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Joan of Arcadia, Alternative Superhero

There is, as ever, a lot of talk about superheroes these days. From Jim Henley’s dead-on analysis of superhero books as a literature of ethics to the discussions on reading habits prompted by John Jakala, Why just superheroes? and Why not just superheroes?, which don’t quite amount to the same thing. David Fiore has been talking nonstop about Watchmen and superheroics. Steven has our copy of Watchmen, so there’s no danger of my entering that critical community now. In fact, I’d been feeling sort of alienated from superheroes and comics in general lately, listless, not getting excited about what the characters I like (or hate) might be doing. And I’m guilty as hell of waiting for the trade, but not with urgent anticipation, but with a sort of quiet resignation, that I might as well read it eventually. This would all be less of a problem (or really no problem at all) if I hadn’t signed on to what was supposed to be in large part a comics blog, and then contributed basically no comics content of note. Then I realized that I’m still getting my superhero fix, but in another medium. Folks, don’t laugh, but I’m watching Joan of Arcadia.

This is the first tv show I’ve ever followed, with the possible exception of a deeply felt fling with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I didn’t grow up with a tv, and so it’s taken me a long time to even be able to follow and appreciate television conventions. So somehow this fall I ended up watching a show about the family of a well-off and lovely teenaged girl who get messages from God. Joan is 16, new in town, not sure how she wants to fit in at school, basically realistically awkward until God starts appearing to her in the guise of people she’d pass every day and giving her advice and assignments. Joan’s father, Will, has just been hired as the chief of police in Arcadia, an awfully corrupt fictional city, and is working hard to clean it up, which pretty much precludes making any friends. Joan’s mother, Helen, got a nebulous job at the high school office, so she’s around a lot. Joan’s older brother Kevin had been a star athlete in high school until he was paralyzed at the waist after a car accident. The move to Arcadia is supposed to encourage him to pursue independence. Then there’s Joan’s oft-ignored slightly younger brother, Luke, a science prodigy who is slowly becoming more than just a nerd stereotype. Luke initially made friends with Friedman, a creepy misogynist geek, but thankfully is not going in for such stupidity. Joan’s friends are Adam, a confused artist everyone assumes is a stoner, and Grace, whom Steven calls “The Junior Radical”, a rabble-rousing rabbi’s daughter who’s ostensibly the school lesbian.

So how is this a superhero story and not just a standard family/high school drama? That’s where God comes in. I haven’t seen the first episodes, so I don’t know how this is described in the context of the show, but basically each episode involves God giving Joan an “assignment” (Joan’s word) that somehow causes a reaction she didn’t anticipate, often with the same metaphor being played out in subplots about the family. So the basic setup is that Joan has some knowledge about what sh’es supposed to do and has a secret that keeps her different from other people, insight she can’t share. She has power that her peers don’t (maybe - more on this later) and has to decide how she’s going to use it.

I’ve always thought of the Spidey mantra “with great power comes great responsibility” as part of a gnomic triptych with “where much is given much is expected” and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” They’re disparate sources with a shared message about how to internalize guilt and expectations. I’m not quite sure what power-based reading of this David is rejecting, since I don’t see how there can be an escape from power relationships, but he seems right that “[e]very origin (or “conversion”) story renders the protagonist entirely responsible for him/herself.” I don’t know who’s responsible for the rest of us in this view, since that’s what I think of as the human condition, but this is what happens to Joan. Oh, sure, she can ask God for questions and advice, but God, who’s apparently spent millennia coming up with snarky responses to The Big Questions, wants her to figure things out for herself. God is a built-in support system of sorts, but Joan can’t summon God; it’s nothing she can count on. Similarly, the X-Men can decompress back at the mansion and practice all they want, but whatever happens in the field is a matter of individual choice and chance. I suppose this is true of the sex crimes unit in SVU, for that matter, and I think that’s what attracts me about all the stories, principled individualism. All of these characters have an inner drive and that’s what matters more than maxims about power and what we owe to each other.

Actually, the inwardness is where I think Joan works best as a show. I don’t believe that God is hanging out with Maryland teens, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think a radioactive spiderbite would make me superhuman. Taking these stories on their own terms, they are strong metaphors about being a young person and stronger because the metaphorical distance allows plenty of room for identification. I don’t know if people who do think God interacts with them daily (or could, at least) watch or approve of this show, but that’s a different issue. What matters is that mild-mannered Joan Girardi wants to have friends and understand who she is, but most of all she wants to do The Right Thing, and it’s that that gets her into trouble. Because the visits from God aren’t something she can explain to others, she doesn’t have much to fall back on when things go wrong, as they often do. But because she doesn’t question the rightness of her intents, she has an opportunity to analyze herself and her actions and understand herself better, and this ultimately is God’s goal. Well, God has other goals, which basically involve remembering that there’s more to life than being a self-absorbed teenager and that small actions can have major consequences.

Basically, as I recall it, this is what much of growing up was about, trying to learn to balance others’ needs against your own wants and trying to figure out what your wants even are. So Joan of Arcadia is a story about being a teenager (or a parent or an early-20s paraplegic) and trying to figure out what that means in relation to the world. It’s because it depends on the God conceit and the ripple metaphors in the related stories that it’s more than just a story about somebody being a teenager, etc. It’s both “universal” and personal, insightful without being (overly, so far!) didactic. And in comics terms, there’s good, clear art and sharp, snappy writing. Not to mention believable, realistic anatomy!

So why do I watch this and not explicit superhero shows like Smallville or Mutant X or the unlamented Birds of Prey? Well, in part because I haven’t given them a chance, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen maybe 10 minutes total of the last two, and that was more than enough to convince me never to watch again. Silly, campy writing! I like Joan because of the things extraneous to the superhero story. I like female protagonists, though not exclusively. I always have a soft spot for nerds, and Luke is blooming into a fun character who’s wiser and more self-aware than he initially seemed. Grace is wonderful, half-believing the politics she publicly won’t compromise, and I am completely thrilled that the writers for the show don’t feel a need to make her sexual orientation clear. Whether politicized or not, sexual ambiguity and identity are big teen issues and big issues in general, and this is handled in a way that works for me, although people who were hoping for something to watch after 7th Heaven would probably not approve. And an early episode even addresses sexual assault, which is a deal-breaker issue for me, in a lucid and moving way. The parents struggle lovingly with their relationship and clash over religion and how to deal with their children. And there are issues of civic and family responsibility and cliquishness and disability and all sorts of things that don’t show up on mainstream shows. Then again, I don’t watch mainstream shows, so maybe they do. I’d like to think I’m wrong, but I think they’re like the majority of superhero comics, full of almost-caricatures and fights and breasts and ridiculous outfits and perhaps occasional patches of good writing. In both media, I’m glad there are alternatives to this. And I’m even more glad that there are plenty of things I enjoy outside of comics and tv, but it’s good to find things that I like.


  1. David Fiore says:

    Great post Rose!

    I don’t watch much TV either (unless we’re talking about the thousand or so movies around this place), but I’ll try to catch an episode of the show…

    I’m with ya all the way on “super-hero stories that don’t seem like super-hero stories”. As far as I’m concerned, Hawthorne was the greatest super-hero writer of all…with Hammett & Melville vying for second. I’m in the planning stages of a paper that speaks to this point–it deals with Alcott’s Little Women as an important Transcendentalist precursor of the superhero story (have you ever read LW? I think it’s a fantastic book…)


    — 5 February 2004 at 6:18 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Ok, explain to me, a very skeptical observer, what Little Women has that Little Men doesn’t? I’ve always been strongly biased in that direction. I should really be rereading my old Alcott. I read all of her books, but especially the odd “Rose” stories, of course, a headstrong girl being protected and cherished by her Scots-pride cousins.

    And I’m not claiming Joan of Arcadia is a perfect show, whatever that would be. I initially watched it with Steven’s little sister, a fan, figuring that it would be kitschy and ridiculous. And it’s not really free of silliness, but that’s because it’s a melodrama. I’m just impressed that it talks openly about feminism and other topics I didn’t expect on a show about God and that its teenagers are not just stereotypes. None of the characters go to church, which I find interesting, so it’s really about spirituality and not religion. Apparently viewership is doing well, though I’m not sure who the audience is. Still, I eventually won Steven over, so I think my take on it has some merit.


    — 5 February 2004 at 12:07 pm (Permalink)

  3. Alex says:

    Just passing by…but this makes the second or third good review of this show that I’ve read. I’m predisposed to not want to, but it sounds as if I might be pleasantly surprised. I just wanted to share a bit of selective graffiti in the NY subway system. There’ve been a number of Joan of Arcadia ads populating the area, and one of them made its point w/ deletion of a what I assume is the show’s tagline:

    What if you (were) chose(n) to make a difference?

    It sounds as if the show is relying on Highway to Heaven, God cleans up mess of the week, serialness, but its still a big messy metaphor. Perhaps a straightforward “real” world drama would be less likely to grab an accepting audience. Something about the notion that morals are set a rules that are preset that requires clear signpost like God’s voice (…um, what does he/she/it sound like?) in the American or any psyche…

    — 5 February 2004 at 10:52 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    I was predisposed not to like it, too, since God’s role in my life is as a fictional character. Still, I don’t think God’s role in the show is as bad as it could be, since the “assignments” Joan gets include “take AP Chemistry”, “take an honest interest in that bully”, “join the chess club”, as well as “build a boat” and “get a job” and “offer to babysit for that overworked woman.” I think what made the show work for me is that God isn’t giving commandments but taking a more cognitive approach, so that when Joan does what she’s told she learns something about herself in relation to the world, but it usually isn’t directly related to the performance of the task. It’s a totally nonreligious movie about God getting involved in petty high school things, which I suppose many believers would say he does already, but it’s entertaining at least.

    For me, the selling point is that it’s well-acted, featuring a wide variety of Gods, and especially that the writing is good. Admittedly if it had all that and was pious and conservative and patriotic I wouldn’t be interested in the same way. It’s because of the sense of subversiveness and fun that it succeeds, at least for me.

    — 5 February 2004 at 11:37 pm (Permalink)

  5. Steven says:

    One of my favorite things about the show is the way it deconstructs the notion of god as a little voice in your head. I don’t know if Catholics get this, but there’s a fairly common [in my experience] idea in Protestant Xianity that god is the little voice in your head that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. The [generally unstated, in my experience] implication is that therefore “conscience” is externalized and the only moral choice people are capable of making is whether to listen to the little voice. (Of course, in Joan of Arcadia, God isn’t just a little voice, he actually manifests in human form.)

    One of God’s big schticks in this show is to say, “Joan, I think you should do X. Well, you don’t have to do X, it’s your choice…” and of course Joan may complain but she’s never turned down god yet that I know of. At first this sounds a lot like the “little voice” theory, but you’d expect the “little voice of conscience” God to tell you obvious things, like “Don’t lie” or “I want you to go into the ministry,” right? Well, I would. Joan’s God says things like “Go build a boat. Why? I don’t know, I’m mysterious. Build a boat.” That’s not really the sort of thing your conscience tells you. But Joan builds the boat and it turns out there was a good reason for Joan to build a boat after all which, as Rose notes, doesn’t really have anything to with the boat itself.

    I haven’t been watching the episodes in order, but I’m pretty sure Joan is slowly gaining more confidence and making more important decisions on her own without God’s prodding, leading me to suspect the show’s point is not that God helps Joan save the day, but that God is subtly helping Joan reach a point of moral maturity at which she doesn’t need an external higher power to tell her what to do. It’s God as a subversive metaphor for the replacement of dogmatic morality with moral reasoning.

    — 6 February 2004 at 12:01 am (Permalink)

  6. David Fiore says:


    I have to plead ignorance on the Little Men front, but I do intend to read it soon! I’ll get back to you…


    — 6 February 2004 at 12:49 am (Permalink)

  7. sarah says:

    This is probably my favourite show on TV as of right now. It’s among the three tv shows I watch religiously (so to speak ;)) in addition to college basketball. Needless to say most TV shows aren’t high on my to-do list, I’m not a big fan of it in general for the most part. At any rate I loved your review of Joan, and I’d love to link back to this entry in my LJ if you don’t mind.

    — 6 March 2004 at 1:23 am (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    Sarah, link away! I’ll probably write more on Joan eventually, as I’m still watching when I get the chance, and Steven’s mom tapes them for me. I’ve never seen the beginnings of a tv show before, and it’s interesting to see characters develop and get more (and less) defined. I’m glad it’s a show that’s found an audience, and I really hope (especially since I’m now a public advocate!) that it remains something I enjoy.


    — 9 March 2004 at 1:14 am (Permalink)

  9. David Buckna says:

    Check it out:

    Joan of Arcadia quiz

    — 6 June 2004 at 7:33 am (Permalink)