Joan of Arcadia Season 1
"Joan of Arcadia" was one of those shows that wasn't really able to find enough of an audience to really spread to its full potential. I don't think I myself ever saw an episode when it was on TV--although I do remember the idea behind the show intriguing me. But, through the wonders of the internet, I have rediscovered it, and watched its first season.
The story concerns the Girardi family--father Will (Joe Mategna), who's just been hired as chief of police to the small town of Arcadia; mother Helen (Mary Steenburgen), who works as a receptionist/office aid at the local high school, eldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter), who was an accomplished athlete before being confined to a wheelchair after a car accident; youngest son Luke (Micheal Welch), a socially awkward scientific genius; and middle child Joan (Amber Tamblyn), our main character.
This is because, in the first episode, Joan is approached by a handsome young man who claims to be God and knows an awful lot about her. When all sorts of random people start appearing, all claiming to be God, and all giving her missions to accomplish, Joan eventually is reluctantly convinced, especially since good things usually result.
The portrayal of God is interesting in this show. As mentioned before, God has a tendency to manifest into the most random forms ever: a little girl, a goth kid, Mrs. Landingham from "The West Wing," the school mascot, all sorts of repairmen, etc. Despite being played by many different actors in many different roles, the writers of the show manage to keep a basic consisten personality to God: in pretty much all forms God is very nice and is never directly forceful in getting Joan to do his missions, but also incredibly insistent that Joan follow his instructions while simultaneously refusing to explain the logic behind them. As many of these missions revolve around Joan doing something that is either embarrassing or makes the people around her think she is insane, she often demands an explanation as to why she has to do them, but she hardly ever gets any sort of clarification. When we see the results of these missions (which more often than not turn out to be complicated gambits where Joan resisting the mission becomes a critical part of completing it, or the initial objective is a diversion from a more important goal), it helps undermine the omnipotence of the character.
Joan herself is really good as a protagonist, basically because Tamblyn is really good at playing a teenage girl and seeming believable. Joan is a kind and giving soul, but is no more selfless or competent than the next 16 year old who gets annoyed at her parents or just wants to hang out with her friends. She also proves to be quite adaptable, which is good given some of the ridiculous situations her God-given objectives get her into.
the rest of the Girardi family work relatively well, with only a few problems. Most of these revolve around the youngest child, Luke, who sometimes is written like Spock from the original "Star Trek," i.e. way too sciency for a 15 year old boy. Even real science nerds don't talk like that! Aside from that he works well, and Welch works hard to make him seem genuinely intelligent, not just a kid with glasses spouting off sciency sounding stuff. I also liked how he's none to happy to be the ignored sibling in the family, when compared especially to his former jock older brother. Speaking of Kevin, although I'm sure his depiction of a character who is mired in depression and anger is true to life, it doesn't make for particularly fun TV to watch. When he finally starts getting motivated is when he as a character starts to get interesting. Will is great as a character, but the problem with him is that pretty much all of his scenes not with members of his own family seem like they're in their own show, down to being tinted blue to make them distinct. It's like the creators wanted to do a cop show but couldn't, so they decided to squeeze their ideas into this show. It's very odd. Finally, Steenburgen is utterly believable as a mother of teenage children, trying to let go and yet finding difficulties with their new paths in life. And as a unit the Girardis work, really seeming like an actual family.
The three other main characters that should be mentioned are Joan's friends and lab partners Grace (Backy Wahlstrom) and Adam (Chris Marquette), and Vice Principal Price (Patrick Fabian). Grace is perhaps my favorite character on the show, a snarky nonconformist who takes no crap yet is nicer and softer as a person than she's probably care to admit. I liked pretty much every scene with her in it. Adam is also good, a somewhat slackery young artist who has great chemistry in three very different relationships with Grace, Joan, and Helen. My only problem is that he sometimes turns into this genius (mostly about art stuff), which is contrary to his more common character of a bit of a cloudcuckoolander who doesn't pay much attention to the world around him. Price is delicious as a total jerkass who talks smooth while crushing the hopes and dreams of the students around him. It is very easy to love to hate him.
All in all, season one of "Joan of Arcadia" went well. It introduced us to some good characters, all of who get some form of character development over the course of the series, and to some interesting plots. Most of the plots worked, aside from a few that are a bit too aesop-y or seemed to have had something cut out of them, making them feel a tad unfinished. This also excludes the very last episode, which, while not bad, cranks the weirdness dial up a few notches with no warning. But aside from a few less than perfect episodes, I look forward to the second season with bated breath.
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