As someone who has frequently railed against concepts like “God” in this blog, my choice of Joan of Arcadia for admission to my Heroes hall of fame will probably come as a surprise to many. Well, it’s like this: you don’t get to choose the source from which beautiful inspiration comes.
Like a powerfully deep and frequently humorous admixture of the mythology’s of Joan of Arc and Job, the character Joan Girardi suffers through more than the usual teenage high school misadventures while attempting to accomplish the missions she is sent on by a God that simply refuses to be ignored – and who just happens to appear to her in the guise of whatever incidental person she can be seen talking to without drawing the attention to her plight that she so desperately craves. All of the characters are soul-deep and brilliantly played.
And best of all, the fabulous assortment of God characters are stunning for both their “un-Godly” appearance and for their wonderfully insightful dialog. I tried, but was unable, to get an actual count of the many incarnations of God that appeared in the show. Trust me, there were quite a few!
When, in perhaps the most series-explanatory episode, Secret Service, principal Price discovers Joan holding an empty egg carton near his freshly egged car, he wrongly assumes she’s the culprit and punishes her with a weekend of community service. She can’t, of course, tell him that it was God as Goth Kid that suggested that she should help clean up to prevent anyone from getting hurt. With no more direction from God than to “rise above the injustice,” Joan tries to figure out if she’s meant to help a former girlfriend of her brother Kevin, a bitter former nun named Lilly who is overseeing the service project, or one of the social outcasts who are there serving as a result of their own offenses.
er reluctance to have sex with her boyfriend, Adam, is driving a wedge between them. Adam is afraid that his sexual interest in Joan has driven a wedge between himself and his art teacher, Joan’s mother. Joan’s mother is questioning her value as an art teacher after having had her department’s budget cut by the evil principal Price. Kevin, Joan’s wheelchair-bound bother, has withdrawn from any hope of a meaningful love-life after his breakup with the aforementioned Lilly. And Luke, Joan’s ultra-nerd brother, is devastated at not having won a much-coveted science geek award.
After all is said and done… Luke learns that the true reward for his efforts comes from the work itself when he meets another great but unrecognized mental giant while filling in for Joan at the bookstore. His girlfriend even takes him to the restaurant that he would have been taken to had he won the award. When Adam visits Joan at the community service center in an attempt to apologize for having lied to her in order to give himself space to think, he meets Bonnie, a troubled but talented young artist that helps to restore some meaning to both his and Joan’s mother’s life after he introduces the two and the girl is invited into their art class. And Kevin is reunited with Lilly when she runs into Kevin’s car while driving Joan home. Kevin’s brakes had failed because their father insisted that he could “fix” them, and Lilly broke the ice by wise-cracking “Whatcha bitchin’ about? You’re already crippled!”
Having no awareness of all the good that has resulted from her “weekend in purgatory” – or of the impending trouble caused by Adam taking a bite from the “apple” named Bonnie – Joan confronts God:
In the final two episodes, Common Thread and Something Wicked This Way Comes, God tells Joan that her last two years were just a kind of “boot camp” to prepare her for her greatest challenge, which is to go toe-to-toe with a man who also talks to God – and has a sinister agenda…
Ryan Hunter is mysterious, charming, wealthy and influential. The guy even saved Adam when he was lost in the woods during a storm. And he too talks to God. But the guy definitely has a dark side, along with a clear distaste for the almighty. And what’s up with the wind blowing whenever he’s around? And despite Joan’s stated misgivings about him, he somehow has managed to endear himself to those that she cares about – and without whom she feels helpless to fight back.
Call it God’s plan, or fate, or whatever, the fact is that the breakup with Adam, and the seismic shift that has occurred within her little circle in the aftermath, all came about because of Joan’s willingness to carry out God’s little assignments while keeping them totally in the dark. No matter how you slice it, Joan has been set up for the battle of her life – perhaps for all our lives – at a time when her faith, in herself, in her companions, and in her God, is at an all time low.
But while Ryan Hunter apparently has the newspapers, the police, and even the school board, in his pocket – even as he acts to destroy everything Joan and her friends holds dear – Joan is not without her own inner arsenal which begins to reveal itself just when she needs it most. And she is most definitely not alone!
I know that I’m not alone in regretting CBS’s decision to cancel this series. Perhaps the producers couldn’t find a way to convince the network that there was an audience for an apocalyptic battle between the “Antichrist” and a teen aged girl. I don’t know. What I do know is that this series has provided me with more opportunities than I can count for deep reflection about the relationships between people and the powerful, if hard to see, impact that all our actions have.
I try very hard to remember these lessons whenever I see this blog’s sorry statistics.
I want ice water.