Paramount // 2003 // 1028 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 25th, 2005
"It's not about religion, Joan. It's about fulfilling your
"Oh, well, I definitely haven't done that."
Whether or not you believe in God, you will probably find something to like in this first season of Joan of Arcadia. If you're already a fan of the series, you will want to get this set immediately. If you aren't, keep reading: you also may want to check it out. This is a good release of a good series, which blends several genres into something that feels fresh.
Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn, The Ring) is an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl in an ordinary family. The Girardi family has just moved to Arcadia to get a fresh start. Joan's father Will (Joe Mantegna, Liberty Heights) has been assigned as the new police chief, brought in to turn around an inefficient and corrupt department. Joan's mother Helen (Mary Steenburgen, Elf) struggles to get over the accident that put their eldest son Kevin (Jason Ritter, Raise Your Voice) in a wheelchair. Luke (Michael Welch, The United States of Leland), Joan's younger brother, is quiet and extremely nerdy, never quite fitting in with the others.
Joan's life is turned upside down when she receives a visit from God. She's been chosen to do special work, and she has a hard time saying no. He has many instructions and explanations, and her misinterpretations of the reasons behind these commands often place her in uncomfortable situations. As Joan works through her questions of faith, the other members of the Girardi family face struggles in their own lives.
Ultimately, no show can be everything to everyone. Joan of Arcadia tries to accomplish that, and manages better than expected. The sections dealing with Joan and her friends are pretty generic for a teenage television drama. There are love interests, moral challenges, fights between friends, and misunderstandings galore. These sections are generally comedic, with light slapstick humor stemming from Joan's clumsiness, humor surrounding the different cliques at the school, and goofy encounters with teachers. Each episode has a case that Will is involved in, which is almost like a light version of CSI or Law and Order. As expected, the creators of the show don't balance those elements perfectly. Because so many plot threads are handled each episode, sometimes one isn't given the screen time it needs. Yet each member of the Girardi family became distinctly human and more compelling as the season unfolded.
The biggest applause goes to Amber Tamblyn, whose portrayal of Joan sets her apart from most teenage drama series stars. She is tossed into a raging sea of funny antics, personal crises, encounters with the divine, and questions about her own personal sanity. A lesser actress would have struggled to create a cohesive character under those circumstances, whereas Joan quickly forms into a strong character and develops as the series progresses. Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen were perfectly cast, and manage to become parents in a teenage drama whose lives we care about. So many of these shows have parents that are simply antagonists for their teenage children, or exist purely for goofy comic relief. The strong supporting cast at first seems like a group of stereotypes, but they grow into real human characters that we care deeply about by the end of the season.
I'm impressed by the show's handling of God and religion, and its willingness to deal with issues like teenage sex, prostitution, and differing world views. Even at its most controversial, Joan of Arcadia sticks to its guns and maintains a clear moral stance. Only the most fervent religious types will be offended by the material (though they may squirm at some of the topics), yet I can't imagine anyone being offended by the presence of the religious themes. The show is never preachy, and the personal views of the writers are never flaunted. Beyond dealing with religious ideals, Joan of Arcadia is interested in raising questions of faith: How do our actions affect the people around us, and what must we do to follow what we believe is right. I think all teenagers could use more lessons on how to make decisions for themselves.
Not everything about the show is great. Although Joan is a likable character, I felt frustrated with her at times. She learns the same lesson over and over, and her acceptance of the role she's been given is too gradual. Joan is virtually incapable of thinking for herself. Following God's instructions makes sense in the context of the show, but she is too quick to follow recommendations from other people. As a result, she does things that most sixteen year olds would have the sense not to do. In a series that's normally so human in portraying the characters, her willingness to do crazy things stands out too much. All of this being said, the frustrations I had with the characters shows how much I started to care about them. Joan's actions only seem strange because the rest of the series is so consistently well written.
Another minor problem is a tendency to fall into formula. Joan is commanded by God to do something. Will has a thematically similar case he's working on. One of the other family members has something similar to deal with. If there's an episode dealing with vanity, all of the family members have to struggle with their own vanity. The show could be subtler, and have these themes run throughout the series. Joan never makes the wrong choice in the end. Even though the results of her actions don't always seem good to her, we are always able to see the good that comes out of her obedience. Sometimes, it would be interesting to see consequences of her wrong choices.
The discs are produced well, with a transfer that outshines the copy you recorded from cable. The series is in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic ratio, and looks fantastic. The image is sharp, there are no compression errors or print flaws, and the colors look rich and accurate. It's not quite theatrical release quality, but it's a great television transfer. The sound is solid too, sporting a Dolby surround track that relays the voices and music with ease. Also impressive, they have only placed the theme song on the first episode of each disc, so I didn't have to skip it every time. For those of us who tend to binge view our television DVD sets, this is a great feature that I hope other studios will adopt.
Not content to give us the first season of Joan of Arcadia on a well-produced DVD set, Paramount supplies several special features to keep fans occupied. Series creator Barbara Hall and director James Hayman provide several commentaries, in which they dig into the technical and conceptual issues of the first season. Their passion for the project shows, and has certainly paid off. The commentary on episode 13 from all of the actors in the Girardi family gives us a chance to see how much fun they had in production, though not much is accomplished and it gets pretty silly. The deleted scenes were clearly removed for time restraints only, and most would have fit well into the season. A few brief featurettes explore the focus, goals and direction of the series. This is a lot of extra material to dig through, and it is handled with care.
A lot still needs to be accomplished in Joan of Arcadia for it to become a complete updating of Joan of Arc. At this stage, the pieces have been set in motion, but it feels small and formulaic. With the right movement in future seasons, this series will continue to transcend the teenage drama genre. It will need to develop, but it has already grown in this first season. Fans have no reason to pass up this great DVD set, and it's a pretty safe bet for people who are intrigued by the show's concept.
Although it needs to keep growing, Joan of Arcadia has already begun reaching its significant potential. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1028 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by the Filmmakers and Cast
* The Creation of Joan of Arcadia
* Joan of Arcadia - A Look at Season One
* God Gallery
* Deleted Scenes