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FIRST-PERSON: Joan of Arcadia has some good, some bad

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–How would you react if someone came up to you and announced that he (or she) was God? That’s exactly Joan Girardi’s dilemma. At first the 16-year-old girl thinks this person is nuts. And when Joan becomes convinced that this truly is the Creator of the universe, the teenager fears that everyone else will think she’s the one who’s nuts.

No doubt looking to recapture a TV audience once “Touched By An Angel,” CBS has created “Joan of Arcadia,” the ongoing story of a teenage girl who faces a very unique situation — the ability to converse with the Almighty in the flesh. Starring Tony Award winner Joe Mantegna, Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen and Amber Tamblyn as Joan, CBS airs the family drama Friday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

The Girardi family has just relocated to Arcadia, Calif., where Joan’s father, Will (Mantegna), is the chief of police, and her mother, Helen (Steenburgen), works part-time at her high school. An accident one year earlier left Joan’s older brother Kevin (Jason Ritter, John’s son) a paraplegic, shattering his dreams of playing college football. And Luke (Michael Welch), Joan’s 15-year-old brother, finds life as a science geek all that he needs right now to make him happy.

As Joan copes with day-to-day struggles in a new town, and her family’s attempt to deal with Kevin’s injury, her life is further complicated when God pays her a few visits via a variety of different people — including a handsome boy on the bus and a lunch lady with attitude in her school cafeteria. Although she initially questions her own sanity, Joan, an average high-schooler who up to now hasn’t been all that religious, eventually begins running “errands” for Jehovah, finding truth in the old adage that “God works in mysterious ways.”

It is irreverent while attempting to be entertaining and thought-provoking. God says, “I come off a little friendlier in the New Testament and the Koran.” The writers and actors have meshed together a crime-thriller along with a family drama, peopled by three-dimensional characters that seem to try to pull in spiritual elements once championed in the CBS hit “Touched By An Angel.”

Producer Barbara Hall was surprised that CBS listened to her pitch for Joan, and was even more surprised the day the network gave a green light to the pilot.

“When I first started pitching it, it raised a lot of eyebrows,” she said. “And I just thought, I’m never getting anywhere with this. But here we are.

“I think Sept. 11 might have had something to do with it. I saw a lot of documentaries after 9/11 that dealt with issues of faith. It not only caused people to start thinking about things in their own lives, but the fact that we were engaged in this sort of battle of religions. For whatever reason, there is something in the air that people are willing to discuss spiritual issues.”

The subplot of a serial killer leaving dead teenage girls strewn about the town seemed a bit dark for what could be an uplifting answer to the old Michael Landon fantasy “Highway To Heaven.” This incorporation of a Hill Street Blues-y police melodrama seemed unnecessary, breaking the disposition of the show’s premise.

The debut episode has Joan less than overwhelmed by being in the presence of God, portraying our Heavenly Father’s accessibility much the same as was done in the George Burns film, “Oh God.” But, among the other less noble programming options in television, Joan of Arcadia does at least present a concept of the Creator of all life before TV viewers.

As creator and producer, Hall has kept her own version of the “Ten Commandments” in mind while writing the show’s view of God.

“One is that God can’t directly intervene,” she said. “He can only work through people. Another is that He can’t choose one religion over another. So we can’t ever designate a chosen religion on the show. It’s not just a matter of trying not to offend people. It really has to do with my actual beliefs, that I can’t be flippant on this subject. And I can’t be removed from it. It has to come from a real psychological and philosophical place.

“God says he won’t answer any direct questions because, metaphorically speaking, I think it’s pretty clear that God simply will not explain to us exactly what is going on. And part of God is that he is, or she is, a mystery. So the show is really a lot about posing theological and philosophical questions and not about answering them. And it’s really important that we don’t try to cut the idea of God down to size because it can’t be done.

“God says to Joan in the pilot, ‘It’s not about religion. It’s about fulfilling your nature.’ And that’s really the point that we are sort of coming from, that God’s wish for Joan and for everybody is to fulfill their true natures. And so at least for the first season, I don’t think it’s going to be too much about church and identifying a religion.”

When asked how she would react if someone claiming to be God came up to her on the street, the show’s young star, Amber Tamblyn (daughter of Russ Tamblyn and one-time featured player on General Hospital), made a somewhat confused metaphysical diatribe.
“If a person came to me the way that God does in the beginning of the show, you know, by rattling off my life stories and the first guy I ever had a crush on, I would probably be a little scared,” she said. “But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised in any form that God would appear to me and if that were to be the case. So I probably wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, if it were really truly, if you really truly made me believe that, I would have to believe it because I think that, you know, the spiritual nature of what God is in a human’s opinion is very, very much reflective of what it could be in reality to me. Like if it showed up in a person, it could be God. It was a dog, you know, it could be. If it wasn’t anything, if it was like a whisper in the wind.”

Say what?

While “Touched By An Angel” producer Martha Williamson professed a devout relationship with Christ, as did several others involved with that show, none of those interviewed here expressed any such devotion. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Jesus ever gets the spotlight on this new ethereal drama.

If the show continues in the same vein as its pilot, viewers can be assured of one thing: The format will always make one thing clear, God exists. When Joan asks her brainy younger brother if he believes in God, he responds with a theoretical and thought-provoking response, “Sure. It’s logical. If you accept the special theory of relativity, which I do, and the laws of thermodynamics, which I do, and then you throw in the fact that light is conscious, which it appears to be, well, how can you argue?”

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright