It’s pretty hard not to scoff at the premise of this show: teenage girl gets guidance from God, played by various actors. I approached the first episode with an open mind, but also with the question of whether this show would quickly lean on a formula. Not knowing what to expect, the first episode proved to be enjoyable and thoughtful, and I looked forward to the next episode, if only to see if it would follow the formula set-up in the first episode.
Teenager Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn) sees a man watching her as she gets ready for school in the morning. On her way to school, she meets God – in the form of a teenage boy she finds attractive. When he reveals who he really is, she naturally reacts with disbelief and a little bit of fear – he also informs her he was the one watching her that morning, and she quickly reminds him that her father, Will (Joe Mantegna,) is the new Arcadia Chief of Police and he’s already aware of the man she saw that morning. God lists off a few facts about her only He could know. Realizing He is the real thing, and fearing that she looks like she is talking to herself, God assures her that he is no vision and only takes the form of other people – he could be anyone, anytime, anywhere – and they will meet again. He has plans for her. Meanwhile, Will finds himself attempting to solve the murders of two teenage girls with little evidence. At home, Joan’s mom, Helen (Mary Steenbergen,) has tasked herself with reinvigorating the life of her sullen, wheelchair-bound 19 year old son, Kevin (Jason Ritter,) paralyzed in a car accident a year before.
Later in this first episode, Joan winds up seeking a job from a bookstore at God’s bidding. The owner leaves her with the store for a few minutes while he runs home. When he doesn’t return on time, she begins to feel conspicuous and decides to close up the shop and go home. She steps out of the store to find a heavy downpour, and a stranger offers her a ride home. Sure this is no coincidence, Joan begins talking to the stranger as if she knows him – certain that this is God, again, coming to help her out in a pinch. She quickly realizes when the man doesn’t respond to her jokes about “God’s car” that something is wrong, and when the man insists she get in his car, she runs off. Her father, well aware of the possiblity of a serial killer in the area, takes a description of the man, which leads to his arrest – and it turns out he is indeed the murderer.
I know what you’re thinking, and it’s what I thought too – God shows up in Joan’s life to help her provide clues to her father so he can bring criminals to justice. Along the way he’ll cure Kevin of his condition and all will be well. Luckily, that’s not the case.
With 5 episodes now under the show’s belt, it has proven that the God-aspect is less of a gimmick and certainly no crutch. What slowly becomes obvious with each episode is that God has simply chosen to help guide Joan through the difficult teenage years and shows her little by little that her actions can effect others in ways she couldn’t imagine. He never performs miracles – her brother cannot suddenly walk because she pleads to Him to help him – and often the point of his teachings do not benefit her directly. What I feared would become a sort of supernatural police drama has turned out to simply be a family show with a bit of a twist.
The cast is very strong – Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenbergen are two surprising names to see associated with a network series. Both provide solid performances, as one might expect. Jason Ritter, who bears an unmistakeable resemblence to his father, the late John Ritter, is a convincingly anguished teenager dealing with the loss of his legs and his outlet of highschool sports. I can’t fault him for the over-dependence on his despondence – each episode features Kevin snapping smart-ass comments about his inabilities. It may be unrealistic in real life to expect someone so recently crippled to simply move on with his life, but the scripts are relying far too heavily on his depression for his character. Ritter is far too good to see wasted on a character whose main method of expression is limited to self-destructive sarcasm. Amber Tamblyn, as Joan, gives a strong, believable performance as an oblivious teenage girl who simply wants to fit in and be popular. Her balking at God’s odd requests are genuine – asking any teenager to join the AP Chemistry class or the chess club might result in an actor resorting to whining, but Tamblyn offers a charmingly confused and begrudging alternative. Mixed in here is a younger brother, Luke (Michael Welch,) as a 15 year old over-achiever, who doesn’t really seem to have a motivation in the series – he’s just there, possibly for comic relief. Perhaps he will take on a greater role later in the season. At the moment, it’s hard to remember what he does on any given episode.
Once the audience’s disbelief has been suspended, God’s many appearances are believable and intriguing – how will Joan explain having to talk to the garbage man, or the old woman hanging up yard-sale signs? I imagine that, come sweeps time, God’s role will be filled by big-name actors (too bad George Burns isn’t around for this perfect opportunity to reprise his famous role.) The show has, however, stumbled a couple of times when God has taken the form of a voice over the radio or a TV announcer. These two instances break the continuity and precedence set by God himself when he explained that he would appear as a person to Joan that everyone else could see. The question arose both times this rule was broken – can everyone else hear and see God holding a one-sided conversation – and is never addressed. I really wish they’d stick with God appearing as a real person – not only does it keep with the original idea of the show, it also provides a bit of a challenge. How does Joan talk to God when she’s home, at night, when no one else should be there? To simply have a radio talk-show host speak to her over the air is taking the easy way out. Having proven that the writers can coax clever stories from what could be a mundane series, I’d like to see them prove they aren’t going to rely on this weak crutch often – or provide a solid explanation why it’s possible.
Joan Of Arcadia isn’t a surprising show for CBS, whose lineup in previous years offered Touched By An Angel, but the surprise lies in the fact that Joan isn’t as reverent by presenting God as a more modern, understanding character. God is presented with a sense of humor – occasionally sarcastic – and often puts Joan in situations that might have some parents worried about their child’s sanity. The show is thankfully low-key, as is usually the case with CBS, a fact which makes me recall Everybody Loves Raymond creater Philip Rosenthal’s Emmy award acceptance speech in which he mentioned complaints from the network during the show’s first season that it wasn’t “hip and edgy.” I worry that CBS will get greedy with the show’s success and push it to be “hip and edgy” by sacrificing the integrity of the show’s premise and characters. It is clearly youth-oriented, featuring an interesting soundtrack of up-and-coming artists (as well as Joan Osborne’s only big hit, “One of Us,” as the theme,) but the storylines are undoubtedly family-fare. Hopefully the writers will resist any urges to artificially sex-up the show. There are some lessons Joan doesn’t need to learn just yet, and hopefully CBS will pay attention to the success of WB’s Gilmore Girls for clues as to how to keep the show moving forward without resorting to cheap tactics.
Maybe Joan Of Arcadia isn’t for everyone – there aren’t any action sequences or high comedy moments, and the story relies on realistic interactions between people and a lot of talking. “Hip and edgy” it isn’t – and if that’s what you like, I advise you to steer well clear of the show. If, however, you want to get involved in a show you can grow into, Joan Of Arcadia may just be for you.