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TV Preview: 'Joan of Arcadia appeals to all ages

Sunday, February 15, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD - The season's brightest and best new series, CBS's "Joan of Arcadia," has also been one of the more pleasant ratings surprises. In an era when trashy reality shows - "Average Joe," "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" - are drawing viewers and media attention, "Joan" managed to break through the tumult and has already been renewed for a second season next fall.

TV Preview
"Joan of Arcadia"
When: 8 p.m. Friday on CBS.
Starring: Amber Tamblyn

It's not the highest-rated new show of the season, but it has brought more advertiser-coveted younger viewers to CBS and regularly wins its 8 p.m. Friday time slot. At the same time, "Joan" doesn't turn off older viewers. That's no minor feat.

Actress Amber Tamblyn, who stars as the show's title character, said she was recently mobbed at the mall by teenage girls and then had a different encounter two days later.

"I had someone come up to me who was, like, 6-foot-2 and had his septum pierced and had a tattoo on his shaved head and sleeve tattoos with a really, like, deep voice that told me he and his mother watch the show," she said.

While the series' conceit sounds old-fashioned and preachy - God, taking different human forms, speaks directly to teenager Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn) - this is no "Touched by an Angel." "Joan" grapples with issues and embraces spirituality without giving God's stamp of approval to or alienating members of any particular religion.

Series creator Barbara Hall ("Judging Amy"), who is a practicing Roman Catholic, said she was inspired by the story of Joan of Arc.

"My own personal belief is that God is available to everyone all the time, and if you want to see him, you have to look for him," Hall said. "The mystery is why and how Joan became open, and we may or may not resolve that."

"Joan of Arcadia" actually carries several franchises at the same time. Along with the God-Joan relationship, there's Joan's friends at school and her family. Brother Kevin (Jason Ritter) is in a wheelchair after a car accident and brother Luke (Michael Welch) is a science geek. Joan's mother, Helen (Mary Steenburgen), works in the office at the school Joan and Luke attend, and Joan's father, Will (Joe Mantegna), is head of detectives for the Arcadia sheriff's office.

"I wanted a man who was a good man, who had a really strong sense of right and wrong and dealt in a world where he literally had to look at good and evil," Hall said of Will's career. "He has a strong sense of morality, but it didn't come from religion. I wanted to show that world bumping up against a very, very spiritual world. He's the physical warrior, [Joan's] the metaphysical warrior.

"You've got to think about how much of an impact Joan's interaction with God would mean if we weren't also seeing a world more like the one we live in where you have to look at really awful things. The whole point was to try to contend with a God in a world where things are really awful, like 9/11. I've never been interested in God in a benign universe."

Hall originally planned to have God take a different form each time God appears to Joan, but lately there have been more recurring actors playing the Almighty, including Cute Boy God (Kris Lemche) and Old Lady God (Kathryn Joosten, who played Mrs. Landingham, President Bartlet's secretary, on "The West Wing").

"I thought the plot of the show would be wondering when God would appear in each scene or each act," Hall said. "But you fall in love with actors and you fall in love with characters and then you have them back. We really enjoy doing that."

The show's early depiction of religious figures, particularly a priest with no answer for the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people, struck an unbelievable chord with some viewers, but Hall had her reasons.

"He has his idea of the answers, but you cannot give them to people who are not prepared to hear them," Hall said. The priest grew less unsure in later episodes. "He was beginning to believe [Helen] was willing to hear his answers."

The "Joan of Arcadia" cast had its own spiritual crisis when actor John Ritter, father of cast member Jason Ritter, died last fall. Steenburgen had known Jason Ritter long before "Joan." They appeared in a play together in New York and he graduated from high school with two of Steenburgen's daughters.

"The day that happened, we all reached out," Steenburgen said. "I called Amber and I called Joe and I called Michael. And the commitment was, whatever he needs, we're there. I went over to the house to be with him and made sure his mother knew that."

"We all made it about the fact that we loved him so much and supported him and that it only made us stronger as a family," Tamblyn said. "As opposed to losing someone, it was about loving someone."

As for the remainder of the season on "Joan," Hall said viewers can expect a cliffhanger in May.

"I always try to do a cliffhanger. I try not to do something really cheesy," said Hall, who nonetheless allowed viewers to think Gillian Gray (Jessica Tuck) expired after childbirth in last May's "Judging Amy" cliffhanger. "I think there's a lot of value in making people wonder what will happen."

Hall said she's still working on ideas for the "Joan" cliffhanger, but it may deal with whether Joan tells anyone else about her conversations with God.

"That's another big over-arcing question for the whole series: When will someone else know, anyone else know, and the order in which other people will be brought into her knowledge," Hall said. "And then the big question is, will they believe her?"


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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