‘Joan of Arcadia’: A Season One Retrospective

22Feb07

Joan of Arcadia began its short, two-season run to a good amount of critical acclaim. By the end of season two, both ratings and acclaim had waned, but despite the weak writing that caused its decline in both quality and appreciation Joan of Arcadia distinguished itself as a member of a very short list of television shows that actually inspire people. The show tackled the topic of spirituality in an inclusive, exploratory manner, intending not to tear down either the religious or unreligious rather to celebrate wonderful aspects of humanity, aspects in which one might find God.

Strong characters and strong actors carried the show even when the writing faltered. Many writers would be content with a central character who talks to God played by Amber Tamblyn, who brings compassion and complexity to a character who easily could have become a caricature at times. However, creator Barbara Hall did not stop with Joan, developing engaging and multidimensional characters who surround her: Helen, Kevin, Luke, Grace, Adam, and even the many avatars of God. While I could say great things about everyone’s performance, I think that Mary Steenbergen, Chris Marquette, and Becky Wahlstrom also deliver performances of particular note.

The only character that occurs as a misstep is Will. I do not fault Joe Mantegna’s portrayal, rather the concept of the character. Barbara Hall has stated that she intended Will as a complement to Joan: she is a spiritual warrior while Will is a physical warrior. Will also has a very clear sense of right and wrong, while Joan is developing her moral compass and recognizing ambiguity. Because of these qualities, Hall chose to make Will a cop, which created the inclusion of the ineffectual police/detective B-plots. The show’s greatest weakness lies in the police storylines, which are never very compelling. The rotating cast of secondary characters (Eric Palladino, April Grace, Mark Totty, Annie Potts) also fails to stimulate the viewers’ investment in the case of the week. Because of his involvement in these storylines, Joe Mantegna’s character often seems separate from the core of the show, i.e. Joan’s changing relationship with her friends and family as she accepts her role as an instrument of God. That choice of Will’s profession was, no pun intended, a cop-out and too obvious. Will as a character is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get – none of his opinions or reactions surprise me, which isn’t a good thing.

Joan. Joan, Joan, Joan. OK, back it up. Amber Tamblyn – I cannot say enough good things about this young actress. (Ha! “Young actress.” She is a couple of months older than I am. Anyway.) I first encountered her work through The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a surprisingly good movie that both my mother (pretty easy-to-please film-goer) and myself (slighty cyncial film critic) enjoyed. Even partnered with other strong, young actresses like Alexis Bledel and America Ferrera, Tamblyn distinguished herself as an actress to look out for — the scene in which Tibby’s cynical exterior dissolves is heartbreaking. Tamblyn plays Joan with just as much aplomb, but the writing does not always deserve her skill. Barbara Hall has said that she wishes Joan to be as normal as possible. But if Joan is Hall’s example of a normal teenager I really, really do not want the teenagers that Hall knows to become voting adults. In season one, Joan suffers from an excess of both self-absorption and stupidity. Yes, teenagers do tend to think that their world is the world, but not quite to the extent of Joan’s egotism. And next to characters like Adam, Luke, and Grace, Joan can look like a real jerk. Joan also falls victim to the writer’s penchant for the sitcom comedy, which prevailed during the middle of the season. I think that some of her erratic and, uh, dumb behavior was explained by her Lyme’s disease, but evidence of, er, un-common-sensical thinking appears in season two as well.

Highlights of Season One:

  • “Pilot”
  • “Bringeth On” – nice handling of a sensitive topic and Adam is, like, the cutest thing ever
  • “Death Be Not Whatever” – nice bonding scene between Adam and Joan, interesting client character in Rocky, and an excellent conversation about death between Joan and God
  • “The Devil Made Me Do It” – Joan smashing Adam’s art is probably one of the most powerful scenes of the series
  • “Jump” – Adam and Joan sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! Oh, and there’s some other good stuff involving a deepening of affection and emotion between the two of them, but did I mention the kissing?!?
  • “The Gift” – though I have misgivings about the somewhat strange, black-and-white vignette, I liked that God challenged Joan to address the topic of sex with Adam and make a choice
  • “Silence” – I thought it was really brave of the writers to allow the audience to question the entire premise of the show
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