Monday, December 29, 2008

Joan of Arcadia

We've been enjoying a new TV indulgence at our house, Joan of Arcadia.

This was a TV series that aired on CBS from 2003-2005. It was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series and won the Humanitas Prize.

I didn't watch it when it was on originally; I only found it recently, on the SciFi channel. Alas, I find a lot of great series after they are canceled. Joan of Arcadia is one of them. But even though it was canceled after only 2 seasons, it's still worth watching.

It's about a teen-aged girl who suddenly starts getting visited by God. God appears to Joan in various ordinary-people guises and gives her various "homework" assignments, usually something that seems ridiculous or trivial at first, but which often turns out to have major effects on those around her. The storyline follows Joan as she fulfills (or doesn't fulfill) the assignment, and all the "ripples" that come from those assignments. It also follows the various members of her family as they face their own challenges and concerns too.

That 'visited-by-God' premise might be off-putting to some people, but it's really quite a good series. Sassy, moving, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny---it really covers many bases all at once. And it's not saccharin-sweet like so many "religious" shows---it has an edge to it, and it's not afraid to ask hard questions or pose difficult dilemmas.

Now, you don't have to be religious to watch it. Even people who are not religious at all have found it thought-provoking and compelling at times. The writers made a point not to represent any religion specifically, but to explore spirituality in general. They avoided sanctimonious characters and simplistic solutions, and they included characters who struggle with spiritual questions without necessarily finding the answers.

I particularly liked that they included a character who doesn't believe in God/religion but who was portrayed intelligently and with respect for his views, too. He doesn't get converted or "fixed" either; he remains a skeptic, while also trying to respect his wife's changing spiritual beliefs.

I also love how Joan---being a sassy, smart-alecky teenager---gets to say a lot of the things people think about God and faith but don't actually dare to say out loud often. She pulls no punches in criticizing God, complaining and whining and accusing with gusto. She is so bitchy to God, it's really funny...and it's good to hear someone verbalize all the negatives people often think but feel guilty over even thinking. Person of faith or not, if you've ever had doubts about God, you'll probably hear them verbalized here, yet treated with respect. How refreshing.

A Few of My Favorite Things

There are so many other great things about this show, it's hard to know where to start in listing them all. I guess first, you'd have to acknowledge the really talented acting on the show. Amber Tamblyn is so amazing as Joan. She can turn from humor to pathos, insecurity to bitchiness on a dime, and she really carries the show. She is so genuine in the part. You really root for this character, even as she makes mistakes and gets off-track. She may be young, but this girl is a major talent.

Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen are very believable as the parents. They ground the show, acting as sounding boards for the younger characters, yet also portraying depth and realistic complexity as a married couple struggling with their own dilemmas too. So often middle-aged parents are portrayed only minimally on TV; not so here. It's so refreshing to see the storyline focus on all the family, not just the younger segment of it.

Joan's friends are portrayed by some pretty amazing actors too, like Chris Marquette as "Adam" and Becky Wahlstrom as "Grace." Both brought me to tears several times with their performances, yet they both do comedy well too. Even many small recurring roles (like the science teacher, the gym teacher, and Joan's nerdy friends "Friedman" and "Glynis") have memorable acting in them. The talent pool on this show is deep.

I also love the gimmick of God appearing in different guises each time. There's Little Girl God, TV Anchor God, Cute Guy God, Lunch Lady God, Custodian God, Dog Walker God, School Mascot God, Mrs. Landingham God, Goth Kid God, etc. I love that. God even calls Joan on her cell phone at one point, showing up as---who else?---"God" on caller ID.

Another good point is the realistic character development on the show. Joan's family acts like a real family. They argue and complain about each other constantly, yet you also feel like they love each other deeply. They go through some very hard times, but they find a way to keep it together. This is one of the more realistic family relationships I've ever seen portrayed on a traditional TV series. Bravo.

Joan's teenage friends are fun too. The writers overdo the school cliques thing a bit, but it does make for good comedy at times, and it does serve to remind us of our own adolescent "outsider" moments. Joan's "geek" friends are very funny, definitely played for "geek factor" laughs, yet they are also real people. They are in turn awkward, smart, funny, vulnerable, obnoxious, insecure, egotistical, and nerdy....basically just like regular teenagers, but exaggerated a bit for TV purposes.

A Few Nit-Picks

Of course, the series isn't perfect. Despite loving it, even on first viewing I recognized a few clunkers here and there. There are things that are culturally insensitive, awkwardly written, or which seemed out of character.

And the second season, while it had some terrific moments, also had a couple of character missteps that really brought down the believability factor. There was definitely a bit of a second-season slump at points, yet I could see how some of it was because they were setting up conflict and story for the third season. Alas, they never got to do a third season, so we don't know if it would have paid off later on or not. But the second season was certainly a bit uneven in quality.

[I should also add a caution that sometimes the series deals with mature subject matter. At times there is frank talk about drugs, sex, homosexuality, death, and suicide, and there are a few tense scenes with guns and violence. These things may or may not bother you, but I think it's worth mentioning them so you can preview the series first, then decide whether it's appropriate for your particular child or not.]

So I don't want to over-inflate anyone's expectations.....the series had bumps along the way, and a couple of major missteps here and there. It's not perfect. And there may be some parents who feel that some of the subject matter is too mature even for teens.

But on the whole, it is SO head and shoulders above the usual stuff on network TV, it's not even in the same ballpark. At times, it is that good. Really.

Fat-Friendly Too!

