Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: September 26, 2003 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 13.47 million viewers, 8.7/16 in Households, 3.7/14 with Adults 18-49, 5.1/16 with Adults 25-54
This show came into my life at the most opportune time. A serious family drama that is neither a sitcom for teens nor a teen soap opera on The WB, but instead a family drama with a twist during a time I was coming of age slowly but surely, with a lead actress I developed a crush on quickly, because that was what I was doing when I watched television as a teenager, with women leads who happened to be attractive (like, all of them, but mostly Jennifer Love Hewitt – thank you, PARTY OF FIVE and TIME OF YOUR LIFE). If JOAN OF ARCADIA would have been ordered a few years earlier, I might not have gotten it, let alone I wouldn’t have found the show to begin with, as it also came around when I was seriously beginning to nerd out about all things television. If the show would have arrived later in life, I wouldn’t have been interested, and it only would have been a mediocre family show with a twist that was somewhat out of my league. But JOAN OF ARCADIA came to my attention when I was feeling the urge to express myself as a teenager, while also being secluded to my own four walls, because my character traits happened to be unsynced with the rest of the world. I immediately connected with Joan, and my non-believing mind immediately connected with the notion that God isn’t in this show to punch religion and Christianity down your throat, but simple life lessons that could bring you a step or two forward, when you just listen. Because sometimes you tend to forget that’s what believing in a God is about, and you always focus on the parts of the Bible that makes you a bigot and a racist and a xenophobe and a sexist and a person who is only interested in power and money.
But that’s a topic for a different kind of blog. A decade and a half after this show came to light, I decided to watch it again, as the German network I watched it on never aired the second season (the first wasn’t much of a ratings success, and I don’t even know if the second was ever acquired and dubbed), and I can barely remember the first season anyway. The love interests, the wannabe school shooter halfway into the season (that must be such an impressive episode for it to be still in my mind this many years later), those I can remember, but other than that I barely know anything about the show and I wouldn’t mind remembering what else I felt when watching the show as a teen, including how I crushed it over Amber Tamblyn. The episode surprisingly stands the test of time (although the DVD-specific music doesn’t — thanks, expensive music rights!), the cast looks good, the first morale of the story turned out to be a surprise (God isn’t just telling Joan what to do, he is guiding her to affect other people), and there even is another show within the show, as the pilot was sort of hopping through a few different genres all at once. There is obviously the family drama, but there could also be the teen soap opera with Joan and her brothers in school, there is the crime procedural with Chief Girardi investigating a serial killing, and besides being a show about life itself, disguised in small doses of belief, it’s also a show about morales which could actually turn out to be better than the ones 7TH HEAVEN delivered. I still remember that show, and holy crap, was it pushing my nerves during the later seasons…
The pilot also happened to be a tad bit confusing. The opening sequence is being bookended by a sleeping Joan hearing things, while the central focus on the opening sequence is a dead body, and two detectives of law enforcement discussing what kind of case they have on their hands. An untrained television watcher would think this is a crime procedural, only to be shocked by the fact that a teenager is talking to God – which might actually be a surprise intended by the writers, but only if CBS actually promoted the show in a neutral way, without delivering the premise of a hot and attractive God talking to Amber Tamblyn. Then again, not “warning” the audience of that would be a betrayal, as religion is a heavy topic to get into on network television. Too much and you lose your audience, too little and you alienate and confuse your audience. JOAN OF ARCADIA could be seen as a show with too much religion, simply due to the fact of God’s presence.
But if you take a closer look at the premise delivered in these first 45 minutes, you could see there might be an intriguing show here. Let’s just take away all the grounded elements, the family drama, the crime procedural, the siblings love, the high school gossiping, and look at the fact that God directed Joan to do one specific thing: get a job. That “ask” turned out to be good for two things. One, Joan’s brother Kevin gets a job, which leads to him opening up to life again after he secluded himself for a year and a half. He is basically growing out of his shell now, and it’s because Joan was doing the same, albeit forcibly (or asked to by a higher being). Two, she happened to indirectly cause the appearance of the potential serial killer at the police station at the end. Joan’s presence at the book store, where she would not have been if it hadn’t been for God, freaked the guy out, got him to drive over a red light, which alarmed a cop, and here he is, in handcuffs, waiting to meet the Chief the next morning. Did God plan to have this happen as well? It’s pretty obvious that Joan realized by the end that her getting a job was a way to bring Kevin out of his cabin of isolation, which is a great way to let her know that God talking to her has a purpose, but the second thing could either be just a random coincidence, or it’s part of God’s larger plan. If it’s former, then it’s good writing, especially when the viewer can rhyme themselves together what just happened. If it’s the latter, then hot damn, the writers surely had a major task ahead of them, and I kind of love the idea of it all.
In hindsight, the show is a light watch with maybe a way to heavily influence your way of thinking about life. At this moment, JOAN OF ARCADIA isn’t interested in teaching you religion, it just wants to get you out of your shell a little bit, like the way Kevin was shamed out of his shell. And who knows, maybe that is in fact the way this show wants to teach us all about religion — not quite religion per se, but the notion of “belief,” which I believe is a bit different from the word ‘religion.” But I’m not smart enough to suddenly be involved in a religious argument about belief versus religion. I just watch too much television, and right now it’s JOAN OF ARCADIA that is on my to-do list.