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Series / Joan of Arcadia

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God: Good is relative. Beauty's relative. Everything's relative. Except for me. I'm absolute.
Joan: I thought that was vodka.

Will Girardi has moved to Arcadia, Maryland to take over as chief of their disorganized police department. His son, Kevin, has been paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident half a year ago. His wife, Helen, is quietly trying to deal with the collapse of her faith and the near-collapse of her family. His other son, Luke, is brilliant but along for the ride. And his daughter, Joan, keeps having encounters... with God?

Lasting two seasons from 2003 to 2005, this Magic Realism Dramedy tells the trials of Joan, who meets and talks to Capital-G God (in the form of various avatars, most of them enjoyable to watch) and receives tasks, which she carries out grudgingly, usually only discovering the point of the request at the end (if at all).

Although Joan's interactions with God were the center of each episode, the lives of her family and friends continued in the background, making for a mixed genre show; Will would bust criminals, the various students would deal with classes and romance, and Kevin would try to deal with his disability.


This series provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: The subplot in season one of Luke helping Kevin in a slow but promising recovery in his legs was almost completely dropped in season two, save for a single episode which showed him doing a news story about the subject.
  • Aesop Amnesia: Joan seemed to have learned the lesson that blackmailing popular kids who are bullying you with personal secrets they have is bad twice. Along with two different episodes teaching her the lesson that death is sad.
  • All-Powerful Bystander: God, of course.
  • Author Avatar: Helen.
  • Author on Board
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The AP Chemistry teacher Ms. Lischak is fun and cool, but the way she teaches and discusses is more than a little too distracting to properly get anything fixed into the students' minds beyond "hey our teacher is cool!"
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  • Axes at School: When it's revealed that a student had brought a gun to school, major changes in the school's security went up for the rest of the series.
  • Badass Longcoat: Will again.
  • Beauty Is Bad: Joan thinks this is the lesson she is supposed to preach in one episode. But it turns out it isn't. But it kind of is. Sort of. It was confusing.
  • The B Grade: Oddly enough in one episode everyone but Joan was worried for her future because of her grades. She got all Bs last semester and failed one test, and immediately she is told that any chances of getting into a four year college would be almost impossible.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: In "Friday Night", Luke goes to a meeting of these types, looking for Grace. A Funny Moment ensues when he realizes that literally every girl there looks exactly like Grace. And then they burn his shoes (they were made by underage Central American sweatshop workers, after all).
  • Brother Chuck: Kevin's boss that he romances throughout season one completely vanishes without any mention in season 2. In fact he acts like his girlfriend in the second season was the first he had since his accident.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Even if the parents don't find out, God will:
    Joan: Oh, the package is C.O.D.? Uh, I don't have any cash...
    God: You have 12 dollars in your pocket which you were going to buy a muffin and a frappucino with while you ditched history class, which you really shouldn't do, by the way.
  • Clueless Aesop: Some episodes didn't seem to have much of a clear reason why God had Joan do something. Like joining the cosmetology class. Sure, Glynis learns to be herself, and Joan's dad stops a criminal, but they both did that on their own, and Joan didn't have anything to do with them.
  • Comedic Underwear Exposure: While bothering one of Joan's friends in the locker room, a classmate manages to snap a picture of Joan in her panties. While struggling to get the phone and delete the picture, Joan accidentally winds up in the school hallway, still in just a T-shirt and panties, as students are passing by.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Grace, of the "government ID chips" variety.
  • Cosmic Plaything: When God randomly pops into Joan's life, gives her a mission that causes problems or at least inconviences, then pops out again, it can seem like this. Especially when He has unexplained reasons or vague goals.
  • Cowboy Cop: Will very much was a by-the-books cop for the most part in the first season, but he became a Cowboy Cop briefly in season 2 after Judith's murder, when he goes on the warpath to catch the perpetrator. In a subversion of Turn in Your Badge, his boss actually encourages him to act like he shouldn't. He gets called on it by Helen, and he eventually gets better.
  • Cuckoo Nest
  • Dead Person Conversation: With Judith. Also a few times with Rocky, after he dies.
  • Deus ex Machina: Pointedly averted.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: In "Double Dutch", God poses as a pizza delivery boy to communicate with Joan. After the usual banter, he asks about his tip. Joan declares he was late and thus doesn't get one, slams the door in his face, and walks off pleased she just won an argument with God.
