage girls, rape, cheerleading, teenage pregnancy, police brutality and racism, and different kinds of prejudices, not always intended, against people with disabilities.

In the episode ‘Just Say No’ (s1 e4) a woman who was brutally raped discovers that her attacker will not be charged with the crime because on the night of the attack she was mistakenly breathalysed when she attempted to report what had happened to the police, the result indicating alcohol in her bloodstream, the equivalent of one glass of red wine, enough to sway a jury in favour of the accused, an outwardly articulate middle-class white man. A senior detective working on the case doctors the police report to remove the evidence of the breath test and the District Attorney makes plans to prosecute the case, but Will Giradi discovers the deception and fires the officer in question. In the same episode we learn that Helen Girardi was raped when she was a college student and her attacker was never apprehended, a traumatic event that has haunted both her and Will ever since – and, within this episode, leads to a breakdown of communications between Helen and Joan.

Nate Dushku, brother of Eliza, is featured in this episode.

In the episode ‘Bringeth It On’ (s1 e6), which deals with teenage pregnancy and the ostracisation of girls who become pregnant, Joan tries out to become a cheerleader, on instructions from God, and alienates Grace in the process.

CeeCee: “So, what do you feel most qualifies you to be a cheerleader?”
Joan: “Um, I saw Bring it On.”
CeeCee: “Oh My God! Bring It On is, like, the majorest of cheer films!”

For her initial tryout, Joan makes up her own cringe inducing on the spot “cheer”:

“Well, I can’t do any stunts
No… NO!
And how about jumps?
So why am I here?
Well, it’s really odd
But I’m here to cheer on a mission from God
So put me in the game or leave me on the bench
So you can go to heaven and I'll get out of French”

‘Joan of Arcadia’ was created by Barbara Hall, whose other credits include ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Judging Amy’. Hart Hanson was a writer on the show. His previous credits also includes ‘Judging Amy’ and he went on to create ‘Bones’.

I first came across Amber Tamblyn when she played Janice in the ‘Buffy’ episode ‘All The Way’ (2001). She was one of the two schoolgirls in the opening sequence of ‘The Ring’ (2002). She was one of the four leads in ‘The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants’ (2005), which grossed $39 million at the US box office, enough for a sequel, which is due for release sometime in 2008. She played the lead role in ‘The Grudge 2’ (2006).

Tamblyn is the daughter of the actor Russ Tamblyn.


No comments: