….. by TeeJay
What if a cute teenage boy walked up to you and told you he was God? You’d laugh and tell him he’s delusional, right? Except he tells you things that no one else can know. And I mean no one. This is what happens to Joan Girardi, a 16-year-old girl, newly moved to the city of Arcadia with her family. And she’s just as stunned as the next girl.
Joan (Amber Tamblyn) is a normal teenager, living with her mother and father and two brothers in a house in suburban Arcadia, Maryland. Her father, Will (Joe Mantegna) works with the police department, and her mother, Helen (Mary Steenburgen) helps out as an office assistant at the high school, where she later becomes the art teacher. Joan’s younger brother, Luke (Michael Welch) is a math and science genius, who has skipped a grade so that he is in some of her classes at the high school. Feeling the need for a fresh start, the Girardis moved from Chicago to Arcadia after eldest son, Kevin (Jason Ritter) was paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash.
Not long after starting school, Joan’s life takes a wild left turn when said teenage boy approaches her and reveals to her that He is God. He has some pretty convincing arguments, so Joan has no choice but to believe Him. You may ask why God would show himself to a 16-year-old girl? Surely not to smite her. No, of course not, there is no smiting involved here. We learn that God seems to have something in mind that Joan can help with, because the next time Joan encounters God, it is in the form of an African-American lunch lady, who tells her, “I want you to get a job at the Skylight bookstore. […] It’s important that you do this pretty soon. Don’t ask why.” That’s Joan’s first assignment.
Of course she is puzzled, but how can she not obey? This is God, after all. So she blusters her way into the job. For a while she doesn’t realize why it’s so important, but it finally falls into place when Kevin–listless and bitter ever since his accident–decides it’s time for him to go back to work, too. He goes to Joan and thanks her for “shaming him back into the world”, saying that if his little sister can get a job, he can too. Thus we see the cloud of doubt and self-pity that hangs over him begin to lift a little. Thank God for that–literally.
In the next episode, we meet two very important people who will become Joan’s friends, the “subdefectives”. Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom) is a tomboyish rebel and a true believer in anarchy. Her best friend, Adam Rove (Chris Marquette) is a soft-spoken dreamer, who everyone in school, especially Vice Principal Price, takes for a stoner.
However, Joan soon learns otherwise when Adam leaves his ubiquitous messenger bag at her house after studying. Fearing that it might have weed in it, she quickly goes to return it to his house. When she walks into the yard, there are all sorts of weird sculptures that she finds rather beautiful. She is surprised to learn from his father that they’re Adam’s work. Carl Rove directs her to the shed in back of his house where she finds Adam welding something out of wire and what most people would consider junk. Contrary to popular opinion, Adam is not a stoner at all. His real secret, he tells her, is that he “talks to angels”. Still trying to get a handle on the God thing, Joan thinks for a second that she might’ve met someone else like her. She looks at him expectantly, but he tells her it’s just a metaphor for how he feels when he does his art. Ah, she realizes, not someone like her, but still a more intriguing and special person than she had first taken him for.
Luke’s best friends are Friedman (Aaron Himelstein) and Glynis (Margeina Tovah), both also science nerds. Luke is quite thrown when Joan joins his AP Chem class–an assignment from God that she does not understand, which puts her in a study group with Grace and Adam. Grace is smart enough for the class, but rebellious enough not to care very much about it. And Adam, with his eidetic memory, can recall any formula you ask him to; he just can’t put it all together into anything meaningful. As a team of subdefectives, these three are unbeatable.
Over two seasons, we follow the Girardis and their friends and loved ones through many ups and downs, successes and disappointments, both personally and professionally/academically. Joan learns that her assignments from God are meant to cause good ripples for people and she almost always strives to do the best she can with whatever God throws at her.
Show creator, Barbara Hall set up “ten commandments” for what God may or may not do. First and foremost–and this is stressed in just about every episode–it’s all about free will. God never forces or even commands Joan to do anything. He merely suggests the right course of action–and it is often very vague–trusting Joan to discover her “true nature” and act accordingly. Joan is often very flaky about it all, but lovingly so. More than once, she makes a public ass of herself, trying to do what’s right.
