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Joan of Arcadia: Season 1 DVD Review

Joan of Arcadia: Season 1

October 2, 2005

Director: Jack Bender, James Hayman, Timothy Busfield, Elodie Keene,
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Joe Mantegna, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Ritter, Michael Welch, Christopher Marquette, Becky Wahlstrom, Aaron Himelstein, Mageina Tovah, Elaine Hendrix, ,

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DVD Review

Since 9/11 it’s no secret that people have been anxious, asking questions and feeling unsafe. They have been looking for something comforting and the TV show Joan of Arcadia came along to fulfill this need. In some respects, it is the My So Called Life for the new Millennium. Both shows feature a young, teenage girl as the protagonist dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up: boys, doing well in school, trying to have some semblance of a social life and, oh yeah, talking to God.

One night, Joan Girardi (Tamblyn) hears a disembodied voice in her room. She dismisses it and wakes up the next day to spot a strange man standing in her front yard. She sees him again on the way to school. Is Joan being stalked? As she gets off the bus a cute boy starts talking to her. He tells her everything about her family and introduces himself as God. She’s understandably skeptical but the things he knows and says convinces her.

After this initial meeting, Joan continues to see and speak to God. She’s not allowed to ask questions, only God is and in every episode God appears to her as a different person (although some appear repeatedly): an old man walking his dogs, a Goth kid, a high school janitor and so on. God asks Joan to do certain errands but doesn’t tell her why. She only realizes their significance (and their ramifications) by the conclusion of a given episode. She keeps her conversations with God and the tasks she does for him (like building a boat, trying out for the cheerleading squad, joining the debate team and learning to jump rope) from her family lest they think she’s crazy.

To their credit, they are often mystified by her uncharacteristic behaviour but they have their own problems. Her father, Will (Mantegna) is chief of police, a decent man dealing with corruption in his own precinct. Her mother, Helen (Steenburgen), is a painter who also teaches art at Joan’s school—a clear conflict of interest and source of tension between them. Kevin (Ritter), her older brother, was a gifted athlete in school and is now a paraplegic due to a car accident. Luke (Welch), her younger brother is the smart one, a science geek who’s starting discover girls.

The second episode introduces Joan’s two best friends: Grace (Wahlstrom), a leather jacketed tomboy who is embarrassed by her Jewish heritage and Adam (Marquette), an artist and dreamer who catches Joan’s eye. Over the course of the season, they play pivotal roles in Joan’s life and given their own subplots to flesh out their characters.

The interplay between the Girardi family is well done. It feels and sounds authentic. The siblings all have a believable antagonistic relationship with each other. Helen worries about raising them right while Will deals with all kinds of tough cases at work. It’s a family that is dealing with all of these issues but is still there for each other when it counts. They aren’t a perfect family by any means, which makes them more authentic.

Amber Tamblyn is the glue that holds it altogether and she is more than capable for the difficult job. She is the central character that all the others orbit around and she is also the one that the audience identifies most with. If we don’t believe that she is really communicating with God than the premise of the show fails. Joan is an idealist who is a little naïve but this is due to inexperience. Tamblyn is required to convey a wide range of emotions as her character goes through a myriad of changes over the course of the season and she shows a surprising amount of depth and versatility for someone so young.

At times, like My So Called Life, Joan of Arcadia gets a little too touchy feely liberal for its own good but, surprisingly, it doesn’t try to ram religion down our throats. Ultimately, the show deals with human frailties and notions of tolerance and compassion in a compelling and entertaining way that is comforting in these dark and uncertain times.

Special Features:

If you read the fine print on the back of the box, you will notice that some of the show’s music has been changed. Apparently, they couldn’t secure the rights to music by Avril Lavigne, Sinead O’Connor, The White Stripes and others. This is a glaring omission and one that takes away from the enjoyment of these episodes.

On the first disc is an audio commentary for the “Pilot” episode by the show’s creator, Barbara Hall and episode director James Hayman. Hall says that the point of the show was to provoke discussion and ask questions of a philosophical, spiritual and religious nature. This is a chatty, engaging track as Hayman focuses on the more technical aspects while Hall talks about the show’s themes.

There are five deleted scenes that include Will laying down the law with a subordinate in the “Pilot” and Joan butting heads with Principal Price in “The Fire and the Wood.”

The second disc features three deleted scenes with Joan and her mom having a heart-to-heart in “Just Say No.” There is more of Kevin getting sick of the special treatment he receives because of his wheelchair in “The Devil Made Me Do It” that just feels redundant.

The third disc features an audio commentary on “Jump” by Hall, Hayman and writer Hart Hanson. Hall points out that the early episodes establish what God can and can’t do. They touch briefly upon casting of the characters of Luke and Grace. Hanson talks about his script and the changes it underwent.

There are four deleted scenes that include Will meeting more resistance from a bureaucrat in “St. Joan” and an uncomfortable moment between Luke and Glynis in “The Uncertainty Principle.”

On the fourth disc there is an audio commentary on “Recreation” by the Girardi family: Amber Tamblyn, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Welch, Jason Ritter and Joe Mantegna. This is something of a let-down as they spend the entire track joking around with each other and commenting on how different they looked back then. The tone is light and chaotic as everyone talks over each with their own respective comments.

There are two deleted scenes that include Joan standing up to Principal Price in “Double Dutch.”

The fifth DVD features three deleted scenes with Kevin screwing up at work and then facing the ramifications of it in “No Bad Guy.”

The sixth disc features an audio commentary on “The Gift” by writers Tom Garrigus, David Grae, Joy Gregory and Stephen Nathan. They point out that this is the episode where the Joan-Adam relationship peaks and that they wanted to examine the whole teen sex issue in a non-cliché way.

Hall and Hayman return for the audio commentary on “Silence.” They deliver another strong track explaining their intentions with this episode. They wanted Joan to question if she was really talking to God. These two are the guiding creative forces on the show and speak very eloquently about it.

“The Creation of Joan of Arcadia” takes a look at how the show came together. The idea for it came to Hall while working on Judging Amy as contemporary take on Joan of Arc. After 9/11, CBS was more receptive to Hall’s pitch because people were questioning their safety, beliefs, etc.

“Joan of Arcadia – A Look at Season One” is a substantial 18-minute overview. Hall talks about how she picked the show’s writers. Hayman states that the show is not a religious one but in fact spiritual. Hall goes through the casting of the Girardi family and the actors talk about their characters.

“God Gallery” takes us through six reoccurring incarnations of God in the first season, identifies who plays them and why God looks like them. This is an enjoyable extra that provides insight into the casting of God.

Finally, there are two deleted scenes that feature little bits of business between characters that was rightly cut.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 90%

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