Reviews

Joan of Arcadia

Samantha Bornemann

Joan is more a young girl answering to an authority figure than a blind-faith disciple.


Joan of Arcadia

Airtime: Fridays, 8pm ET
Cast: Amber Tamblyn, Mary Steenburgen, Joe Mantegna, Jason Ritter, Michael Welch, Chris Marquette, Becky Wahlstrom
Network: CBS
Amazon
Here's what you need to remember: It's all true and you're not alone.
-- Judith (Sprague Grayden), "Something Wicked This Way Comes"

Have TV audiences sated their lust for chosen young girls on otherworldly quests? Buffy is gone, Tru Calling was dead on midseason arrival, and the high school girl with all the hype this spring is Veronica Mars, armed with decidedly real-world sleuthing tools. Just one young "spiritual warrior" is left standing -- Joan Girardi (gifted Amber Tamblyn), the teen who sees God in various human guises (Cute Boy God, Goth God, Little Girl God) -- but she's not as popular with audiences as she used to be.

Joan of Arcadia's amalgam of science and spirituality had no trouble smiting the fizzy charms of Alicia Silverstone's Miss Match in last year's ratings contest, but as a sophomore in the same time slot, its numbers are down. Flailing to rectify a largely go-nowhere second season, full of mind-numbing police storylines and marred by one outright character assassination (that of Adam [Chris Marquette], Joan's now ex-boyfriend), creator Barbara Hall introduced a devilish new character in the final two episodes. Twentysomething Ryan Hunter (Wentworth Miller) is another "connection" -- he's been talking to God since he was 14 or 15 -- but he's not as compelled to do God's bidding as Joan. As he puts it,

We don't have to be bossed around by some love-starved, egocentric deity. I didn't ask to be born, but now that I'm here it's all up to me. I like it that way. My life is a gift? Okay, thanks. You can't ask for it back.

According to Ryan, God's big mistake was giving humans free will. Joan is stunned by such blasphemy. "If you know that he's God, how can you just say no?" she asks. And with that one question, the series puts Joan's relationship to God in stark relief. Joan is more a young girl answering to an authority figure than a blind-faith disciple. After all, Joan didn't even really believe in God until she began seeing Him/Her. Rather, the true, tested believers are the characters who revolve around her.

Foremost among these is Joan's mother Helen (Mary Steenburgen), a lapsed Catholic trying to find her way back to the Church. Helen spent much of this season preparing for confirmation by talking with her priest (David Burke) and Lily, a tattooed former nun (Constance Zimmer). Her interest is complicated by husband Will (Joe Mantegna), a highly moral cop who does not put his stock in a higher power, particularly a God who allowed their eldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter) to be paralyzed in a car accident. Yet even for Will, old habits die hard. In the season finale, he's called to investigate an attack on Helen's church; standing in the midst of destroyed idols, he can't help making a surreptitious sign of the cross when no one is looking.

It's telling that just one other house of worship -- the synagogue where the father of Joan's best friend Grace (Becky Wahlstrom) is rabbi -- is vandalized: While Joan tries to be all-encompassing where religions are concerned, its focus remains largely Catholic. But its lessons feel as general and touchy-feely as my long-over CCD classes, from which I took little more than the lesson of the Good Samaritan. God tells Joan to do something without telling her exactly why, and the ripples of her actions have ostensibly good results on the people around her.

Still, she's uncomfortable telling friends and family precisely why she's suddenly joined one club or another or taken up knitting or decided to get a job, and as a result, they think her flighty and secretive. "Sometimes you're not the easiest person to connect with," Grace says. "It's like you always have something that you're keeping to yourself, something that you're hiding." The "lonely girl chosen for great things" -- it smacks of Buffy. But Joan is worse off in some ways: vampires and other monsters attacked so often in Sunnydale that sooner or later everyone had to believe in Buffy's slayer status, but would any of us believe someone who said she talks to God? He doesn't bite. But that's the good thing, too. Sure, Joan's misunderstood, but there's no evil lurking. At least, there didn't seem to be until Ryan Hunter appeared.

With Ryan in place, Hall wrote a mystifying, engrossing final episode. Like the first season finale, in which Joan suffered a crisis of faith, thinking her visions of God had been Lyme disease-caused hallucinations, this one both deepens the mystery of Joan's gift and alludes to a new direction for her. A conversation with her brother Kevin reveals that God has been with Joan longer than she realized. When she was young, she had an imaginary friend named Ya Ya: "You said he always was different and sometimes he was a girl," he says. As well, she sees dead folks, reappearing as spirits (matter is never destroyed, according to the series; it just can't always be seen). Her friend Judith, who died earlier this season, returns to find Joan perusing old photos of her parents. "Now you're getting warm, JoJo. A cop and an artist. An avenger and a visionary. What kind of kid did you think they'd have?"

Helen is the artist and visionary. To hammer the point home, she dreams the attacks on the church and synagogue as they happen. But it's not the first time mother and daughter have shared a connection to the Almighty. In the Season One conclusion, Helen spoke with Cute Guy God (Kris Lemche) in a dream; this season, it was Goth God (Jeffrey Licon). Each time her children have been in jeopardy -- Kevin's car accident, Joan's hospitalization with Lyme disease -- she has sensed it before anyone told her.

She and Joan diverge in their reactions to Ryan Hunter. Slick and independently wealthy, he won gratitude by saving Adam's life in the second-to-last episode and managed to infiltrate the police (where Will works), the school (where Helen works), and the newspaper (where Kevin works) in the course of the finale. Helen is charmed by him as she gives him a tour of the high school, but Joan is wary. Viewers know they should be, too, because the show cranks up the wind machine every time he walks outside.

A decidedly smarmy, nearly disarming villain, Ryan has quickly made connections with half the characters, indicating the show's narrowing focus: God has delivered a particular adversary. As He explains, sometimes there are those powerful enough to overbalance the scales of good and evil. "So is this fancy talk for you expect me to save the world?" Joan asks. "This is seriously gonna cut into my normal high school routine." Goth God is not swayed: "You never liked high school that much."

But the series did. Much of Season Two revolved around Joan's friendships and love life. Part of Joan's failure has been its inability to incorporate God and faith into its family show structure. Instead, the Almighty has been relegated to a nagging taskmaster and mysterious observer. The series appears to be going with a bait-and-switch, transforming the complicated Arcadia into just another comic book setting for good battling evil. As God once told Joan, the mysteries of the universe are beyond human comprehension.

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