It's tempting to imagine the first Joan of Arcadia story pitch to network executives: "Think Joan of Arc meets Rock & Roll High School! The Supreme Being—sometimes disguised as a slab of adolescent beefcake—drops in for heart-to-heart chats! Every TV-loving teenager will love it!"
It's a pity the show airs on Friday nights, when few self-respecting arbiters of teenage cool would be anywhere near home or the family television set. Nevertheless, Joan is garnering healthy enough ratings to attract some glowing coverage from entertainment magazines, and is likely to win renewal into a new season.
Don't be fooled by the lovely and befuddled Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn): Joan of Arcadia uses many teen-friendly elements in its recipe, but it's a show adults may watch without shame.
There are no gauzy images of angels on this show. Instead, God visits Joan directly, appearing as a stranger on a bus, a sassy server in the high school cafeteria, an overly frank guest speaker on teenage sexual hygiene. After the first such visitor convinces Joan he is the Almighty in a non-distressing disguise, she soon learns to recognize God in whatever form comes next.
The God we worship, the God Scripture describes at great length, sometimes does use extraordinary means to call people into his kingdom. In our own day, we see it in Muslims who inexplicably encounter Jesus in their dreams and set off in search of him, or in countercultural heroine Anne Lamott's saying that Jesus simply appeared in her bedroom one night, thus making her possibly the most reluctant convert in Western Civilization since C. S. Lewis.
Then again, Joan requires that Christians check their credulity at the door. God's instructions to Joan often are so mysterious—try out for the cheerleading squad, despite your pronounced lack of perkiness; destroy a meticulous sculpture by your best friend and would-be heartthrob, Adam (Christopher Marquette)—that Joan does not dare say to anyone, "God told me to do this."
God's seemingly nonstop continuing revelations to Joan are tailor-made for this adolescent girl in a city based on Arcadia, Maryland. These revelations are not specific enough to withstand a testing by Scripture, by any historic creed, or even by messages Joan might hear in church. Though Joan sometimes wanders into an empty church, her family has not yet worshiped together and doesn't seem to know any Christians to whom church means anything. Joan simply attracts God's guidance day after day—maybe because she listens and, even after resisting his most perplexing orders, like destroying Adam's sculpture, she eventually obeys.
Though Joan is the character receiving visits from God throughout each day, much of the show's most satisfying dramatic tension centers on her older brother, Kevin (Jason Ritter). Kevin was a star athlete until an auto accident left his legs paralyzed.
As Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, said in an interview with TV Guide, Kevin's condition sets Joan apart from other shows about God's involvement in our world.
"On Joan of Arcadia, there's a character in a wheelchair who doesn't get to walk again," Thompson said. "If that guy was on Highway to Heaven, by the end of the episode he'd be doing a jig."
Kevin began Joan's premiere season as an embittered, depressed victim, frequently bemoaning his life in a wheelchair and all the lost dreams his paralysis represented. God's earliest tasks for Joan, such as taking a job with a curmudgeonly bookshop owner or building a small boat in the family garage, helped Kevin break through the fog of his despair. In the episodes of early 2004, Kevin was playing basketball in a wheelchair league and rising from researcher to budding essayist at Arcadia's small daily newspaper.
These are the miracles on Joan—incremental, unspectacular. A determined skeptic would attribute these miracles to mundane sources like heeding reason rather than fear. But these also are the types of miracles that sustain many Christians on our demanding journeys through a fallen world. We would be foolish and greedy to insist on consistently more dramatic evidences of God's care for us.
Barbara Hall, executive producer of Joan, is a veteran TV writer for such highly praised programs as Chicago Hope, Moonlighting, and Northern Exposure. After being raped and left to die during a trip to New Orleans, Hall embarked on a spiritual quest that led her to become Catholic. She has brought a spiritual awareness to Judging Amy, another show on which she served as executive producer.
Joan of Arcadia is not a source of systematic theology, of course, even at a popular level. Its starting proposition of imagining God in various guises will be entirely too troubling to people who consider it an indulgence in graven images. But as an effort to move spiritual TV shows beyond tear-jerking resolutions and angels who deliver lengthy speeches, it works. May Barbara Hall live long and remain prolific.
Douglas LeBlanc is a founding editor of GetReligion.org.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Our television section has more Christianity Today articles about God on TV including:
Jesus and Paul: Looking at a Journalistic Approach to Christianity's Beginnings | A full review of ABC's Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness (April 06, 2004)
Peter Jennings Goes Back to the Bible | The ABC news anchor talks about Monday's three-hour special, Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness. (April 02, 2004)
Amish in the City: Reality TV Goes too Far? | The author of The Amish: Why They Enchant Us discusses why a television show about Amish teens is inherently flawed, and why we're drawn to their 18th-century ways. (Jan. 21, 2004)
Christian Survivors Playing a Non-Christian Game | A former winner of the CBS reality show talks about the faith that led her to the game and how Christian ethics intersects with outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying the competition. (May 14, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Would a Christian Bachelorette Be Different? | A panel of Christian singles discusses the proliferation of reality dating shows and the turn from seeking one-night stands to seeking spouses. (Feb. 19, 2003)
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