Joan: Let's see a miracle.
God: How about that?
Joan: It's a tree.
God: Let's see you make one.

Joan of Arcadia was an hour long television show broadcast by the Central Broadcasting System (CBS). It began in the fall of 2003, and was usually available for viewing on Fridays at 8pm eastern time. The series was nominated for the Golden Globes, and won a People's Choice Award for Favorite New Dramatic Series. Unfortunately, it only lasted two seasons before CBS pulled it off the air.

The genre of this program is that of a family drama, a style of storytelling for television made popular in past decades by series like the Waltons, Family, Little House On The Prairie, and Eight Is Enough. Joan of Arcadia would be nothing more than a retread of past successes if not for an added gimmick: the lead character, a sixteen year old girl named Joan Girardi, believes that on irregular intervals, she experiences visitations from God.

This gimmick gives a fantastical and whimsical edge to the program. The series dances on a very fine line between being just another contemporary family drama, and a hokey show with a shallow gimmick. Part of this success is due to the vague and multifaceted effort of keeping the audience guessing. It's never made entirely clear if it truly is THE "God" Joan is seeing, or if she is imagining it all. This operates similar to how Calvin sees Hobbes in the Watterson comic strip. To everyone else Hobbes is just a stuffed animal, but to Calvin, he's a living, breathing, talking tiger. Just when it appears the writers make a decision one way or the other, something else happens to keep the determination uncertain. By the end of the first season, other family members and friends were experiencing similar uncertainties of both faith and perceptions of reality. Her father thought he saw someone who later turned out to already be dead. Her mother began having prophetic dreams. So the story is not so much about Joan talking or listening to her perception of God, but the ramifications of that connection or belief in connection, and how it affects those around her.

The name "Joan of Arcadia" derives from the similarities between the lead character in the show, and the historic character Joan of Arc. Besides the obvious similarity of name and place, Joan of Arc admitted to speaking with God, and followed the directives of her perceived diety. This led to Joan of Arc leading a battle and burning at the stake. The writers play with these similarities and also the obvious absurdity of a modern day Joan of Arc living in an American suburb. Arcadia is a city in California, where the fictitious telling of the tv series takes place. It could just as easily have been Joan of Cleveland or Tallahassee or Detroit, but Arcadia just has a better ring to it. The series is very western ethnocentric, but is being shown in other parts of the world to moderate success.

Created by Barbara Hall who is also its executive producer, Joan of Arcadia has an amazing ensemble cast. The lead role of Joan Girardi is portrayed by the young and engaging Amber Tamblyn. Her previous experience includes appearances on CSI: Miami, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Twilight Zone, and as Katie Embry in the motion picture The Ring. Joining Tamblyn in the ensemble are Mary Steenburgen as Joan's mother Helen, Joe Mantegna as her father Will, Jason Ritter and Michael Welch as Joan's brothers. The series also features other talents in both recurring and cameo roles, as the storytelling requires. Jason Ritter is the son of recently deceased John Ritter, and Jason's performance as a young man recently confined in a wheelchair due to an auto accident is simultanesously funny and riveting. You wanna reach out and hug the guy at the same time you want to slap him in the face. To perform a character that can elicit such emotion from the audience, without being able to move the lower half of his body, is not as easy as it sounds. His father would be proud.

Both Steenburgen and Mantegna are veteran actors who bring to the table a wealth of experience and versatility. Both artists know when to steal the limelight and when to lend focus to their younger yet capable peers. The very presence of Steenbergen and Mantegna together in the ensemble makes everyone else look good, and although early episodes seemed to indicate a rocky start, the two of them have learned to become quite comfortable with one another in front of the camera, so it's more believable that these are two people deeply in love, who can support one another through any tragedy or fear. It is a curious choice of casting, bringing these two talents together, but both are so amazing at what they do, the chemistry is like that of a science experiment that both thrills and enlightens. They raise the bar. Were anyone else cast as the parents in this show, it wouldn't be a fraction as successful or intriguing as it is.

The show began in the pilot with most of Joan's family and friends as foils for Joan, and we were introduced to Joan's life and her subjective perspective of reality, so that those around her were shown with some dimension but not a lot of substance. The capable ensemble used very little in terms of dialogue and made the characters come alive despite a restrictive and unfocused writing narrative. As the first season progressed, the writers expanded upon Joan's world and our perception of it as the audience. At first we were mostly shown what Joan sees, with only brief glimpses into the lives of others, like her mother briefly speaking with a priest named Father Ken Mallory (performed by David Burke) for example. By the spring of 2004, the show had expanded in scope, until it became deceptively disconcerting what kind of a show one was watching. Sometimes it would follow Joan, but sometimes the narrative would take us to her father's vocation as a police detective, or her older brother's struggle with life confined to a wheelchair. So one moment it felt like a soap opera, the next it felt like a cop drama, and at times even like an after school special. Whether this constant shifting of storytelling styles is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the tastes of the individual watching. The series is definitely an aquired taste, like dry but subtly fragrant wine.

