Like just about anyone who prefers not to mix religion and entertainment, I approached the season one DVD set of Joan of Arcadia with a certain degree of skepticism. Frankly I was convinced it was going to be a youth-centric, touchy-feely, schmaltz-fest not unlike Touched By an Angel. But after a few friends of mine professed their fandom for Joan, I was intrigued. Surely I couldn't have dismissed this series so unjustly!
Actually, yep. Despite my early confidence that Joan of Arcadia would never work for a cynic like yours truly, I quickly found myself sucked in by the show's clever concept, strong writing, and consistently excellent performances. I've said it before and I'll say it again: DVD is the only way to devour a new series. No commercials, no week-long breaks -- just as many episodes as you want in one enjoyable sitting. And Joan of Arcadia is pretty darn enjoyable.
Joan (Amber Tamblyn) could not possibly be a more "average" American teenager. She's smart, but not a brain. She's cute, but not traditionally pretty. She has a great family that she loves, but they're often more embarrassing than anything else. Joan's dad (Joe Mantegna) is the new police chief of Arcadia and her mother, Helen, (Mary Steenburgen) works at the high school as an administrative paper-pusher. Joan also has two brothers: a younger one, Luke, who's a brain and an older one, Kevin, who recently became a paraplegic thanks to a nasty car accident. So things, for the most part, are pretty middle-of-the-road normal for young Joan.
And then she meets God.
Not a "burning bush" sort of God or a big kingly-lookin' guy who parts the clouds and speaks in a deep, booming voice. No, the God of Joan of Arcadia chooses to take the guise of average Joe/Jane on the street. Sometimes God looks like a postman or a lunchlady; sometimes a cute little girl or a goofy old man. This "gimmick" alone makes for some interesting material, but series creator Barbara Hall has more on her mind than simple gimmickry.
What's most engaging about Joan's various adventures is the way in which even the most innocuous piece of advice (like, say, "Go join the chess club") leads our heroine towards a series of satisfying revelations. Sometimes you can plainly see where an episode is heading; more often than not you've got a few surprises in store. And for a show that features "God" in such an important role, Joan of Arcadia never thumps a bible or preaches from on high. This might be a series about faith, but it's not geared towards a specific religion in any way.
Joan's inaugural season comes home on DVD, and Paramount Home Video has done a pretty sterling job on the package. The episodes are as follows:
Pilot - Joan Girardi is sent on a mission to get a job - by a cute boy who claims to be God. Meanwhile, Joan's dad Will Girardi, the new chief of police, struggles to solve the case of a serial killer. (original airdate: 09/26/03)
The Fire and the Wood - When God asks Joan to stop being an underachiever, she enrolls in advance-placement chemistry. During an arson investigation, Will ruffles some feathers. (10/03/03)
Touch Move - God once again makes the first move and encourages Joan to learn how to play chess; a psychic helps Will work on a missing toddler case while Helen hopes that a miracle will help Kevin to walk again. (10/10/03)
The Boat - After Joan energetically tackles her boat-building project, Helen fears that her daughter is becoming eccentric; Will wants Kevin to get rolling -- on a wheelchair basketball team. (10/17/03)
Just Say No - Joan catches the attention of a charming classmate as she's given short notice by God to hold a garage sale. Looking for things to sell, she finds some of her mom's paintings that were created during a dark period in her life. Kevin gets the scoop on a reporter's job.(10/24/03)
Bringeth It On - Joan becomes Ms. Popularity after God tells her to try out for the cheerleading squad; Will's first case involves an abandoned baby left in a trash bin; a classmate senses Luke is gay.(10/31/03)
Death Be Not Whatever - While baby-sitting for a 6-year-old, Joan must deal with the boy's obsession with death; a black man is assaulted at a gas station by police officers. (11/07/03)
The Devil Made Me Do It - Joan is bewildered by God asking her to volunteer at a high school art show - so that she can help prevent a sculpture from being exhibited. After a man shoots and kills an intruder, Will feels pressure from the DA to call the man a hero; Kevin grows tired of getting special treatment because he uses a wheelchair. (11/14/03)
St. Joan - God asks Joan to get an "A" on a test about Joan of Arc. Helen is troubled by her daughter's preoccupation with the famous French saint and wants the whole family to see a therapist. Meanwhile, Will is unfairly reprimanded for shutting down a crack house. (11/21/03)
Drive, He Said - Will is at the mercy of a crazed gunman; Helen gets a positive result on a home-pregnancy test; Joan dreads taking her driver's exam and Luke is distracted before taking part in a high-stakes competition. (12/05/03)
The Uncertainty Principle - Per God's instructions, Joan is to ask a troublemaker to the winter formal; the former chief of police and some members of the city government are the subject of a secret that Will has uncovered. (12/12/03)