One of the things that made points with me early on about Joan of Arcadia is that it was relatively fat-friendly, at least by Hollywood standards. Not every minute of every episode---there were a couple of fat jabs here and there, which were made all the more wince-worthy by the intelligent writing elsewhere---but for the most part, it was much more fat-friendly than most TV shows.

For example, the main characters actually eat on the show, even comfort food for emotional reasons, without it being made into a big neurotic crisis. It's wonderful to see a family actually eat normally on TV without it being a big deal.

Also, the main character, Joan, looks like a normal teen-aged girl. She's not fat by any means, but she's a bit pear-shaped, unlike most TV actresses today. Yet they don't try to hide her shape or tart her up for the sake of ratings, nor do they have her fixate on her body as a focus of her insecurity. They just let her be simple and cute and ordinary, like the girl next door. Refreshing.

One of the best and most noticeable ways in which this series is fat-friendly is the fact that you actually see fat people on the show. Not just as an occasional guest star, but fairly often, especially as the series goes on. Fat actors are seen all the background, as extras with a couple of lines, in small roles, and sometimes even with major lines as God.

It's always been one of my pet peeves that in a country in which so many people are supposedly "overweight" or "obese," you'd never know it by watching television. Fat people are mostly invisible on TV and in the movies, except for an occasional scapegoat for mockery by others or as literary shorthand for "evil" or "stupid/foolish" or "low self-esteem."

But not on Joan of Arcadia. Quite a few times, they had fat actors playing different versions of God (including Lindsay Hollister, the dancing fat lady in Get Smart). Some of the fat God actors were even recurring. And not just fat men, either, who tend to get far more work on TV than fat women.....they actually hired both fat women and fat men multiple times over the course of two seasons.

And the size of these actors usually had nothing to do with the plot line, nor did it get commented on. They were just fat. It was all just a part of achieving a wide variety of ordinary looks for God, from the typical good-looking Hollywood star to folks who looked like your very average-looking neighbor.....and everything in between.

Joan used a wider variety of ages, sizes, ethnicities, and "looks" than just about any show I've seen recently. It was one of my favorite things about the show. The people on it just looked so.....ordinary, so slice-of-life, so like the variety of people you see on the street every day. Sure, I could nit-pick and ask for even more diversity (which would have been even better), but really, it was far ahead of the usual Hollywood game. And I thought it really added to the look and feel of the show.

Truly, Joan of Arcadia is an exceptional show. I could just kill CBS for putting it on Friday nights (which guaranteed low ratings from its targeted audience, young people), and for canceling it after only 2 seasons. What a loss, but I guess that's what you get from Network TV. If only it had been developed through one of the cable channels! I would love to have seen where they would have gone with the show.
Alas, that's something we'll never know now. Still, what we do have is well worth checking out, even in truncated form.

Go Find It!

If you're interested, Joan of Arcadia
is available on now, both Season One and Season Two. Or if you aren't sure about whether you'd like it, you can check and see if your local library has it (or can get it through a lending program).

I got interested in the show this summer when I saw it on the Scifi channel, which unfortunately now seems to have dropped it. So then I checked it out of the public library so I could finish watching the whole thing. Now, because I think it's so good, I'm buying it on DVD.

I'm slowly watching it with my two older children, and we are using it as a springboard for discussion of the deeper issues brought up in the series. However, we also watch it simply because it makes us laugh out loud.....a lot. How often do you find such a combination on TV?

What a great series. Go check it out.


Anonymous said...

Just popping in to COMPLETELY agree. :) JoA was a wonderful show that made me feel good after watching it. I have to confess, I still swear at the TV when I see a commercial for "Ghost Whisperer" which took over Joan's spot.

I adored the family. They felt like a real family, with real baggage and stupid family stuff that got in the way. They each got to be vulnerable at one point or another, and it just felt right.

Plus, Amber Tamblyn has chemistry with a potted plant! That girl can bounce off anyone! (BTW - in the juggling episode, she was acting with her real father!)

bellygirl said...

seems like they cancell the best shows. alot of my fave shows have been cancelled over the years. and we're left w/ junk, or "reality" tv.

Anonymous said...

Oooh man, way to make me miss this show all over again. As a spiritual-but-not-Judeo-Christian person, I loved how JoA approached God. I especially loved goth God. Finally, an image of divinity that I could really relate to, heh. ^_^ I was so upset when they canceled this, especially when it looked like Season 3 was going to be so epic. Now that I've read your review of it from a fat-positive standpoint, I really need to put the DVDs on my wish list and watch the whole thing again. I'm sure there's a lot I missed the first time through.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your take on Joan's cancelled show. It's showing now on Sky Satellite from the UK and I am watching it everyday again, even though I've seen every episode. I used to stay home on Friday nights just to watch it.
I was so mad that CBS cancelled this show. Like your review, it covered so many bases and said all of those things to the 'God' that I wanted to say over the years. And the family reminded me of my own parents. My father was Italian and my mother looked just like Joan's mother. Their interactions were so similar to my parents that I watched just to see those two. I too was the middle child between two brothers. I was able to connect with Joan's character even though I'm 30 yrs older than her.

Thanks for allowing my comment. Expat living in Germany via Indiana.

Willow said...

I loved this show when it was on-- Amber Tamblyn is wonderful, and Mary Steenburgen is a hometown gal, friend of our family, and we love her! So far, my dear, you haven't steered me wrong on shows to watch-- I still owe you a huge thanks (and possibly my credit card bill!) for getting me hooked on Firefly, Buffy, and Angel!! ;)