Leaving Arcadia

Author: Jessica Mesman


CBS showed too little faith in its show about God and a teenage girl

Just because I speak doesn’t mean anyone will listen.

God was aware that most people didn’t hear Him. He even had a sense of humor about it. Or at least He did on Joan of Arcadia, the recently canceled CBS drama about a teenage girl pursued by a God who shifted shape, cracked wise and offered guidance she didn’t always understand. Since the show debuted in September 2003, God had spoken to 16-year-old Joan in the guise of a cute boy, a goth kid, a make-up artist, a little girl on a swing, a pretentious filmmaker and a rich lady in a limo, among other incarnations.

I’m not appearing to you. You’re seeing me.

Right. This wasn’t just another show about a young woman’s entanglement with supernatural forces. Joan didn’t have special powers. She wasn’t a psychic, a superhero, a witch or a saint. She wasn’t even religious. In two seasons of seeing God, she never went to church, though her mom started RCIA in the Catholic Church and her best friend prepared for her bat mitzvah. Joan didn’t kill vampires, and unlike her predecessors on CBS—characters on Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven— she didn’t moralize. She was a teenager; mostly she tried to ignore God. When she couldn’t, much of the show’s drama depended on her contemplation of what He could possibly want from her. Why would God want her to work in a bookstore? Jump from the high dive? Prevent her boyfriend from exhibiting his art? Try out for cheerleading?

It’s a guidance session. I’m all about guidance.

When Joan obeyed God’s pithy and often cryptic directives, good stuff happened. Her wheelchair-bound brother got a job. Her boyfriend decided not to drop out of high school. These were hardly lights from heaven, but every action had a reaction, and Joan started to notice how even her smallest decisions affected everyone else’s lives.

The show didn’t have much to say about religion or prayer or worship. In two seasons, it was more concerned with how different the world looked when a nonbeliever started seeing God in others. How much harder decisions became. Or how much easier, depending on how you looked at it.

In “The Election,” Joan discovered two of her male classmates kissing passionately. She was in a position to use it against them—Lars, the popular jerk, was running against Joan’s nerdy friend in the school election, which she became involved in at God’s request. Joan struggled with her conscience and decided to keep her mouth shut, even though it meant her candidate lost the race.

God never said how he felt about homosexuality, and there were no fingers wagging at those who wanted to throw stones. Instead, we saw the terrified look on Lars’s face when he saw that Joan has discovered his secret. Then we saw his relief, tinged with shame, when, on election day, Joan was mercifully quiet. It was a smaller moment than we expected. But it was a moment of grace.

They’re all just small parts of something much greater. Something that never ends.

By the end of season two, Joan was getting the hang of it: Her friend may have lost the election, but her boyfriend, Adam, got an internship at a graphic design firm on the merits of the campaign posters he made for their candidate.

But while most critics were fascinated by Joan’s tussles with free will and the mystery of faith, the audience had begun to lose interest. The show’s ratings were down nearly 30 percent, and it was no longer winning its time slot on Friday nights. It wasn’t even coming in second.

Did viewers suddenly grow bored with the show’s vague, ecumenical monotheism? The best-selling books in Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series and the phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ demonstrated that overtly Christian material can be wildly successful. And with NBC firing off the apocalyptic miniseries Revelations this past April and a new dramatic series Book of Daniel, about an Episcopal priest, in September, the ante is being upped on prime-time television. When Joan debuted in 2003, the mere sight of this Cute-Boy God on prime time seemed racy. By ducking divisive issues of faith, the show appealed to seekers. But in the post-Passion world, Joan couldn’t afford to be so coy.

There was a glimmer of hope: Despite the dramatic dip in ratings, Joan’s creator, veteran TV writer Barbara Hall (Judging Amy, Northern Exposure), signed a three-year development deal with Paramount in February that supposedly guaranteed the show would stay on CBS through 2005-06. It seemed that Joan of Arcadia would have the chance to bounce back and be the best show on the networks. Would Hall and CBS continue to take risks and push the boundaries of secular pop culture? Was it time for Joan to get religion?

It’s not about being religious; it’s about fulfilling your true nature.