Jump - After a friend dies, Joan questions God about life and death. Will loses his job after blowing the whistle on a political conspiracy. Luke's attraction to Grace grows grows and Kevin is injured in a basketball game. (01/09/04)
Recreation - All does not go well at a health spa for Will and Helen when he can't stop thinking about his job. God instructs Joan to throw a party; Kevin and his boss, Rebecca, share a mutual attraction. (01/16/04)
State of Grace - Taking the suggestion from God, Joan joins the debate team; Helen contemplates applying for a position as an art teacher; Kevin and Luke each deal with the aftermath of a kiss; a reverend accused of child molestation is the focus of Will and Toni. (02/06/04)
Night Without Stars - Direct by God to work with kids, Joan volunteers to baby-sit children of abused mothers; Luke makes a shocking admission; Kevin sleeps with Rebecca; previous events emotionally catch up with Will. (02/13/04)
Double Dutch - God wants Joan to learn to jump rope with a group of inner-city teens. Kevin goes on a date, but not with Rebecca. (02/20/04)
No Bad Guy - An embarrassing photo of Joan, taken with a picture phone, is spread around school after she stands up for a classmate who's being bullied. God instructs Joan to join the band; Will must deal with an elderly driver who accidentally killed several people. (02/27/04)
Requiem For a Third Grade Ashtray - Helping the chaotic Girardi family is God's latest request to Joan. While making an arrest, Will and Toni get stuck in an elevator with a woman about to give birth; Kevin believes he's recovering some sensation in his midsection. (03/12/04)
Do the Math - After God tells Joan to take piano lessons she helps her piano teacher deal with her past. A painful secret that Will and Helen have kept from the family becomes known to Joan. (04/02/04)
Anonymous - God asks Joan to join the yearbook staff and she attempts to impress Adam by becoming the yearbook's star photographer - with disastrous results. After a man plans to have his wife murdered, Will and Toni set up a sting to catch him. (04/30/04)
Vanity, Thy Name Is Human - Taking a cosmetics class is God's latest request to Joan; Kevin crosses paths with the last girlfriend he had before having become a paraplegic. (05/07/04)
The Gift - Joan wonders if God wants her to have sex with Adam. Kevin causes a stir in one of Will's classes after covering court proceedings for the paper. (05/14/04)
Silence - Hospitalized with Lyme disease, Joan wonders if she's been hallucinating her experiences with God; Will and Helen rethink their beliefs after, respectively, experiencing spiritual dreams and miraculous events. (05/21/04)
(Episode synopses are taken from the back of the DVD cases.)
The DVD - Those who are already firm fanatics of Joan of Arcadia are in for some bad news and some good: the bad news is that, according to the DVD case, some of the "music has been changed for this home entertainment version" -- but since I never saw the show on television, I've no idea what songs were excised. The good news is that Joan of Arcadia has been upgraded from TV-friendly Full Frame to a much more cinematically pleasing Widescreen Anamorphic format. And the episodes look pretty darn great.
Audio-wise, we're given a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, which is more than adequate for the series. The dialogue and the music arrive on basically the same stage, but everything flows together quite well. Nothing staggering, but certainly good enough.
Disc 1 contains a pilot audio commentary between series creator Barbara Hall and executive producer James Hayman. It's a low-key and generally back-patting affair, but fans will enjoy the tidbits of info sprinkled throughout.
Disc 3 offers an episode 12 audio commentary with Ms. Hall, Mr. Hayman, and producer Hart Hanson.
Disc 4's audio commentary features several cast members: Joe Mantegna, Amber Tamblyn, Jason Ritter, Michael Welch, and the ever-lovely Mary Steenburgen as they chat over episode 13's action.
Disc 6 offers a pair of audio commentaries: episode 22's yak-track comes courtesy of writers Tom Garrigus, David Grae, Joy Gregory, and Stephen Nathan, while the season finale brings back the 1-2 punch of Barabara Hall & James Hayman.
Also on disc 6 are a trio of extra goodies:
The Creation of Joan of Arcadia features more input from Hall & Hayman, while A Look at Season One deliver more from H & H, only this time several of the actors stop by to contribute. God Gallery focuses on Hall & Hayman's favorite godly "disguises" from season one.
Last but not least: Scattered throughout all six discs are a collection of deleted scenes for episodes 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 21, and 23.
It really is a whole lot of fun to be proven wrong about a show you just knew you'd hate. Despite all odds, Joan of Arcadia had me sucked in by the fourth episode, and I found myself speeding through the rest of Joan's first season adventures in just one weekend. Those who might be turned off by the show's potential "religiosity" need not worry; Joan's got a few great lessons to teach, but the show never preaches from the pulpit.