It takes courage to be a priest, as I wrote on Wednesday, but it takes a special kind of courage to live in a household with three socially active women (a wife and two daughters) and repeatedly insist on staying home Friday evenings to weep openly over a TV melodrama about a high-school girl who talks to God. Whatever I know about being martyred for the faith, I learned during the two seasons of this show (2003–4, 2004–5).
And I wasn’t even a Catholic yet. And, OK, you hardcore faithniks, I know, it’s not even really a Catholic show. Joan’s dad (Joe Mantegna) may have attended Mother Cabrini High School in Chicago, but apparently he and his family no longer attend Mass. Or at least it’s never mentioned, anymore than politics is mentioned. And God (just another character in the show, “a slob like one of us”) talks equally of Islam as a valid faith tradition.
But people, it’s not Joan of Mecca now, is it? It’s Joan of Arc—adia! And like Fr. Jim Martin, all you have to do is allude to the Patron Saint of France, the shepherd girl of Domrémy, the Maid of Orléans, and I get all verklempt.
According to Web info available from the Independent Movie Database, “Joan’s” creator, Barbara Hall, wrote a list of guidelines for her writers, which she called “The Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia.” These commandments were: 1. God cannot directly intervene in the action of the show. 2. Good and evil exist. 3. God can never identify one religion as being right. 4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature. 5. Everyone is allowed to say “no” to God, including Joan. 6. God is not bound by time. This is a human concept. 7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality. 8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways. 9. God’s plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him. 10. God’s purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Which is to say, you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.
Sounds pretty Catholic to me, except for that very PC Third Commandment. Which would probably move Ferde to declare Barbara Hall a heretic. But according to a fine interview in the St. Anthony Messenger, the show’s producer is indeed a Catholic, a convert like me. And to judge by her press glossy, she’s mighty pretty as well.
Catholic producer, Catholic show or not, I’ll look a confessor in the eye and avow that “Joan of Arcadia” helped form me as a Catholic. Or maybe I already was one. The other night I went out to dinner with Cesareo, who has been reading this blog. In his quiet, stroke-muted voice he said to me, “I learned something about you from that thing you’re writing.” Thing? Thing?! His speech may be slowed, but Cesareo has not lost his rhetorical fastball. I braced for the outrageous but heard what sounded like the truth: “You were a Catholic all the time. Even when you didn’t know it.”
I have boxed sets of both seasons of “Joan of Arcadia,” and I recently started running through the episodes again for the second—third—well, OK, fourth time, but even now that I’m a card-carrying, Mass-going member of the Universal Catholic Church and my family is cutting me a bit more slack, Godwise, I can only watch one or two episodes at a time without a familywide outbreak of derision.
So then, but, OK, the pilot:
Joan is sleeping restlessly, apparently troubled by a dream. Meanwhile, her father, Arcadia’s police chief (though that will change, stay tuned) is investigating the murder of a young woman who may have been a prostitute. Cut back to Joan, tossing and turning and hearing a voice, an insistent voice calling her name: “Joan . . . Joan . . .” She wakes up startled, afraid, and like any other teenager chased by night terrors, she pulls a headset over her ears and buries herself in her covers. As she does so, Joan Osbourne’s “What If God Was One of Us” comes up on the soundtrack and we cut to commercial.
The voice turns out to have been God’s voice. Like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France, this twenty-first-century girl hears and—when she gets over the spookiness of it—talks with God. Not hard, actually, when God takes the form of a young hottie on her bus ride to school. But later in the episode, God takes a new form, talking to Joan across the lunch line at Arcadia High as a black lady kitchen worker who ain’t gonna take no sass.
Ferde would probably turn to the Red Sox game the moment Joan accuses God of being pretty mean in the Old Testament and he (the hottie this time) assures her that, “I come off a little friendlier in the New Testament and the Koran.” But if I were with Ferde, I would tell him to chill, sit back, and listen.
God tells Joan to get a job at the Skylight Bookstore (a real store in LA, where scenes were filmed during the first season). And as happens whenever Joan faithfully listens to the voice of God, her first day on the job leads by a chain of circumstance to the arrest of the man who murdered the young woman in the park.
Along the way, we are introduced to the Girardi family: Mantegna as Dad; the always sympathetic Mary Steenburgen as mother Helen, a dropout from art school who will return to her art in future episodes; and most notably Michael Welch as geeky younger brother Luke and Jason Ritter, son of John, as older brother and former high-school athlete Kevin, recently confined to a wheelchair following a paralyzing auto accident. The Girardis are a real family, where the middle-aged parents are still sexually active, the teenage kids are always ready to be grossed out by that, and all of them are dealing with suffering (Kevin’s paralysis). Luke’s job in this episode is mostly to come out with a really cool quote from the scientist Michael Faraday, who said, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.”
The final scene shows us another positive consequence of Joan’s listening to God’s voice. Kevin wheels into her bedroom to admit that her getting a job at the bookstore has shamed him into shaking his self-pity and getting a job himself, something Mom has been pleading for. In other words, our peaceful, positive witness to one another as Catholics, as Christians, even as Muslims can be a powerful, salvific influence on those around us. Just look at Frank and Carrie.
Next Friday: Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2.