Just where the storytelling will take us is all over the map of Arcadia. Joan's stories seem to focus primarily on her home life and her school life, so we see a lot of both. Her father's life includes the police station and out on the streets of Arcadia as he solves crimes and weeds out corruption in the city's government. Joan's mother also spends a lot of time at Joan's school, as she's gotten a job as an art teacher. This is to facilitate plot movement and also gives Steenburgen a regular conflict to work with: when to wear the teacher hat and when to wear the mother hat. Joan's older brother Kevin spends time at the city newspaper and his plot arc is becoming in some ways the most interesting forward growth of character exploration, as he deals with his own inner demons about the fateful night leading to his parapelegia. Joan's younger brother is a brainiac who has his own friends and is also falling in love with Grace (Joan's best friend), so he walks in the same circles as Joan, yet manages to not be around so much as to be annoying, although his cerebral attempts at dialogue are mildly taxing at times, akin to the technobabble made popular on the television series Star Trek.

Though it was named after Joan, the series ceased being all about her, but more about how her presence in others' lives affect her, and how each of them affect her in return. Again this is a dangerous line to walk, because whenever Joan happened across someone who she thought was her God talking to her, it would seem rather disruptive to the storytelling and even annoying. Often the character of Joan would react to her God in much the same way as the average audience member might want to react to the interruption, being frustrated, even angry.

These visitations are not revealed to the audience in some mystifying or grandiose manner. Joan's God appears to her as just another person, like a janitor, policeman, little child, laid back goth dude, or a dog walker. Most of the time, God never appears before Joan as the same person twice. One week he's an ice cream vendor, the next week he's changing out lightbulbs. However it's usually made clear to the audience as it dawns on the character of Joan, that He is who He is, or as God is fond of saying: "I am." There have been a few exceptions to this rule of changing actors for the part of God. There's a young man in a coat who was the first actor used to portray God in the pilot. As performed by the actor Kris Lemche, He comes back now and then for dramatic effect. It's believed that this particular actor represents Joan's ideal of the perfect man, or 'cute boy,' but he could also just be a very available actor that the producers use whenever they can't hire anyone else. Also in the first season's finale, some of the more memorable God visitations returned as a group to visit a bedridden Joan in the hospital, again to great dramatic effect.

It's not made very clear whether Joan's imagining these people, or if other people around her can see the humanoid form to whom she's talking. Oftentimes, God just happens to appear to her when no one else is nearby. Sometimes God walks up to her and strikes a conversation in the middle of a hall in the high school; say for example while she's at her locker. Extras are shown walking by during their conversation, and no one reacts strangely to her behavior. However, she could either be talking to a humanoid that others can see, or she could be talking out loud to herself and no one happens to pay attention to her psychosis. As the first season drew to a close, it was indicated that Joan Girardi had been suffering from Lyme Disease which is known to, among other things, to cause hallucinations in its victims. However, as the second season began it was assumed she's been cured of Lyme disease but not her skewed perception of reality, and uncertain whether it means her God was purely a figment of her imagination. As of the first season's finale, that's what she seemed to believe, but with season two, the series eventually returned to its common state of abnormality. It was also explained that Girardi spent some time after the hospital stay, during the summer, in some sort of mental therapy institution for young people. There she met Judith Montgomery, who became a temporary regular of the cast in season two.

Joan: that is like mad anti-climatic.
God: anti-climaCtic. anti-climatic means you're against the weather.

The writers seem to purposefully toy with the audience. It's not a classic conservative Christian viewpoint of God that is being expressed here, but it's also not a form of the supreme being that offends moderate Judeo-Christian beliefs. What words the writers put into their manifestations of God tend to sound like randomness from fortune cookies or phrases lifted from pages in any self-help book off a library shelf. Sentiments like anticlimatic means you're against the weather, change comes from within or sometimes listening is better than doing are common. In today's politically correct, pensive and conservative western culture, revealing a fictional representation of God as anything more than a wishy washy politician, is asking people to change the channel, if not picket the tv stations and boycott advertisers. Whatever the writers and producers behind Joan of Arcadia are doing, they must be doing something right. Ratings-wise, the series was often in first or second place for its timeslot and in the mid thirties overall for each week.

Joan of Arcadia was renewed for a second season, and was one of the most successful freshman series that survived the turmultous american television schedule of the early 21st century. Unfortunately it was brought down before it really hit its stride. Some critics argue that the series wrote itself into a corner. By the end of season one it seemed Joan's visions may have been medically related, and the storyline expanded to involve Joan's mother and her re-exploration with her faith in a more conventional manner, while Joan's more aetheist father faced his own demons and scruples. As season two opened up, a new character was introduced who was then predictably killed off around sweeps. Joan's medical and psychological explanations for her godly visions were put on the backburner and not properly explored.

There was also a love interest going into the second season between Joan's parapeligic brother and the ex-nun who was coaching Joan's mother. The storyline began to swallow itself and get a bit redundant in areas. However, the end of season two introduced a new character who had Joan's similar experiences with God, but led him to be more competitive and seemed to provide potential antagonism going into season three. Since there never was a season three, we'll never know if that was going to go anywhere interesting.

Episode List


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