Saturday, April 30, 2005

Holy War

Joan of Arcadia has, in the course of two seasons, metamorphosed from a charming morality play into a complex, ethically driven personal drama, and the second season's final episode indicates that yet another major evolution is underway. I've enjoyed the show in each stage of its development, due in large part to the powerful and believable performance of Amber Tamblyn, who plays the title character in the series. Tamblyn conveys the volatile mixture of self-involvement, emotionalism, devotion, alienation, altruism, compassion, and maturity that I saw quite frequently in the many teenagers I knew from my quarter-century as a high school English teacher (in fact, the only actress I know of who surpasses Tamblyn in her portrayal of a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood is Ellen Muth, whose performance as George in the positively brilliant but all-too-short-lived Dead Like Me was a high point of episodic television). Tamblyn isn't the only standout member of Joan's cast; Mary Steenbergen imbues Joan's mother with an irresistible sincerity, and Joe Mantegna... well, has Joe Mantegna ever turned in a bad performance?

The premise of a young woman who speaks to God in various incarnations piqued my curiosity from the very first episode; I thought the show handled the whole "divinely-inspired" theme much better than the quickly-cancelled Wonderfalls, which premiered the same season as Joan but died a quick death, due in part to the fact that the central character was largely unlikeable. God tends to interact with Joan in much the same way a zen master might interact with a disciple--lots of questions, some riddles, very little direct guidance. Joan is the story of a journey, and journeys are occasionally marked by wrong turns and dead ends--and Joan has had more than her share of those.

The second season gave Joan a Job-like quality as the Girardi family was beset by a series of setbacks that pushed each of them to the breaking point. How each dealt with these crises helped to define the characters of Joan, her parents, and her two brothers--and it gave the show a complexity that broke it out of the moral-lesson-of-the-week approach that typified the first season. Things were happening here, and characters were in transition.

But the final two episodes of this season foreshadowed an even more dramatic change as Joan was forced to become a spiritual warrior, a true Joan of Arc whose divine guidance would lead her into conflict with the most evil threat she could imagine: a man who, like her, talked directly with God... but unlike her, he had turned away from God and now considered God his enemy. Only Joan understood the significance of the choice he had made, and now she will have to communicate that significance to her friends--friends who are about to become the ragtag army this Joan will need for the battle of her life. The twist sounds Buffy-like, but I get the feeling the show's creators have something larger and more metaphysical than Whedon and the Buffy team ever envisioned.

And now we have no idea if Joan of Arcadia is going to be renewed for a third season. I hope so; this show is unique in the size of the canvas on which it works, and I hope CBS has the faith (no pun intended) in Joan to let it follow its grand path.

(As an aside, Joan has led me to ponder one point: when God appears to Joan in the form of a human being, is he taking possession of an existing human being's body, Boston-Brand-like, only to release that person to pursue his/her normal life after interacting with Joan--or is God creating a physical manifestation that never existed until He needed to interact with Joan, and then discorporating that physical manifestation once the interaction is completed? I've presumed the former, but there's a solipsistic element to the latter that leads some credence to the theory that Joan herself may be far more than she appears...)

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