Joan of Arcadia

When the adolescent Joan of Arc led the French army to victory, she didn’t have to deal with mass mediated youth culture. Sure, she was eventually burned at the stake for heresy, but at least she was spared having to react to the Madonna and Britney kiss.

In CBS’s new drama Joan of Arcadia, 16-year-old Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn) is selected as God’s messenger precisely because she’s “typical.” Like other teenage girls, she’s concerned with clothes, boys, and her annoying family. She is neither pious nor atheist, just average, which apparently makes her able to see God in various human forms (as she could not comprehend God’s “true” form). As in other shows where normal folk are visited by God (see: Touched By An Angel), Joan represents the possibility that anyone might be so visited and asked to “make a difference.”

As well, not knowing what form God will take suggests a kind of surveillance: you never know who you’re talking to, and you never know who’s watching, so you’d better be “nice” to everyone. I confess, I was hoping that Joan might pursue some sort of social criticism, along these or other lines. To my disappointment, the series doesn’t seem interested in such critique, choosing instead safe routes through its explorations of faith, family, and middle class expectations.

At the same time, Joan does raise relatively complicated questions concerning the natures of God and humans. The daughter of Police Chief Will Girardi (Joe Mantegna), Joan is frequently exposed to brutality through his work. Throw in the car accident that robbed Joan’s older brother Kevin (Jason Ritter) of his ability to walk, her science geek brother Luke’s (Michael Welch) withdrawal and isolation, and her mother Helen’s (Mary Steenburgen) emotional fetal position, and Joan’s home life seems anything but heavenly.

On top of all this, the early visits from God understandably trouble Joan, who begins to doubt her sanity. At one point, she seeks Luke’s “man of science” counsel. “Do you believe in God?” she asks. His answer is a mish-mash of relativity and quantum physics, including “Yes, because it’s logical.” Luke bases his reply in “empirical evidence” rather than faith, and while this might complicate religious notions of God, it doesn’t really challenge them. It feels like a pulled punch, gesturing toward a tough question, but not really asking or answering it.

Throughout the premiere episode, brushes with potential controversy abound. Captain Girardi’s job brings into view the worst humanity has to offer, which only cement Joan’s imperative to obey God, rather than engage difficult questions about a potentially absent, uncaring, or partisan deity. As he tracks a serial killer preying on teenage girls, the show repeatedly cuts between graphic shots of the young victims’ broken bodies and Joan, emphasizing the danger to young girls everywhere, if not our protagonist in particular. Her own miraculous experience stands in contrast to such brutality, prompting the question, how could a loving God permit such cruelty?

It’s an old quandary, and the series doesn’t provide any concrete answers beyond its implied moral center: “Everything works toward a greater purpose.” This is underscored by the way the plot lines are tied up tidily by show’s end: by following God’s orders and getting a job, Joan “shames” the reluctant and hopeless Kevin back into the world, and her near-abduction by the serial killer ends in his arrest for running a red light.

Despite all the recycled themes and retreats, the series still manages to be fairly charming, engaging, and hip. The smart writing, contemporary soundtrack, and quick pace keep it fresh, and Tamblyn’s impeccable timing helps maintain the flow. During her first encounter with the “in-the-form-of-a-hot-guy” God, an exasperated Joan says, “Are you being snippy? Huh. God is snippy.” Snippy, yes, but also cute and funky. Who knew? Or when Joan goes to a local bookstore to apply for a job, and the salesclerk asks, “Do you have any references on you?” Joan replies, “No, but I was sent by God.” Pause. “She said, demonstrating her acerbic wit.” Nice save.

Here and elsewhere, Joan narrowly escapes the exposure that might land her in the loony bin. To the writers’ credit, the show explores other dangers of Joan’s chats with God. After being spooked by a portrait of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake (one that bears more than a passing resemblance to herself), Joan decides to lock up and leave the bookstore. Sprinting into the rain, she is almost immediately joined by a man with an umbrella. “Wanna share this?” he asks. She looks into his face, trying to determine if this is another avatar of God. She asks, “Is that you?” The man just smiles and Joan takes this to be a yes. It is in fact not God, but the serial killer who has offered his umbrella. Joan escapes, but the message is clear. These visits from God may mark her as chosen, but they also put her in very real danger. The moment presents faith as a sketchy prospect that leads to vulnerability as well as strength.

This potential for edgier investigations and deeper questions is built into Joan‘s framework. The question is whether the show will engage them in future episodes or stick to safe formulas. Whether or not God will continue to be snippy remains to be seen.