TV Thoughts
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
We're just getting started here, folks. Here's a first entry - it's one kind of posting that I'll be doing, but not the only kind.

Kevin of Arcadia

What we learn from Joan of Arcadia:
Having almost nothing to do with the poignancy of seeing him in his first regular prime-time role at the same essential moment as his father's unexpected passing, Jason Ritter stole the pilot episode of Joan of Arcadia.

The last thing I expected to like about Joan, which will be unwatchable if it gives in to a sanctimonious tone, was the guy in the wheelchair. But Ritter, who plays Kevin Girardi, Joan's athlete older brother, was anything but. Barbara Hall's script calls for Kevin to be bitter but not embittered, wounded but not destroyed, by his lower-body paralysis in a car accident. Ritter, sporting a near-Monkees haircut and his father's eyes in a way that definitely recalls Jack Tripper, succeeded markedly in bridging these nuances.

Whether the rest of the series will live up to this level of sophistication remains to be seen. Amber Tamblyn's Joan is certainly no stereotype. Neither the most popular nor least popular kid in school, Joan clearly conveys that she has problems, fears, desires and needs before God starts showing up in the first of his suitably infinite identities. However, the premiere didn't leave us with much information about why Joan was picked or what she brings to the mission. She is mostly a pawn, asserting herself only out of confusion, rather than determination.

We can afford to be a little patient for the answers, but these questions about God's conscription of Joan are variables that could either save or curse the series, if the answers turn out to be simplistic or continually ill-defined.

Other characters bring further reason for worry. As Joan's parents, Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen deliver professional performances, but their characters never inflate - serving as plot devices rather than actual human counterparts.

When Joan tells her Steenburgen's Helen, for example, about the Peeping Tom she saw in their front yard, Helen assumes for some reason that Joan is making it up. Then, later in the show, Helen is alarmed that Joan holds back from telling her that another stranger had tried to kidnap her. Why did the second incident matter to Helen when the first one didn't? Because that's what was needed to produce conflict in the scene. That's the plot dictating the characters when it should be the reverse.

The show's lowpoint came when Helen encountered a donation-collecting priest and, wrought with grief over Kevin's paralysis, asked him what God was thinking. The priest had no answer. Though I suppose it's conceivable that a young priest has thought so little about God that he would have nothing to say, it's also incredible, and serves the drama no purpose. Plenty of people have nothing to say - that's the stuff you edit out of the program, or at least assign to one of Joan's less-involved classmates.

In the end ... or should I say, in the beginning ... the show comes back to Kevin. Not that he will be the lead, not that he should be the lead, but if Hall and her staff can write the show with as much complexity as existed in Kevin's character in the pilot - the actors are certainly there to convey it - there will actually be a reason to watch. Joan of Arcadia will have its mission. If not, we'll have to place our faith elsewhere.

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