Joan of Arcadia: The First Season Review
The Girardis are a pretty average family. Will Girardi (Joe Mantegna) is a cop, Chief of Police in Arcadia – his wife, Helen (Mary Steenburgen) works in Admin at the local school where two of their children are still in attendance. These two are Joan (Amber Tamblyn) - the middle child and fairly unremarkable in many ways - and Luke (Michael Welch), their youngest and also most brilliant (to the stage of genius) offspring. Their eldest child Kevin (Jason Ritter) was a promising basketball player about to head off to college when a car accident disabled him and left him in a wheelchair... a life-changing experience for the entire family, as it happens, and one they are still recovering from as Joan of Arcadia begins. During Kevin’s time in hospital, Joan made that plea to God so many do: "I'll do anything if you just let him live." Little did she believe that the Almighty might take her up on her promise.
And that's the premise of the show, obviously taking inspiration from Joan of Arc and the fact that there are a number of small towns by the name of Arcadia scattered about the US (although, for the curious, the fictional city depicted in the show is apparently modeled directly on Wilmington, Delaware). I remember when I first heard about the show, another in a fairly long line of US teen dramas with a schtick that touched on mythology/legend, the supernatural, or history for their inspiration. Something about mixing the tale of a French martyr with modern-day high school, God and teenagers didn't exactly lead me to jump at the chance to watch it. There was also danger of a cheesy Touched by an Angel feel. I guess I always feared that it would be a more literal approach, with those around Joan telling her she was hearing voices, persecuting her, etc. etc. The actual show is not really anything like that, thankfully. In fact, I admit to really enjoying it once it got started, and now it's got me watching the second series, currently showing on Living TV every day.
So yes, it's a teen drama and one of the characters is God. However, unlike, say, Brimstone (where the Devil was always the same person), God in Joan of Arcadia manifests in various guises so he can reach Joan more fluidly and in any situation. When he first approaches her, it's as a cute guy her own age in a brown corduroy jacket, but the shapes he takes vary quite widely, which lead to some interesting conversations for Joan. The God of Joan of Arcadia definitely works in mysterious ways, and is also in turns humourous and stern... but his lines are written well enough that there is always a sense of authority about what he’s saying. The instructions he gives Joan are fairly opaque to her and the engaging aspect of the show is working out (or seeing directly) how these little 'requests' (free will, you know?) resonate not only with Joan and how she interprets them, but how they play out and have a ripple-effect in the greater scheme of things (the whole point of God asking for only little things). The show steers away from any one religion or preaching and sticks to the concept of faith - a God who cares but who works through people, or in this case, Joan.
It's a fairly simple concept but it works well, mainly because the things that Joan is asked to do not only tweak at little things in her life but also help her (and the viewer) get the point God is trying to make: that the smallest ripples can have a big effect. It's Joan's realisations of how her actions are affecting others that add that other element of interest to the series. I found episodes to be uniformly entertaining once the pilot episode got out of the way. Moreover, I found I genuinely liked all the characters, and despite the odd twinge of 'obviousness' at the genius youngest son, the sarcastic best friend (Grace), and the on-off love interest (Adam), the characters grow on you almost from the get-go, so I, at least, abandoned all my cynicism fairly early on and just settled down to enjoy the ride.
Joan of Arcadia was devised and created by Barbara Hall (Chicago Hope, Judging Amy, Northern Exposure), who has brought together a group of talented actors and writers to create an enjoyable and thoughtful show. The show's script is really very good; the Girardis have many problems to work through as a family and a lot of action takes place in Arcadia High, but the language of both adults and children seems quite realistic and not over-blown; situations aren't too fantastical. Of course the plotting is actually assisted quite nicely by the roles of the family. Kevin must learn to deal with moving from star athlete to wheelchair-bound invalid, not to mention go out and find a job where he can regain some self-esteem and learn to move away from self-pity or even guilt. Luke has to handle being a geek and also his growing emotions and feelings towards the girls of his age. Joan clearly has the most to handle in terms of getting instructions from God that rarely make sense and which seem to inconvenience her in every way possible. And Helen struggles with a crisis of faith over her son's accident, her failure as an artist and dealing with running the family whilst being a career woman. Will is the Chief of Police, so there are also many episodes where we get to see him at work, a sort of mini police saga in the midst of a teen drama. The portrayal of family life is pretty realistic with only a hint of TV-rose-tintedness.
