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Fall '03: "Joan of Arcadia"

Joan of Arcadia tries hard not to be easily labeled. It's a family show with just enough tang in its relationships to keep it from being overly sappy. One of the show's leads is the chief of police, but the show itself has very little to do with police work. And although the show's title character, Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), talks to God on the regular basis, Joan of Arcadia does not bear the obvious religious baggage of a Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven.

If there's any label we can give Joan, it's High Concept. Joan, the daughter of the police chief of Arcadia in the great state of Unknown, receives visitations from God. In this Joan of Arc.'s case, however, the visitations come in the form of garbage men and cute high-school boys who are actually God, or being possessed by God, or something like that. Feel the edges of the concept and most of us can fill in the blanks: her family thinks she's crazy, but she's got a friend who understands her, and the messages from God lead her into situations where she gets to do good and help an angel get his wings.

But that's not this show. Joan of Arcadia can't be divined from its high concept. Joan doesn't confide in anybody about her relationship with God. God's messages are rarely straightforward, and when they are, the results of following His orders are often subtle and sometimes impossible to understand. Joan's family is quite supportive of her, albeit somewhat perplexed by her sudden shift from a whatever teenager into one with an actual engagement in the world.

Joan's older brother, Kevin (played brilliantly by John Ritter's son Jason), is wheelchair bound after a recent car accident. Again, you see the shape of a movie-of-the-week plot line involving a traumatized family learning to love each other, and the inspirational tale of a handicapped kid who learns to appreciate life. But the details of how Joan handles Kevin's story again play against expectations. Joan doesn't extract a miracle from God that makes her brother walk again, and while the family is traumatized, it's not in an easy, melodramatic way.

In fact, Kevin's relationship with his mother Helen (Mary Steenburgen) is painfully real, the sweet and sour mixed-up ball of feelings that you'd expect from most young adults as they struggle to become individuals and change the way they relate to their parents. Helen struggles to motivate Kevin to move on with his life even as she herself continues to question why the accident happened and how her oldest son ended up a paraplegic.

Meanwhile, Joan's dad Will (Joe Mantegna, another excellent casting choice) is the chief of police -- but it's no simplified honey-I'm-home sort of cop job. Instead, he's the new chief of police in a small town rife with small town politics. In the show's first few episodes, you get the sense that it's going to be a rough ride for the new chief -- and that no amount of crime-solving prowess is going to save him from playing the political games he's going to need to play in order to keep his job.

Some critics are complaining about the lack of religion in a show whose main character talks to God -- one saying that the show's philosophy is "a clueless stumble toward self-actualization, a chaos-theory Samaritanism." But that's not quite right. Joan's mom repeatedly confronts a local priest (David Burke of The Tick in a really funny part) in a parking lot to ask him probing questions about the nature of faith. And, of course, there's God -- who knows everything but refuses to tell Joan anything other than what she needs to know.

In many ways, isn't that portrayal of God exactly right? Religion is about faith. God does not flit about the globe like Superman, righting wrongs and fighting crime. I haven't seen very much evidence of miracles on CNN lately. Hokey shows like Touched by an Angel are fantasies, portraying a level of religious intervention that's ridiculous, no matter how inspiring they might be to some.

In Joan's world, God is working all around us, but on His terms. We don't get to see any miracles. Human beings are the conduits for the causes that lead to effects. Bad things still happen to good people, and we don't understand why. Yes, there is a strain of Samaritanism in Joan, and a whole lot of self-actualization. But the end result is something that's also spiritual, serious, and searching. The characters of Joan of Arcadia are muddling through with their lives, trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong, trying to be good people. And in Joan's case, trying to literally do what God says she should do. She gets it from the horse's mouth, and it's still not as easy as it sounds.

I don't want to over-promise the philosophical element of Joan of Arcadia. It's got more of it than your average series, I'll grant you, but it's also a strong family drama with its share of humor and conflict. Its cast is first-rate.

And after seeing several episodes, I think I can finally stick a label on Joan of Arcadia. From Joan's mid-adolescent course correction to her brother's disability to her dad's tough new job, it's a show about people defying expectations. Quite fitting for a show that has defied all of ours, and turned into one of the real gems of the fall season.


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