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Paramount Studios presents
Joan: Ok, so, you're God?
DVD ReviewJoan of Arcadia sounds like something that would be on CBS, doesn't it? Young girl sees God in her everyday life, makes the world a better place by carrying out missions from her Maker? Right at home on the network that brought you schmaltz like Touched By an Angel. Except CBS isn't the AARP Network anymore, not with various Survivors and Amazing Races and C.S.Is attracting the younger demographic. Likewise, Joan, which just wrapped its second season on the Eye, is not your grandma's religiously themed CBS program.
Created by television veteran Barbara Hall (Judging Amy), Joan takes a very risky premise and manages to turn it into something thoughtful, intelligent, and entertaining. Most critics expected the worst from the pilot, in which Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn) awakes one day to discover she can see God in the faces of everyday people, and not in the Hallmark card sense—the Almighty actually seems to be appearing to her disguised as, say, and old lady, a little girl, or a cute teenage boy. God's not big on answering questions, it seems, so Joan has no idea why she has been chosen, but she goes along with it when, through the course of the first season, God asks her to accomplish various tasks without telling her why, trusting her to find reason in her own actions.
Okay, so it still sounds more than a little corny. But Joan is nothing if not smartly written, and it manages to tackle the one-sentence premise ("What would happen to a modern day Joan of Arc?") with realism. For one, Joan couldn't be more ordinary, from her grades to her teenage attitude, so we don't have to deal with someone obnoxiously special (she's not Buffy, is what I'm saying). And she's got a normal family. Her dad, Will (Joe Mantegna), is the new police chief in the town of Arcadia. Her mom Helen (Mary Steenburgen) is a homemaker. Her brothers are normal too, though the younger one, Luke (Michael Welch), is a brain and the older, Kevin (Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter, and his spitting image), is still living at home and recovering, emotionally if not physically, from a car accident that put him in a wheelchair.
Needless to say, it strikes everyone, Joan included, as rather odd when the youngest female Girardi starts randomly joining clubs and building boats in the garage (setting off a whole "is she crazy?" arc that pays off wonderfully in the season finale). Even Joan, who eventually is convinced that she really is talking with the God, isn't convinced, even when she begins to get a glimpse of how her actions, with a little prompting, create ripples, both good and bad, that change the world around her.
The series' strength is its subtlety, even early on, when the writers go overboard illustrating what God's plan was for each task he gives Joan. For one thing, God is always fairly vague. He, and often she, isn't one for moralizing speeches. And Joan isn't the perfect disciple—she isn't always willing to listen, and often when she does, she gets things wrong. It's nice to see a family drama that actually allows its characters to be realistically flawed, rather than, oh, the sanctimonious Camdens on 7th Heaven. And the show surely has teenagers down flat, from Joan's insecurity to her awkward crush on soulful artist Adam (Christopher Marquette), to her friendship with rebellious, Jewish feminist Grace (Becky Wahlstrom).
The adults are handled just as well. Will and Helen have one of the most realistic marriages I've seen on television—they obviously love each other, but they also have to deal with the stress of their lives, his as a police officer, hers as someone looking to get back to work after years as a mother (and their nutty daughter doesn't help). Sadly, much time is spent on Will's police work, which becomes a regular series subplot as each episode features a mystery of the week that more often than not echoes whatever lesson God has for Joan. Sometimes this really pays off (in Drive, He Said, in which Will is kidnapped at gunpoint, or The Uncertainty Principal, in which God asks Joan to befriend an unstable student Will fears may be planning a Columbine-style massacre). But lots of times, it feels forced, and it's kind of obvious these writers may be up for great dialogue and family interaction, but not so much the procedural stuff.
Still, overall, Season One is remarkably consistent right from the start. The cast, particularly Tamblyn (a real find and already a veteran of General Hospital, her natural charms won her attention from the Golden Globes) and ex-movie stars Mantegna and Steenburgen, is atypical for TV and instantly endearing (thought that isn't always the case with some bit players introduced later on), and episodes manage to adroitly balance theology, drama, comedy, and suds-free romance.
Standout installments include The Boat, which sees God asking Joan to make like Noah and build a boat, a project that brings members of her family closer together; Bringeth It On, in which Joan joins the pep squad and finds out cheerleaders are people too (I know, right?), and Jump, a midseason entry that gives us a bit of a peek at the overall philosophy of the show—that people don't necessarily always find God, but that God can be found within people.
If the religious aspect seems off-putting, never fear. Joan is hardly right-wing entertainment, and God's message is more universal that denominational. It's simply an exploration of the nature and meaning of faith, except on Friday nights, right before JAG.
A note to TV-on-DVD completists: you'll notice if you watch a few episodes in a row that only the first on each disc has the theme song (Joan Osborne's One of Us, what else?) and its credits intact. This was done to free up licensing money to include more of the songs from the episodes themselves. While I've read there have been some song substitutions for cost reasons, I'd honestly be hard pressed, as someone who watched the original airings, to say what songs and in which episodes (though AWOL big name artists include Moby, Macy Gray, and Five For Fighting). Just know the majority of the original music is intact, and the fact that there are music changes is mentioned on the back of the DVD cases.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: I'm used to watching this show in full screen, so it's nice to have in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Quality is on par with more TV releases: the image features strong colors and detail but looks a bit more grainy than most feature films.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented is a basic DD 2.0 mix that sticks mostly to the front soundstage. Dialogue is clear and the score and sound effects fill out the front mains. There is good stereo separation and directionality up front, but the surrounds are only occasionally active, and merely seem to offer background ambiance when they do kick in.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 138 cues and remote access
19 Deleted Scenes
5 Feature/Episode commentaries by the cast and crew
Next is a pair of brief featurettes. The Creation of Joan of Arcadia is a nine-minute discussion of the "genesis" of the series (hey, at least I didn't call it a "revelation") with comments from executive producer Jim Hayman and creator Barbara Hall, who talks about how the idea for the series sprung from an episode of Chicago Hope. I'm just amazed she had an idea other than "Man, I wish I was writing for E.R."
A Look at Season One is your standard making-of. Barbara Hall, Jim Hayman, and members of the cast, including Mary Steenburgen, Amber Tamblyn, and Joe Mantegna, discuss the first year. The focus is on casting and the characters, rather than the season's plot arc or anything like that. It's pretty much a puff piece, and I didn't really learn anything from it, but it wasn't boring.
The God Gallery features six brief clips of God's guises from throughout the season with comments from Hall and Hayman as to the thought that went into each. There are also deleted scenes for 12 episodes, 19 scenes in all. All are presented in widescreen but with video quality that is somewhat lacking.
Once again, demerits to Paramount for not including subtitles for a television release (I guess only Star Trek is worthy of that honor). Though, oddly enough, each episode is preceded by an onscreen title, which I'm pretty sure wasn't there for the original airings.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsJoan of Arcadia sounds more like a good idea for a movie than a weekly television series, but somehow the show's breakout first season works quite well. It's an intelligent, entertaining, and, thankfully, not at all heartwarming combination of family drama and spiritual exploration. The balance isn't maintained nearly as well in Season Two, and as of this writing, the show is on the bubble for renewal for a third year, but this first season is certainly worth your attention. Plus, it will make justifying all that time spent in front of the television a lot easier come Judgment Day ("No, seriously, God, I was watching it to learn about you! And because you let them cancel Firefly.").
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