Some of Joan’s assignments are pretty big on the grand scale of things, like when she prevents a fellow student from going Columbine and shooting up the school. Sometimes they’re very personal, such as God asking Joan to prevent Adam from entering an art show at the school. She doesn’t get it at first. But when Adam sells a sculpture and decides to quit school, she knows she has to do something to prevent this, and fast. At times Joan masters her assignments bravely and gallantly, but in this case, what she decides to do causes chaos. Failing to see any other solution, she smashes Adam’s sculpture to bits. While this forces him to stay in school, she loses his friendship. At least for the foreseeable future.
Even though Joan Of Arcadia is considered a family show, it is also about romance and love and the complications therein. Grace and Luke slowly discover a mutual interest in each other. And Joan and Adam’s attraction blossoms into a heartbreakingly real romantic relationship peppered with affection, drama, bumps in the road and the familiar confusion of young love.
All of that is not to give the impression that this is just another teen soap. This show has something for everyone. Beyond the teen drama, we also get to watch Kevin come to grips with his disability and his place in the real world. And Helen and Will Girardi are one of the most realistic, down-to-earth married couples ever on television.
So, you may ask yourself, if this is a show about God, does that mean I have to believe in God to like it or get it? The simple answer is no. But it’s something you have to discover for yourself. All over the Internet, you will find all sorts of people–Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics alike–saying they loved this show. It never preached, never passed judgment, never adhered to any one religious persuasion. That was what made it so refreshing.
The sad thing is CBS refused to acknowledge that. The show did surprisingly well in the ratings during the first season. But the numbers dipped in season two and CBS began to waffle. It was touch and go there for a while. The ratings were borderline, and many shows with lower numbers were renewed that year, so we had hope. Most of us felt that another season would’ve turned things around. But now we’ll never know, as CBS decided that they could do better with a show about a woman talking to ghosts. The axe fell in May 2005, much to the outrage of fans worldwide. Save Our Show campaigns sprang to life all over the place, but to no avail. Joan went off the air with a puzzling cliffhanger that will never be resolved. A true shame. But the spirit of the show is alive and well on the ‘net where fans still gather to discuss and imbibe and even write volumes of fan fiction.
All we have left now is the long-delayed Season Two DVD box set, coming on November 28, 2006. Ultimately, Joan of Arcadia–like every other cancelled TV show–will fade in our hearts and minds like that beloved childhood book that we still keep on the shelf for eventual re-reading. We might take it out and look at it, and we will never completely forget it, but other things will take its place as we move on. What stays with us is the fact that this show was a sparkling gem in the wasteland of mediocre television, and the bitter aftertaste of one network’s failure to acknowledge that.
To finish off with some Chris-related trivia for you, this is from a Michael Welch interview for girliething.com:
gt.com: …you seem really proud of the cast. How do the actors in the fictional stories relate as real people when the scene is finished?
MICHAEL: We all get along very well — it’s basically become like a second family. It was like that from the start. We see each other so much on the set — sometimes more than we see our own families, because we work so much! But, we do get along really well, and thank God, because if we didn’t, that would be really difficult spending fourteen hours a day with someone you don’t like. I feel like if every single one of us, especially in the family, were not on board for the ride, it wouldn’t be as interesting. I’ve made some long-term friends from the show. I’ve actually known some people from the set for a long time. Chris Marquette, who plays Adam, I’ve known for about six years. Aaron Himelstein, who plays Friedman, I’ve known him for quite a while, too. But, we were just acquaintances until I started on the show. Then, I started working with them, and now we hang out together after work, too.
gt.com: It’s almost like real high school.
MICHAEL: Exactly! Actually, Chris made a joke once that he thinks that the high school scenes in the show are going to replace his actual high school memories. He won’t think back to high school, he’ll think back to Joan of Arcadia!