When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with two things: death and popularity. This is one reason I like “Joan of Arcadia”: It moves from the ultimate to the banal and back again, and always in reference to God. One moment Joan is pondering final questions, the next she is wondering whether she will be a social pariah if she follows God’s request and becomes a cheerleader. And always the solution is the same, the words we say in the Invitatory Psalm 95 each day: “Listen to the voice of the Lord.”
In episodes 6 and 7 of season 1, the theme of popularity precedes that of death, which is how most teenagers rank these issues. In “Bringeth It On,” God appears to Joan as a bearded homeless man, popping up from behind a trash can to tell her to try out for the cheerleadering squad at Arcadia High. For Joan, who usually hangs around with artist Adam Rove (left with Joan) and tomboy Grace Polk, this means “social suicide.” God replies with his usual practicality, “Tryouts are Monday.”
Meanwhile, Luke is wondering whether he might be homosexual. Sparks have been flying between him and Grace in AP chem, so when the willowy Glynnis asks Luke if he will be her partner for the science fair and Luke is slow to grab the opportunity, Friedman, Luke’s buddy, leaps to the obvious conclusion: “You’re hot for a lesbo. Skip the denial: You like a dyke, which means you just tested positive for the presence of gay.”
Luke is perturbed and refers this “big question” to older brother Kevin in a classic bit of JoA dialogue:
Luke: Does it mean I’m gay if I like a lesbian?
Kevin: Liking a girl is liking a girl, and who says she’s a lesbian? Here’s your only indicator: When you’re alone, just passing the time, what do you like thinking about?
Luke: How to get past level 5 on Diablo.
Kevin: I mean, in the shower . . .
Luke (light dawning, deadly serious): Sometimes I think of Condoleeza Rice.
Joan’s quandary is not so easily resolved but finally intertwines beautifully with the inevitable JoA police subplot. Dad, police chief Will Girardi, is investigating the case of a baby found alive in a dumpster. The trail leads back to Arcadia High and to a girl on the cheerleading squad. When she confesses that she ditched her newborn, she has to leave the school in tearful disgrace. The rest of the cheerleading team ignores her as trash herself. Only Joan stops to ask how she’s doing. In the final cheerleading scene, at final tryouts, Joan offers a hip-hop cheer exposing the hypocrisy of the other girls.
Outside school, Luke asks Grace to be his partner for the science fair, and the flirtatious chemistry between them flares—
Grace: I don’t plan ahead. Ask when it’s closer.
Luke (beaming): You’re saying it’s possible?
Grace: Yeah, if you stop acting like such a loser.
When I was in ninth grade, we read John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” the true story of the death of Gunther’s teenage son by brain tumor. So I smile at the title of episode 7, “Death Be Not Whatever.”
At career day at the high school, Joan stops at a booth for the airline industry and talks with Stewardess God. For once, the Almighty’s instructions are a bit vague. Instead of “Get a job in the bookstore,” or “Have a yard sale,” God advises Joan: “You’re going to be in the position to help someone. You’re going to have to pay attention. Look at behavior. Not everyone knows how to look for help.”
Not every TV show cites Kübler-Ross or quotes Kierkegaard, which is another reason to like JoA. While Joan is pondering God’s advice, her mother, Helen, is agonizing over Kevin’s paralysis, caused by a car accident. She consults a priest, who advises her to read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic work on the five stages of grief. Helen: “But no one died.” Priest: “Kevin didn’t pass on, but all of you experienced a kind of death.” The scene in a luncheonette closes with Kierkegaard, courtesy of the priest: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have.”
Joan’s pal Adam is moping, complaining that he “hates November.” Joan and Grace think he’s just being his spacey self. But when Joan takes a babysitting job, looking after Rocky, a death-obsessed little boy who is dying himself, she ultimately learns why Adam is blue. Rocky’s mom explains to Joan that Rocky has an aggressive form of cystic fibrosis and is unlikely to survive his next infection. In the next scene, Rocky takes Joan to the cemetery, his favorite hangout.
Joan: When you said a fun place, I was thinking, like, Laser Tag.
Rocky: I find it informational.
Joan: Rocky, I understand now, what’s happening to you. . . . Would it make you feel better to know that there’s someone out there watching for us and caring for us and that this person or thing will still be watching for us and caring about us after we leave?
Rocky: I don’t believe in God.
Joan: What if I promised, I mean, cross-my-heart promised? I’ve seen Him.
Rocky: You’ve had a near-death experience?
Joan: No, I — I’ve seen him, sometimes, it’s not always a him, it’s complicated — but the point is, God is there, and if he’s there, there’s a plan, and if there’s a plan, then everything is going to be OK. I think.
Rocky: Yeah, that’d be cool.
Still in the cemetery, Rocky comments that many people seem to die on or about their own birthday. “There,” he says, pointing, “another example.” Joan looks to see the headstone of Adam’s mother, who was born and died in, yes, November.
After lovely scenes between Joan and Adam, and Helen and Will (she shares the Kübler-Ross book with him), the episode closes with a scene on the bus between Joan and Hottie God (the same young, good-looking male God who appeared in the pilot). Joan is feeling blue about Rocky’s condition and Adam’s grief.
Joan (to God): You have a lot to answer for, buddy. Nobody asked to be born. So we all get to die, and everybody we love dies?
Joan: And that’s good for you?
God: Joan, there’s nothing I could say about that that would make sense to you.
Joan: A lot of what happens here really sucks, so so much for your perfect system! Do you see me being really mad at you right now?
Joan: Why does it have to be so hard?
God: What specifically?
Joan: Being alive. Let’s start there.
God: Do you wish you weren’t alive?
Joan: No. I don’t know. I wish it didn’t hurt so much.
God: It hurts because you feel it, Joan, because you’re alive. I love people. That generates a lot of power, a lot of energy, the same energy that binds atoms together. We’ve all seen what happens when you try to pry them apart.
Joan: So if I don’t get attached to people it won’t hurt so much?
God: No, it’s in your nature to get attached to people. I put that in the recipe. It’s when you guys try to ignore that, when you try to go it alone, that it gets ugly. It’s hell.
Joan: It’s hell . . . ? Like the hell?
God: Oh, look: your house. Go on, Joan, people are waiting for you.
As the bus pulls away bearing Hottie God, up comes Ben Harper’s song on the soundtrack, “I am blessed to be a witness.” Which is getting to be exactly how it feels to write this blog.