Faith-Based Plot Initiatives
by: Mimi White / Northwestern University
Joan of Arcadia
What is the story with Joan of Arcadia? I don’t mean this literally, since the basic story (or perhaps more accurately, the “high concept”) is pretty clear: teen girl talks to God. I have been watching the show, off and on, and trying to make sense of it. Brief disclaimer: I watched the show occasionally during its first season on U.S. television and am also watching it now in Finland, where they are airing the first season. So I am not “up to date” with the current season. I have perused episode summaries on line, and it seems that my concerns are still relevant, but I cannot be certain about this.
My confusion starts with the high concept at the heart of the show: I really don’t know how to take the God(s) that speak(s) to Joan. Is it an actual divine being, a figment of Joan’s imagination, or something else? In Touched by an Angel at least the angels were really supposed to be angels…really. The God(s) in Joan is not so clear. At some level, it seems to function as a faith-based initiative for generating plots, kind of like an inverse deus ex machina, where God shows up at the start, to get things going, instead of appearing in the nick of time to resolve dilemmas. Can’t figure out how to get Joan into awkward situations, interacting with different high school factions and misfits each week? Gee, let’s have God tell her to join the band (even though she doesn’t play an instrument) or the debate club or the cheerleading team.
But then I wonder about what sort of “God” would put a stumbling, angst-ridden teenager into such difficult situations week after week. I realize there is an ostensible moral, more or less, to be drawn from each situation: Joan doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as she is trying; she makes good or bad decisions and learns something new as a result; she learns about taking responsibility for her actions and exercising free will; etc. But having God in the picture seems to belie these very lessons. After all–and being quite literal here–by following God’s instructions, Joan is precisely not exercising free will, not taking responsibility, not figuring out things for herself. Instead she is obeying the direct orders of someone(s) she takes for an almighty power, even when doing so often places her in yet another impossible position, or embroils her in some new harebrained scheme. (At times–for example when Joan has promised to cook dinner at home, help a friend mount an art exhibit, and fetch her brother’s science notebook from another friend all at the same time–I imagine a sit-com version of the show, revising it, and Joan herself, along the lines of I Love Lucy instead of the angst-ridden domestic drama it is.)
Joan’s God (Gods?) seems to derive from some sort of multicultural Judeo-Christian tradition, broadly speaking, embodied in humans of varying races, genders, and ages. (There aren’t any flora, fauna, or inanimate objects that speak as God. The short-lived Wonderfalls did endow inanimate objects in a Niagara Falls gift shop with the power of directive advice.) This is also God without a specific religion, just a range of muddled, generic ideas about doing deeds, exercising free will, and so on. God(s) starts verging upon New Age spiritualism, as some kind of diffuse power, existing in everyone, or some sort of higher ethical consciousness.
Of course, God could be a metaphor, or an objective correlative, possibly for the interior state of an insecure teenager fitfully progressing toward womanhood (ick!), or something like that. Or Joan could be mentally ill, and hallucinating the Gods who speak to her. But in the larger context of the program, these explanations don’t quite fit. The first of these moots the whole point of bringing in God, specifically, in the first place (as opposed to something along the lines of the inanimate objects of Wonderfalls). As for mental illness, the program suggests that high school is generally an age of affective and cognitive extremes, if not full mental imbalance; everyone is a little crazy. But only Joan actually talks to God(s).
The cast of Joan of Arcadia
I could continue with my questions and confusions about the show, and how come different ideas about what God is doing there (besides bossing Joan around) all seem inchoate or nonsensical. But there are reasons for my impulse to try to figure out what is going on. “God” clearly means many different and particular things to many people. Depending, God does or does not exist; God exists in manifold versions; God is (or is not) already a metaphor. The show implicates different versions of God at different times; it is almost impossible to “invent” God without invoking, referencing, or including/excluding at least some of the versions that already exist.
More specifically, here is a show that makes God a manifest part of its content at a time when the American President has publicly called for more faith-based initiatives and even established an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House, (although there is no specific mention of television drama in its purview). In this context, the program might be expressing, or at least trying to tap into, this conservative socio-political discourse. In addition to having embodied God(s) as a recurring character, Joan’s nuclear family includes prominent representatives of repressive and ideological state apparatuses with her father on the police force (originally brought to town as chief of police) and her mother a high school teacher.
Yet even though this is not inaccurate, it still seems too pat. For example, the program’s general tenor of angst and disorder extends beyond the high school characters, into the socio-political world of Arcadia with the rampant political and police corruption that the father exposes, losing his job as police chief in the process. In some ways, at least, the program seems to question the quiescent conservatism that it also advances (in part by having God direct Joan’s fate). And when it comes to religion, the program undercuts its God as avatar of mainstream religion just as readily as it encourages the idea that religion, or at least some sort of faith in a higher being, is a meaningful force in the life of its eponymous heroine.
Maybe the show’s idea of God is just so half-baked that it isn’t even worth thinking about this much. (The inverse of this is something along the lines of “God is whatever you think it means,” yielding a quiescent liberal complement to its quiescent conservatism.) Maybe putting God quite literally in the picture is a means of giving the impression that there really is something substantive to think about. You start to wonder if it isn’t just a cheap gimmick. Perhaps it really is a faith-based initiative after all, or maybe even a perverse joke on the very idea of faith-based initiatives.
Please feel free to comment.