And the cast is genuinely great too. Amber Tamblyn is a real talent, without whom it's hard to contemplate the series doing nearly so well, but equally well-selected are the entire core team. Mantegna and Steenburgen are sympathetic from the start in their roles and really grow in them throughout the series. And as the two sons, Michael Welch and Jason Ritter also play a large and welcome role in the success of the series. Finally, Joan's two friends Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom) and Adam Rove (Chris Marquette) add exactly the right tone and play their respective parts admirably. It’s hard to knock the cast at all really and that's a precious addition to any ensemble piece.
It was a pleasant surprise to me that although Joan of Arcadia is in many ways a typical US teen drama, I never found this series to be average. The cast, writing team and directors have produced entertaining and thoughtful TV with a decent over-riding story across the series that pulls all the episodic tales together and provides an extra dimension. I enjoyed it a lot.
When Joan Girardi is approached at school by someone claiming to be God, she's naturally skeptical, but there are too many unsolved comments to completely discount things. Joan receives her first 'mission' as her father, the new chief of police for Arcadia, is on the case of a serial killer. Many of the regular characters are introduced in this plot episode.
2: 'The Fire and the Wood'
Instructed to stop under-achieving, Joan signs up for an advanced chemistry class, where she's seated with stoner Adam, her brother Luke, and gruff Grace. Her father Will starts to show that he's not going to buckle under to politics in his job in the police force. Helen Girardi, Joan's mum, tries to encourage her son Kevin to look for work.
3: 'Touch Move'
For her next assignment Joan has to learn to play chess and shocks the teacher by completely beating their best player in only a few moves. Helen looks for a miracle to help Kevin walk again.
4: 'The Boat'
Joan starts to make a boat, requested by you-know-who. Although this kind of erratic behaviour definitely receives attention, it also has a good side-effect that gets Kevin to think about his future after walking out on a wheelchair basketball trial his father’s set up for him.
5: 'Just Say No'
Will handles a tough rape case, while Helen's past is dug up when Joan has to arrange a garage sale and uncovers some dark painting done by her mother. Kevin finds a job quite flukily.
6: 'Bringeth It On'
Amusingly titled, this episode deals with God telling Joan to try out for the cheerleading squad at the same time as a newborn baby is abandoned in a bin, presumably by a school student. Luke gets jibed for perhaps being gay, and questions it himself.
7: 'Death Be Not Whatever'
Will has to deal with a case of police brutality and racism while Joan gets a job babysitting a 6-year-old obsessed with death which touches her to the core.
8: 'The Devil Made Me Do It'
In a very traumatic episode for Joan and one that affects relationships she's only just discovering, God gives Joan the first request she's really not wanted to carry out quite strongly, not understanding how it could possibly do any good.
9: 'St. Joan'
In history, the lessons turn to Joan of Arc, and God wants his modern-day Joan to ace the test – not something she's used to doing. Although she buckles down and does the research, her arrogance and stroppiness have undesired effects and bring the school to a standstill. Helen uses this as a catalyst to urge her husband and family to visit a therapist.
10: 'Drive, He Said'
Another important episode, which has each of the Girardis faced with a crisis. Joan takes her driving test, Will gets kidnapped, Helen thinks she might be pregnant and Luke has a geeky competition to compete in, and also learns some more life lessons on the way…
11: 'The Uncertainty Principle'
Joan is told to ask a school bad boy to the winter dance, reluctantly she does so and ends up learning more about him and his background – and also in some danger. In the meantime, Will uncovers some unpleasant secrets about the city government of Arcadia.
Joan questions God about life and death after faced with the death of someone she felt a connection to. Will loses his job because of his discoveries, and Luke gets to work on his science project, trying not to be distracted too much by Grace.
Helen and Will take a break to a spa, but Will finds it hard to relax. God tells Joan to throw a party, and she enlists Luke's help – though alienates Adam a little during the ensuing chaos. Kevin starts to feel the spark of romance in his life.
14: 'State of Grace'
Joan joins the debate team, again as a 'commandment' where she learns her assigned partner has a stutter. The debate is about a new security system at the school and Grace gets quite angry at Joan’s participation. The art teacher quits and leads Helen to consider applying for the post.
15: 'Night Without Stars'
Being told to work with kids, Joan volunteers at a centre where Adam falls for one of the other volunteers. Kevin furthers his romance and though things go well for him in that department he has to also deal with a bit of a shock from Luke.
16: 'Double Dutch'
God instructs Joan to learn to jump rope where Joan befriends a homeless girl. Kevin heads out on another date.
