David Rodeback's Blog

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Thursday, June 16, 2005
Goodbye, Joan, You Were My Favorite

Yesterday, the actors' contracts expired, which symbolically confirms what we already knew: Joan of Arcadia won't be coming back anytime soon, to CBS or any other network. This is a considerable loss to folks who value quality television. In my view, with the possible exception of The West Wing, which is a special case for a political geek like me, Joan was the best show on major network television. I'm too old to be in its target audience, which apparently shrank in the middle of the first season and never recovered. I'm more representative of Joan's actual audience, which is a bit older.

I don't blame CBS; the point of a business is to make money. They tried to boost Joan's ratings, but couldn't. They are not morally obligated to invest in a show that doesn't get good ratings, just because some religious people like it. Nor does an Emmy nomination guarantee ratings. I'm glad they gave the show as much of a chance as they did.

Now, why would a 40-year-old Mormon bishop with (forgive the immodesty) fairly sophisticated artistic and literary taste be sad to see Joan go? You might think I valued its positive influence on my family or my flock. But my family didn't watch it. I might try to get them hooked on it sometime via DVD; we'll see. Some members of my congregation probably did watch it, but none of them ever mentioned it to me, even after I referred to it in a funeral sermon once. In short, I am the person I know who loved the show.

I value excellent acting and crisp, intelligent writing, which Joan consistently delivered. The characters were compelling and even believable, if you're willing to believe that there is a God, that he has an agenda, and that he pursues it with through individual humans (and usually without a lot of lightning bolts or whatever).

In fact, it was the theology that hooked me, if I can use that word to include not only who God is, but how he interacts with actual mortals. Joan's theology isn't a perfect match for my own, but it hits more often than it misses, and the hits are sometimes surprisingly perceptive for popular entertainment.

I like a god who has a personality. Joan has some real fun with this, and I suppose some might think it blasphemous sometimes - such as when God appears in the guise of a spiked, studded, leather-clad high school boy with bizarre hair and way too much makeup. (If God doesn't have enough of a sense of humor to enjoy that, there's no hope for humanity, anyway.)

This next point is a bit allegorical, but also rather obvious: I happen to believe that most of God's intervention in a given human life comes through other mortals, who are moved for whatever reason to do what God wishes done for a person.

I love to see God portrayed as a being who scrupulously obeys his own rules, and who is committed to mortals' moral freedom, even at the cost of freedom's consequences. This God doesn't go around causing the bad things people do, or the bad things which simply happen, but he is quite adept at getting the most possible good out of bad things he didn't cause.

Joan's God frequently tells her to do something, usually without explanation, at least at first. But he (or she) presents it as a suggestion, not a commandment. While I think the world makes a big mistake in treating the Ten Commandments as if they were the Ten Suggestions, the point in Joan is not that moral choices don't matter. It's more a matter of knowing what God wants, but being free to choose not to do it.

In Joan God uses those who will take him seriously to do his work, even for the benefit of those (such as Joan's father) who don't believe. I find that realistic. Equally realistic is the fact that Joan can't really tell everyone what's going on. Quite apart from the fact that she can't prove she's not nuts - that she's really talking to God - to someone who doesn't already believe it, she also simply lacks the power to verbalize the situation in any way that would do it justice. Religious experience tends to be that way. So she goes around doing things people think are a little strange - don't most of us already think the practice of a religion other than our own is somewhat strange? - and saving thereby the very people who don't understand her.

God frequently gives Joan a simple instruction, then leaves her to fulfill it in her own way. Often, that doesn't go particularly smoothly, but God doesn't micromanage, even though Joan is far from perfect in judgment and desires. This also seems realistic.

Finally, what makes the character Joan so absolutely seductive for me, in a theological or philosophical sense, is how she relates to God. You can frequently see by her actions, and occasionally hear in her words, that she wants to do what is right - and right, by definition, is what God wants. But she is frequently angry, belligerent, rude, frustrated, cold, sarcastic, even playful with God. The wonderful thing about this is not the anger, the belligerence, the sarcasm, etc. It is that she relates to God as to an actual, personal being, with whom one can really converse, a personage whom one can tell or show exactly what one is thinking or feeling at the moment. This paints God as a very benevolent, merciful, patient being, because a lesser God would refuse to put up with it. It is very much the relationship of a perfect Father with a manifestly imperfect, but mostly good-hearted, teenage daughter.

This is a fairly sophisticated theology, and a surprising thing to find on the screen, large or small.

Alas. At least there's DVD.

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