By Megan Sennett | Published April 22, 2004
What if God was one of us?
That’s the question the freshman drama “Joan of Arcadia” explores every Friday night. The life of middle child and confused adolescent Joan Girardi (played by the very talented Amber Tamblyn) becomes even stranger when God starts appearing to her in various forms, including a cute boy at school, the lunch lady, a sanitation worker, and a young girl on the playground.
After wittily revealing a secret or tuning in to what Joan is thinking to prove to her who He is, God proceeds to give her advice and specific directions to do something she wouldn’t ordinarily do. Although His seemingly random requests, from trying out for cheerleading to getting a job at the local bookstore, seem at first to have no point, the show always reveals their higher purpose and message that things are not always as they seem and God truly can be found in everyone.
The show also follows the life of the rest of the Girardi family, which appears to be quite normal but in actuality faces some atypical situations.
Joan’s father Will (played by Joe Mantegna), the town police chief, just moved his family to the small town of Arcadia, where he hopes to keep both his family and town safe. His job introduces forensics/cops elements to the show (which CBS promotes in seemingly all of their other programs) that sorely stick out and are easily the least successful parts of the show. However, Mantegna’s portrayal of a seemingly tough but inwardly softhearted man who would sacrifice anything for his family is very convincing.
The anchor of the family, Joan’s mother Helen (played by Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen), is always present at Joan’s high school, first as an office assistant and more recently as the new art teacher. She has had some spiritual struggles and has been questioning her Catholic faith ever since her oldest son Kevin (played by Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter) was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. He has had problems of his own as well, as he went from the popular high school sports star dreaming of someday turning pro to a paraplegic who will never walk again in one tragic moment.
At first, Kevin was not interested in moving on with his life, but after Joan got a job at the local bookstore in the series premiere, he was inspired to take a job at the local newspaper, and fell in love with his boss, and even put his athleticism to good use and played for a wheelchair basketball team. Michael Welch, who plays youngest child and science geek Luke, rounds out the Girardi family.
In addition to being a success with viewers, consistently ranking in the weekly top 20 shows despite holding a generally weak Friday night timeslot, “Joan of Arcadia” has won critical praise as well. The show won an award for favorite new dramatic series at the People’s Choice Awards and also was honored by the American Film Institute as one of the top 10 TV programs of the year. Steenburgen also won the Golden Satellite Award for best supporting actress in a drama. In addition, Tamblyn was nominated for best actress in a drama at both the Golden Globes and the Golden Satellite Awards.
It is wonderfully refreshing to see a family-friendly show command the positive attention that usually is given to inappropriate programs with no morals whatsoever.
Although this family drama sounds like a sappy, feel-good tearjerker, “Joan of Arcadia” is actually a quality show that understands the complexities of family life. The heroine is likeable and quirky, and is portrayed with all her faults and shortcomings.
Joan gets frustrated at the fact that no one understands why she does some of the things God asks her to do, yet she knows that she can’t reveal to anybody her big secret that God appears to her in the form of different people. We empathize with Joan’s desire to fit in with the popular crowd at school and cry along with her when her long-time best friend Adam, whom she has a crush on, invites a fellow artist Iris to go to the White Stripes concert. Unfortunately, it happens to coincide with the work at a day care center God asks Joan to perform. Despite her complaining and sarcastic attitude, we see Joan for exactly who she is: an imperfect teen attempting to please a perfect God.
Megan’s Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Megan Sennett is a sophomore at Chattahoochee High School and attends St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta.