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Category: Television

Pop Revolutionaries

Apple and Pepsi’s Super Bowl tv ad: this is brilliant! I’m sure all you people who actually watch tv have already seen this a million times, but I was introduced to its wonders only today thanks to Warren Ellis (who is apparently rather offended by the ad). Two corporations saying “Hey kids, you should download music legally, but hell yeah, way to stick it to the Man!” And they use Green Day’s (quintessential corporate pseudo-punks) cover of “I Fought the Law.” This ad is satirizing, like, everything. Faux-punks like Green Day, real punks like The Clash, corporate copyright hysteria, the pop rebellion of filesharing, corporations who appropriate anti-corporate punk symbolism to promote consumerism, people who rail against corporations who appropriate anti-corporate punk symbolism… Why can’t all evil multinational corporations be this hip and ironic?

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.