Ah, God’s favorite refrain. “I’m not talking careers here,” says Hall of her TV God’s advice to fulfill one’s true nature, “but what would the world look like if Shakespeare had decided it was too impractical to be a playwright?”

She explains: “I learned this in catechism: We’re made in God’s image in that we too can create, not just procreate. That’s why I’m so moved by art.” The works of such artists as the novelist Gustave Flaubert, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson and the band Wilco, she says, “are proof of the existence of God.”

God never asked Joan to pray, or worship Him or read scriptures. His assignments were never about Him and seldom about her. God was always telling Joan to seek—whether in the universe or in human relations—patterns, connections, meaning, design. “That’s why I love physics,” says Hall. “If one force is off by a fraction, none of this would be possible.” As a result, sometimes God sounded more like the physicist Richard Feynman than the Almighty we know from the Bible.

God’s penchant for science was a reflection of the show’s creator. Feynman’s Rainbow is on her bookshelf in Los Angeles. God at the Speed of Light, Modern Physics, Ancient Faith and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind were required reading for the show’s writers. She believes that God exists within the physical laws of the universe—it’s one of her personal obsessions—and she was committed to showing how on Joan. Which explains why the characters, especially Joan’s science-geek brother, Luke, and his nerdy Jewish friend, Friedman, talked more about science than they did about religion.

The show often reflected Hall’s own spiritual autobiography. She studied Eastern religion before converting to Catholicism in 2001 and says physics brought her to the Mass, which is all about “the manipulation of energy.” So in addition to being a physicist, God sometimes sounded like a Zen Buddhist or a Bikram Yoga instructor. Sometimes He gets a little matrix-y, as Joan put it, alluding to the popular sci-fi trilogy. It frustrated her, the way He knew all but wouldn’t tell, the way He tantalized her with the faintest scraps of illumination before flipping off the lights. So Joan yelled at Him. She tried to avoid Him. She couldn’t. He was always there. On the bus. In the bookstore. Swinging in the park.

Viewers watched as Joan and God moved from the first blush of romance (in the pilot, Joan asks Cute-Boy God if it was weird that she kind of had a crush on Him) to the cold shoulder. Hall doesn’t see any problem with comparing a relationship with God to a romantic relationship between humans, because they are both about building up intimacy; she has said that in her own life, God has been like an old boyfriend who won’t go away. Since she became a Catholic, it’s only gotten more complicated. Like any relationship. “Struggling with God is a relationship with God,” she says.

In the best episode of the series, Joan got sick, and God stopped talking. He stopped showing up altogether. He left her all alone in a hospital bed, writhing in the unbearable “Silence” that gave the episode its title. Why would God let Joan suffer? Had she imagined it all? The diagnosis, after all, was Lyme disease, an illness that can cause hallucinations. Was she crazy? And why wasn’t she glad He was gone?

People manage to believe in me, even though they have no idea what I am. They trust me even in the silence.

Hall was raped and nearly killed in New Orleans in May of 1997. Rather than rejecting God, this trauma led her to seek God more determinedly. She says the kinds of spiritual questions she had long been asking—why does God let us suffer? Why do the bad guys sometimes win?—seemed to resonate even more loudly post 9/11. The horror of terrorism led to a new openness to spirituality among Americans, an urgent need for goodness and meaning in a scary world that ultimately helped make a show about a teenage girl in conversation with God a possibility for network TV.

By the end of season one, Hall seemed to have performed a miracle: She had created a moving work about the ambiguities of faith for TV. She’d produced a hit show about God that was clever without being cynical, moral without being pat. Hallelujah! Critical and popular praise abounded. Joan of Arcadia‘s young star, Amber Tamblyn, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress. The show won a People’s Choice Award for Best New Drama and was nominated for three Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series.

But in the second season, the show lost viewers to the ubiquitous newsmagazine Dateline and a couple of mediocre sitcoms. In an episode that was uncharacteristically flimsy, with all the depth of an after-school special, Hilary Duff guest-starred as a popular girl with no mind of her own and, no surprise here, trouble at home. Even God sounded bland, repetitious and predictable from his spot on the park bench—blah blah blah what if God was one of us, blah blah fulfill your true nature, blah blah blah I’m a paradox you’ll never comprehend.

