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High school drama Joan Of Arcadia wasn’t afraid to suggest its hero might be crazy

One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new show coming out that week. This week, we’re looking at teen dramas, as The CW’s Riverdale prepares to throw the subgenre’s greatest hits in a high-speed blender.

Joan Of Arcadia, “St. Joan” (season one, episode nine; originally aired 11/21/03)

Potentially silly high-concept stories are only silly if a show doesn’t figure out how to make them work dramatically. Such is the reason Joan Of Arcadia, a show that sounds goofy on several levels (what if God suddenly started appearing to a modern-day teenager, in various guises, and giving her mysterious assignments?), managed to complete two full seasons despite lackluster ratings. It knew good storytelling. Championed by critics despite its largely nonexistent audience, CBS saw the goodwill the show found among reviewers, and—in a move familiar to anyone currently watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—granted it a second season in hopes of building an audience via positive word of mouth.

Unlike the similarly premised Wonderfalls (young woman begins hearing voices from inanimate objects telling her to do things), Joan Of Arcadia was explicit about its religious component from the start. God appears to teenager Joan Gerardi (Amber Tamblyn) and asks her to complete various tasks, often giving little to no explanation of why. Sometimes it becomes clear to Joan after the fact, and sometimes it doesn’t. In short, it’s about faith—faith in a power greater than yourself, and how giving oneself over to a higher cause can often cause personal pain. And the ninth episode of season one, “St. Joan,” is all about the frustrating nature of that bargain.

What sounds like a hokey, kids’ version of Touched By An Angel ends up being a compelling investigation into the nature of belief. Not in all ways—the standard family-drama narratives are too pat, and the younger cast members’ dialogue veers more toward soapy than believable. But the storytelling was solid and backed by strong acting across the board, especially Tamblyn, who delivers one of the most fully realized a-star-is-born teenage performances since Claire Danes in this week’s fellow Watch This candidate My So-Called Life. From the start, the show elevated its material through a commitment to delving deeper than was expected from a family-friendly CBS series about a young woman learning from God. And that’s due in part to the show refusing to deny the possibility that Joan might be completely insane.

“St. Joan” isn’t the best episode the show ever did, but it’s arguably the most representative of why it works. When God shows up and tells normal C-student Joan to get an A on her history test, she listens, and pulls it off. However, her teacher accuses her of cheating, and soon, her fellow students rally to her side, protesting the administration’s pressure for her to retake the test. Which is right when God tells her to betray her friends and take the exam again. Plot aside, it’s the subject material of the test that lends the episode its fitting symbolism: Joan studies the life of Joan Of Arc, and immediately parallels her own life events with those of the legendary fighter. Which is also when she realizes everyone else would think she was a paranoid schizophrenic, were she to tell them about her divine conversations.

To its credit, the show never fully chooses a side. We’re obviously meant to relate and empathize with Joan, but as subsequent episodes would demonstrate, the question of whether or not Joan is hallucinating her encounters with God is never answered definitively. Even though Joan ends “St. Joan” convinced she’s not nuts, and that God really is speaking to her, there’s nothing beyond her own point of view to reinforce that assumption. Joan Of Arcadia drew its strength from refusing an easy morality—when Joan asks her father (Joe Mantegna) about his views on the almighty, he shuts her down, saying he has no interest in the spiritual. He’s also the closest the show has to a moral center. That push-pull between enlightened agnosticism and troubled faith pushes the series beyond the trappings of a standard-issue family drama—really, it’s a form of dramatic salvation.

Availability: Joan Of Arcadia is available on DVD from all major rental and purchase sites.