November 30th, 2008

Cow of Pain, Polter-Cow of Pain

Joan of Arcadia? More Like Jaye of Niagara!

As everyone knows, Joan of Arcadia was a CBS show about Joan Girardi, a teenage girl living the Maryland town of Arcadia who begins seeing God everywhere and receiving little "missions" from Him/Her. Although God is never revealed to be an alien from outer space, the show was inexplicably rerun on SciFi this summer, which let me finally give it a try after hearing so much about it. That was the end of July. Come fall, SciFi stopped the reruns, so I had to employ my usual methods. It's now over four months since I started watching, and I am finally done with both seasons of the show.

Since Wonderfalls premiered near the end of JoA's first season, the comparisons were inevitable. To my surprise, however, Joan was much more like Jaye than I expected. She's snarky and confrontational to God, and she constantly questions her "missions" and does them only begrudgingly. She's definitely not as deliberately abrasive and off-putting to humanity in general, though. It's just the Dude ordering her around she has issues with; otherwise, she's a regular girl. What I loved, though, was how God was constantly pushing Joan to learn more about who she was and challenge herself and her views of the world; it's really a show about growing up. The old coming-of-age story. Coming of age involves a lot of crying, apparently, and, thankfully, Amber Tamblyn is an excellent crier. Also excellent in general; like Caroline Dhavernas, she gives good facial expression.

Luke, Joan's younger brother, is a brainy nerdboy whose every line seems like it came from a physics textbook. Are there really incredibly intelligent people who talk like that on a regular basis? Who must discuss every little thing in terms of mathematical equations or scientific principles? Even if there aren't, Michael Welch sure made it sound natural. Luke is very socially awkward, as you might expect.

Kevin, Joan's older brother, was an athlete until he was crippled in a car accident. Now he's in a wheelchair. I couldn't help but think of Jason Street, even though Kevin pre-dates him; it's not a story you often see on television. Once Kevin gets past his "Because I'm crippled, and I want to listen to Nirvana!" phase, he's a pretty likable character, very amusing and caring. The show gets a lot of mileage out of him and his accident; both seasons delve into the trauma of that night and explore the family's grief. How do you adjust to something like that?

Will, Joan's father, is a cop. For some reason. I say this because try as it might, the show never really figures out what to do with Will-as-a-cop. His cop stories are rarely well integrated into the main story (if at all), and they're shot in a blue filter, which makes it seem all the more like you've stepped into a different show. And after coming off The Wire, I found JoA's attempts at doing stories about police corruption to be eye-rollingly simple. It's frequently useful that Will is a cop, sure, but I never really needed to pay attention to his cases. Will-the-cop as a father and husband, however, was a more interesting story and character, the way his job affected his family roles.

Helen, Joan's mother, works in the principal's office at Arcadia High. And she's my second-favorite character after Joan. I found her to be a really well rounded and complex character over the course of the series, and I loved the individual relationships she had with each member of her family, especially Joan. But also Will: I really appreciated that the show treated the parents as people and let us see their perspectives on raising their children and even their own marriage.

To me, Joan of Arcadia is a family show. Oh, Girardis! You're so...functional. But there are two important non-Girardis as well, of course. Adam Rove, Joan's love interest, is a sad little puppy dog of an artist. Do you want to know how adorable he is? He calls Joan "Jane." We're not sure why. Grace Polk, Joan's best friend, is a counterculture anarchist fuck-the-Man kind of girl, and, like Luke, her dialogue is often very one-note since she turns every little thing into some symbol of oppression. She's a little prickly, but she's a good friend.

And then there's God, who appears in many forms throughout the series, like Goth God, Little Girl God, Old Lady God, and the ever-popular Hot God (a guy; sadly, there is no recurring Hot Girl God, although we get Amelia DeLongpre God and Ren Stevens God as one-shots). God is all over the damn place (omnipresent!); I would guess a full five percent of Arcadia's inhabitants are actually GOD. It's a little ridiculous. But I always enjoyed Joan's conversations with God. The show is pretty good about being respectful of all religions and not falling into blasphemy, and I think God has some really good life lessons to impart. I liked that the show gave you credit for just being a decent human being, showing how even the smallest of kindnesses can have good ripples.

Like many shows these days, the first season was much loved and the second season was less loved. I didn't think the second season was that bad, although it seemed to be a little more depressing. What I loved about the first season was that it so often brought me close to tears of joy. Sometimes I was still sniffling afterward. I was a little less emotional and capslock-y about the second season. Except for the last two episodes, when the show introduced a new character that signaled a promising and interesting new direction right before it was canceled.

All in all, I really liked the show. I think it had a lot of interesting things to say about God, faith, religion, belief, art, grief, death, family, and other nouns. There's a certain pervasive CBSness about it that kept it from being a great show, but I was really impressed with how it managed not to be completely sappy and cliché when by all rights it really should have been.