Monday, April 18, 2005

"Joan of Oblivion''?

When a new character arrived on "Joan of Arcadia" last Friday, the background music was the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." I laughed, thinking it was just an odd little musical joke establishing an upcoming storyline. But later in the same episode, when Joan sees a picture of the new guy, "Sympathy for the Devil" played again -- and this time it went on long enough for the lyrics to explain the song's intent for all the viewers who haven't paid much attention to the Stones.
It felt heavy-handed, and one of the things I used to admire about "Joan" was its light touch. But I have had a hard time admiring "Joan" at all this season.
That's a tough thing to say since I loved "Joan" in its first season. Well, most of it. Amber Tamblyn, who plays Joan, was a fresh and appealing presence in prime time. And she was part of a very good cast overall: Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen as Joan's parents, Jason Ritter and Michael Welch as Joan's brothers and Christopher Marquette and Becky Wahlstrom as Joan's friends.
Moreover, the show handled its premise -- about God, in different human forms, speaking directly to Joan and advising her -- in a deft way. There was never any doubt that God was doing the talking, or that Joan understood she was hearing God, even if she was reluctant to take God's advice.
But at the end of that season, the show took a grim turn, with Joan questioning her faith. That bothered me. Nor was I completely sold by the explanation I later got from series creator Barbara Hall. "Every season finale is supposed to make you want to watch next year," she said. "So I haven't done my job ... if (the finale) hasn't bothered you."
As for Joan's crisis of faith, Hall said, "I want Joan's relationship with God to always be evolving. I don't want anyone to get ahead of it. Mystery is inherent in God. Therefore, you have to keep mystery alive because if God is very predictable, it doesn't look like the God we have to contend with."
Still, that crisis set a bleak tone for this, the show's second season, and that wasn't the only way that despair set in for "Joan." Her family struggled with a lawsuit early on. And, most recently, Joan has gone through the emotional turbulence of a troubled and finally broken relationship.
That relationship seemed to be working its way back to at least friendship in last week's episode, but all the unhappiness on "Joan" seems to have driven viewers away. The series is even popping up on lists of "bubble shows" -- those series that aren't guaranteed another season (although they aren't certain of cancellation, either). The show looks to be trying to draw back viewers and set up a third season with this week's episode, the second-season finale.
CBS describes it like this: "God tells Joan that the last two years were a spiritual boot camp for her greatest challenge yet, pitting her against a man with a sinister agenda." On paper, that doesn't thrill me, especially on a show that was strongest when it was about hope, but I'll withhold judgment until I see it.
And I do want to see it. Although I drifted away from "Joan" for long stretches this season, I came back the last couple of weeks. Even with all the bleakness, the show triumphed in little gestures -- like, say, Mantegna's look of fear and bewilderment when he isn't sure what Steenburgen wants from him. If the series does come back for a third season, I hope it finds more of those moments; if it doesn't, well, we'll just have to cherish that first season on DVD.

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