Are You There, God?

Where’s the religion in Joan of Arcadia?

Not quite the Maid of Orléans

In the final minutes of last Friday’s Joan of Arcadia episode, a mime sits 16-year-old Joan Girardi down in a public square, quits with the jazz hands, and, speaking as God, Explains Everything. This sort of thing happens a lot on the show. Joan (played by Amber Tamblyn), a loner * in suede, really long scarves, and highlights, has been bumping into the Almighty all over the place—as the cafeteria lunch lady, a surly utility repairman, a TV newscaster, and (obviously Joan’s favorite) an age-appropriate, high-cheekboned hottie telling her to get a job and take A.P. Chem (without the pre-requisites!). Weirdly, she’s game, since just what any of this has to do with being an “instrument of God” is unclear, even on second viewing.

Cue the mime. A.P. Chemistry is hard, he explains, so hard that Joan had to convene a study group in her house with Adam, who’s both high-school stoner and—welcome to television—arty metalworker. “Your father meets Adam, which compels him to exchange pleasantries with Adam’s father,” the mime says, doing a decent phantom rope routine, “who passes along his inflated impression of your father to his counterpart in the fire department who happens to be the brother-in-law of an arson investigator”—and at this point Joan is looking a little whatever—”who risks passing information to your father so that he can catch an arsonist.”

“Wait, so I caught an arsonist?” Joan asks.

“That’s just on the Adam reality strand,” the mime says.

There are other “reality strands”—Adam actually begat two—but I’m not sure I’m on any of them. Twelve million people watched this with me, making Joan of Arcadia (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET, CBS) one of this season’s most popular new shows, and I hope some of them took the prerequisites.

Thankfully, Joan of Arcadia is not a Christian ethics procedural a la Touched by an Angel and lacks the wall-to-wall moral carpeting of 7th Heaven. It’s better, darker, more satisfyingly indirect and consciously architected than either of its overtly spiritualized predecessors. Joan is about as edgy as family-hour television can get, featuring a serial killer cutting up teens, arsonists, an older brother with a broken back, and Adam’s “boo-ya schwag” mentioned three times for street cred. With dyed hair, eye shadow, and a room plastered with Pink posters, this Joan is far from the all-angels-all-the-time PAX network.

Except, where is she, precisely?

The show doesn’t care much for organized religion, overt lessons, or ethical behavior. The Cute Guy God (so named in the script) advises her, “It’s not about religion. It’s about fulfilling your true nature.” The only priest we see is shilling for the homeless with a bell in a parking lot. When Joan’s mother, played with reedy grace by Mary Steenburgen, challenges the priest about God’s tendency to make people suffer, he tells her she’s in spiritual crisis and that he’ll pray for her. “What will you say?” she asks, and it’s the show’s real zinger.

If the mime is right, and I suspect he has to be, Joan’s idea of morality is a clueless stumble toward self-actualization, a chaos-theory Samaritanism. Try as you might, you can’t do much more than fiddle with the knobs on the initial conditions. It’s a message perfectly tuned for audiences interested in spirituality but annoyed by What Would Jesus Do? smugness, do-gooder screenagers, or the confidence that we have much agency at all. One thing I’m fairly sure of is that Jesus would not take A.P. Chem and then just wait for good chain reactions.

Here, Joan is more of a receiver than transmitter, but that might be the fault of a young show still finding its way. Getting a job at the local bookstore turns out to shame her newly handicapped brother, played by Jason Ritter (John’s son) sporting a ferocious bowl cut, into getting one too. (A job that, like the serial killer from the pilot, disappears on arrival.) Joan’s friend Adam seems to be a strange attractor, since he not only kicks off the arsonist hunt but also reveals to the mother where to find a car with hand controls for the wheel-chair-bound brother so he can go cruising for chicks. This is a fully domesticated Joan of Arc, sleeping with a stuffed animal, whose sole crusade is repairing her brother’s bruised ego.

Striving and genuine, Joan has a Creed-y appeal, but I can’t help feeling the scale is off. At 13, the original Maid of Orléans heard voices, cross-dressed, faced down the British, was deemed a witch, and—at 19, with her miracle force run to empty—was burned at the stake. There’s enough material there to get to syndication and the reunion show. In Joan of Arcadia, we’re not expecting heroics as much as interesting choices, moral or immoral, and we don’t get them. There’s dramatic motion—it’s just not forward motion. In keeping with its chaotic universe, the action is all nonlinear, the kind that’s fun to watch permeate as a screensaver but not for an hour in prime time. Plus, it defeats the power of the show’s own mythology. Really, what was the original Joan but the butterfly that caused the hurricane all by herself?

Correction, Oct. 9, 2003: This story originally reported that Joan was from Southern California. In fact, the fictional town of Arcadia is not set in any particular state. (Return to corrected sentence.)