Repeating myself is part of the job.

But it shouldn’t have been a part of Barbara Hall’s—not if she wanted viewers to remain engaged in Joan’s spiritual struggle.

A God whose divine plan can be reduced to an infinite string of karmic dominoes. A God who sounds like Buddha, or Einstein. Hall encountered them both on her path to the Catholic Church. So it made sense that in its early days the show reflected the traditions and ideas that drew its creator to what she calls “a more authentic religious practice.” When would Joan’s faith begin to mature?

“There are nerves about getting too deeply into theological discussion,” Hall said when the show debuted. She was referring to the CBS execs who approve her scripts. But she acknowledged that “We can’t do the show halfway . . . [it] won’t have the courage of its convictions.”

It’s tempting to blame the show’s vagaries, and demise, on a nervous network. It’s not difficult to believe that a passionate kiss between high school boys made it onto prime-time drama faster than an intellectual discussion of Christ. Or we could blame the media. Hall was hesitant to mention her conversion in early interviews, which turned out to be wise. When she came out as a Catholic, even those who couldn’t deny the show’s quality attacked her personally. Some said she wasn’t Catholic enough. That included a reviewer for the popular website Catholic Exchange, who titled his critique of the show “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” which provoked Hall sister, Karen Hall, also a writer and a Catholic convert, to post an angry rebuttal. Others implied she was too Catholic or at least too religious. A May 2004 Esquire article gave us Barbara the California cornflake, talking about her personal relationship with a Jesus who asks her who she needs him to be each day and likes to drink wine and talk about bass players.

But Hall remains a powerful, respected Hollywood player—the kind whose name makes lights turn green. “I think she is truly one of the most brilliant writers working today,” Paramount president David Stapf told the Hollywood Reporter. “The opportunity to continue working with her was just a no-brainer for us.” In a February 2005 article reporting on Hall’s signing of a seven-figure development deal with Paramount, she mentioned her special attachment to Joan and that she needed to see “what kind of life it has in it and where it can go.”

It was clear the show was losing steam, but fans of Joan of Arcadia remained hopeful. The show was slick; it was well produced, well acted and incredibly nuanced for a teen drama. The writing was clever and the plots often surprising. Unlike South Park and The Simpsons, it portrayed lives of faith without flippancy or cynicism. And unlike the award-winning dramas on HBO—_Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Deadwood_— you could watch this with your teenager or your mom without wanting to crawl under a rock.

Hall and her staff of writers seemed to have the confidence of the network, and the wit and talent to dramatize religion without succumbing to the pratfalls of pat religiosity. With a new contract in place, it seemed Friday-night audiences might finally get to hear what the god of physics had to say about the Son of Man.

But on May 18, CBS canceled Joan.

What happened?

It was prudent for Joan of Arcadia to sidestep those important questions while securing its audience, and it did so masterfully. But as the show’s focus gradually shifted from Joan’s supernatural struggle with God—expertly dramatized in episodes like _Silence_—to her more mundane problems with her family and friends, the key demographic of viewers 18-49 lost interest.

Though disappointed, I sympathize. I had hoped a show as good as Joan would tell the story of a passionate, sincere conversion to a prime-time audience. But as a member of the key demographic, I, too, had grown restless. God was starting to feel like little more than a gimmick; His cryptic refrains and recurring theme of karmic connection were becoming predictable and trite. While Joan reminded me to remain vigilant of His presence in the lowliest and most common of places, like the high school cafeteria—pretty good message, especially if you’re a fan of the Gospel—I yearned for a heroine with the conviction of her namesake, Hall’s patron saint, the visionary warrior Saint Jeanne d’Arc. I wanted Joan to take the leap. I wanted her to believe.

Martyrs did things the hard way. They were willing to accept the consequences, just like I’m asking you to do.

This fall, if you tune to CBS on Fridays, you won’t hear from God but from the Ghost Whisperer, a medium (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) who receives messages from the dead.

“I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God,” CBS president Les Moonves said.

Just because I speak doesn’t mean anyone will listen.

It all depends on what you say.

Jessica Mesman has written for Elle, Crisis, Godspy, Creative Nonfiction and other publications.