TV geek that I am, September starts me salivating for new shows and returning favorites. On top of my must-see list this year is the second season of Joan of Arcadia, the CBS series about Joan Girardi an ordinary teen who has an extraordinary relationship with God. Joan has carved out a unique niche among television critics and viewers not only because of its engaging storylines, emotional and spiritual depth and frequent laugh-out-loud humor but also for its ability to portray a God who is not limited to conventional notions of the divine. As the show’s credits make clear, God appears to Joan in various guises both modern and traditional, including Cute Boy God, Little Girl God, Old Lady God–it is a creative approach as well as a clever device enabling the show to appeal to several generations of viewers.
Joan’s (Amber Tamblyn) relationship with God involves lots of questioning, bickering and snappy repartee not unlike Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepard’s Moonlighting dynamic (Joan’s creator and executive producer, Barbara Hall, also worked on that 80s hit). Yet Joan develops a real connection with God and comes to trust His wisdom even if she doesn’t always understand it.
Season one ended with Joan suspecting that her encounters with God may have actually been due to hallucinations brought on by Lyme Disease and that they were never real at all. She appealed to the Almighty for consolation but was met only with silence.
During a recent interview on the television series Christopher Closeup, Barbara Hall explained the concepts of “consolation” and “desolation” that motivated the storyline. “W e go through periods of consolation…when you’re perfectly well aware of God and how He works in your life And then you go through periods of desolation when He seems absent. And those are periods of learning” she said. “And one of the things that you learn is how much you miss God when God isn’t present, or when you’re not connected.”
Re-establishing that connection is where Season two picks up. Joan returns from three months of psychological counseling for what her therapist called, “impaired perceptions.” Accepting that she was temporarily crazy, Joan yearns to return to a normal life.
That’s when God steps back in. Joan initially thinks she’s hallucinating again but soon accepts that God is indeed real. However, she spurns His attempts to reconnect with her because she doesn’t trust Him anymore. She always did everything He asked and can’t understand why He abandoned and betrayed her in her time of crisis. Joan coming to terms with a loving God letting bad things happen to good people will certainly resonate with most viewers.
Another story thread involves Joan’s mother Helen Girardi (Mary Steenburgen). Helen, who was raised Catholic but never confirmed, has a dream that inspires her to become a full-fledged Catholic. On the advice of a priest, she meets Lilly Waters, a former nun with a goth look and bad smoking habit. Explaining herself to Helen, Lilly says, “You know The Sound of Music? That’s the kind of nun I was. Only with surfing instead of spinning on a hillside.”
Despite her unusual look, Lilly takes her faith seriously. She questions Helen’s motivations particularly when she finds out Helen hasn’t told her family about her renewed interest in Catholicism. Shocked that she can’t join the Catholic Church as easily as signing up for Costco, Helen is forced to look deeper into herself as part of her journey of faith.
This storyline was likely influenced by creator Barbara Hall’s personal conversion to Catholicism a few years ago. Drawn to the mystery, mysticism, sense of community and intellectual debate that are a part of the Catholic Church, Ms. Hall often incorporates these philosophies into the show. However, good storytelling, not proselytizing, is Ms. Hall’s focus so the series is accessible to spiritual seekers of all faiths.
Other storylines this season involve Joan’s geeky brother Luke now dating anarchistic tomboy Grace who makes him sign a confidentiality agreement about their relationship. When he refers to her as his girlfriend, she reminds him that the term violates “article 4 under public and private verbalization.” On a more serious note, the Girardis are sued by the young man whose drunk driving turned their son Kevin (Jason Ritter) into a paraplegic.
Since its premiere, Joan of Arcadia has been a show filled with intelligence, wit and realistic struggles with faith. Based on the brilliantly written second-season opener–penned by series creator Barbara Hall–Joan is in no danger of hitting a sophomore slump.