17: 'No Bad Guy'
A picture of Joan in her underwear is spread around after she makes a stand against bullies. To make things worse she's told to join the seriously un-cool band. Will’s work brings him to deal with an elderly driver who's killed a number of people accidentally. It brings about, for all, memories of Kevin’s road accident.
18: 'Requiem for a Third Grade Ashtray'
About time too – God tells Joan she should help out more at home. Adam shows at his first art show, Will gets stuck in a lift with a pregnant woman and their handcuffed criminal, Kevin hopes he's recovering a bit – Luke is really sick and Helen is very very busy.
19: 'Do the Math'
After being forced to go take piano lessons by her Divine instructor, Joan has to help her music teacher deal with the past – she also in return gets to learn her mother's big secret. Adam's girlfriend begins to worry about the closeness between Adam and Joan.
Joan is told to work on the yearbook and tries to turn herself into a successful photographer to impress the artistic Adam. She's pretty useless though and ends up sorting through rubbish to find a poetry contribution.
21: 'Vanity, Thy Name Is Human'
Kevin bumps into the girlfriend he dated before his accident and reacts really badly to it. Joan enrolls in a cosmetics class (after some nudging) and Luke distances himself from his girlfriend, painfully aware that he prefers Grace.
22: 'The Gift'
Joan gets it seriously wrong after God tells her to give Adam a gift and she things it means sex... Things are resolved and the relationship does strengthen though it leads to a bit of a sex talk from the parents. Kevin takes his journalism a stage further and pisses off his father in the process.
Joan is diagnosed with Lyme disease and hospitalized, one of the symptoms being hallucinations. She tries to tell Adam the truth and he blames the sickness – which leads to a serious crisis of faith from Joan. Helen and Will also experience a spiritual side to life, either as dreams or seeming miracles.
The picture has been upgraded from the 4:3 of standard TV fare and is given a widescreen anamorphic transfer here. Colours are strong and vibrant and blacks are deep and true as are skin tones. There’s a little softness to the print, but the background grain is the most apparent failing to a casual viewer – obviously this is the first season, before any foreknowledge that the show would continue, and in terms of picture quality all the stops were definitely not pulled out. That being said the DVD maintains the quality of the original, and is perfectly adequate for watching and enjoying the show.
OK, there are some changes to the original music, declared strongly on the DVD case where it says 'music has been changed for this home entertainment version'. Unfortunately, I didn't catch this in its original TV broadcast so I can't tell what kind of impact the change has made, except to say that the songs seemed universally suited to the show and format, so they did a good job with replacements. The theme music only plays once on each disc and apparently this was directly done to free up licensing money to preserve some of the other music. Aside from this music issue, the sound quality is good, a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo transfer does the series justice with not too much directionality but good enough to carry the show. There are no subtitles which is a huge oversight.
Spread across the discs there are five commentaries by cast and crew. Creator Barbara Hall and producer Jim Hayman comment on the pilot and season finale, and are joined by Hart Hanson (writer) for a commentary on 'Jump'. Cast members comment on 'Recreation' and four writers talk about 'The Gift'. The commentaries veer between the antics of the cast joking around to the more serious behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the crew, as well as the normal back-patting and very serious discussions of the message of the show. They’re not a bad selection though and it's good to have a cross-section of cast and crew commentating to stop the viewer getting bored of the same voices. Another nice features associated is that on the back of the DVD cases with the plot summaries, it tells you what special features are attached to which episode, mostly either commentaries or deleted scenes.
Deleted scenes are spread across 12 episodes and incorporate almost 20 scenes of varying interest. Shame there's no blooper reel, but it's always interesting to have a peek at scenes that didn't quite make the cut. There’s a God Gallery which is basically a look at six clips of various God guises from the series with comments from Barbara Hall and Jim Hayman. At first it seems a bit of fluff, but as they expand on how the idea for each guise came about it actually becomes more interesting than might first be suggested.
Finally, there’s the standard making-of featurette, this time entitled A Look at Season One. Cast and crew participate, talking about their experiences during the first year but not really touching on anything new or particularly insightful.
This DVD offering of the first season of Joan of Arcadia allows unrestricted access to an enjoyable, entertaining and sometimes thoughtful television show. The concept may initially sound a little crass, but somehow they've managed to get it to work, through good ideas, strong writing and a pleasant, talented cast. The extras fit nicely with the show and add an extra dimension – and just being able to watch the show with no advert breaks and no week-long breaks between episodes is one of those reasons that TV shows on DVD are always such a joy compared to catching them on TV. I'd definitely recommend the show; I'd only caught an episode or two before watching the DVD and found myself surprisingly entertained and gripped by it.