  • Divine Race Lift: Many of the representations of God.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The pilot is the only episode in which Adam and Grace do not appear.
  • Easily Forgiven: God convinces Joan to forgive Adam and stop being mad at him after he cheated on her, despite Adam giving no reason why she should forgive him.
  • Evil Counterpart: Ryan Hunter would have apparently filled this role had there been a third season.
  • Fake Guest Star:
    • Becky Wahlstrom (Grace) and Christopher Marquette (Adam) have guest starring credit on every season one episode they appear in - which is every season one episode (except the pilot, the only episode of either season they don't appear in). Cue official promotion to regular in season two.
    • Aaron Himelstein (Friedman) appeared in 33 of the series' 45 episodes, more than any other guest star. In the second season alone, he appeared in 19 out of 22 episodes. If the series had gotten a third season, he'd probably have become a regular character. They might even have revealed his first name!
  • Figure It Out Yourself: God either says a variation of this to Joan or gives her a look which communicates the same thing more or less Once per Episode.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend:
    • It really doesn't take many of the characters that long to completely get over Judith's death. Friedman gets about one scene in an episode afterwards being sad for a moment, but besides that after about three episodes it just gets watered down into another generic subplot for the police to solve.
    • Similarly, Rocky. Both make a reappearance in the second Season Finale.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Trope Namer. God tells Joan directly, "I look and sound like this because this is what you can understand."
    Joan: Are you — Are you being snippy with me? God is snippy?
    God: (exasperated) Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don't look like this. I don't look like anything you'd recognize. You can't see me. I don't sound like this, I don't sound like anything you'd recognize. You see, I'm beyond your experience. I take this form because you're comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I'm "snippy", it's because you understand snippy.
  • Freaky Fashion, Mild Mind: Goth God.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: The Baker lawsuit arc.
  • Gambit Roulette: When you're omniscient you're allowed to make complicated and chancey plans.
  • Geeky Turn-On
  • Girl of the Week: The girl that Adam randomly hooks up with for one episode in season 2. Kevin's ex girlfriend in season 2.
  • God Is Good: Zigzagged based on the episode. Some of them show Him as benevolent, some as a jerkass and others as inscrutable.
  • Godly Sidestep: The creators made this rule, actually listing things God couldn't say with regards to universal truths and religion.
  • God Test: Joan asks the teenage boy claiming to be God to prove his divinity. He simply points at a tree.
    Joan: ...that's a tree.
    God: Let's see you make one.
  • Happily Married: Will and Helen.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: Joan wears the headphones when she's alone during the pilot. When she takes them off at the end, it shows she's willing to listen to God.
  • High School
  • Hippie Teacher: It turns out that Helen, a secretary whose highest education was being an art school dropout, is qualified to teach high school students.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Luke.
  • Incredibly Inconvenient Deity: The title character had to, among other things, destroy works of art and re-take a test she had aced.
  • Informed Judaism: Grace, season 1 at least (season 2 she has her Bat Mitzvah, then promptly goes back to never mentioning her Judaism)
  • Jerkass: Mr. Price.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • God can sometimes shift into this, mostly because (she always refuses to explain why (s)he wants Joan to do what (s)he wants her to do, and often the task results in someone getting hurt.
    • Friedman is a bit of an asshole at times, particularly to Grace in Season 1. In Season 2, however, he shows a sensitive side with his love for Judith and he and Grace even become friends...well, sort of. Joan also seems less disdainful of him in Season 2, probably because he has stopped lusting after her. Again aside from his asshole qualities, he's a loyal friend to Luke.
  • Large Ham: Ms. Lischak, the AP Chemistry/AP Physics teacher, is very...enthusiastic about her subject matter.
  • Last-Name Basis: Friedman is always called by his surname. His first name is never revealed.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In "Secret Service", Lilly mentions watching Stargate with her date Stan on his TV with a tinfoil antenna. In the 2004-2005 season, Stargate SG-1 aired opposite Joan of Arcadia at 8 o'clock on Friday nights.
  • Literal-Minded: Joan never seemed to catch on that God spoke in metaphors a lot of the time, and would frequently declare she was done with her current assignment the second she finished the letter of her instructions.
  • Literary Allusion Title:
  • Little Miss Almighty: God took the shape of an elementary-school girl a couple of times.
  • Mission from God: A new one every episode.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The Rock Paper Scissors match between Joan and Luke.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Joan would frequently suddenly become talented in whatever activity she was to take part in for that episode, much to everyone's surprise, including her. Usually it goes away by the end of the episode. Justified, in that, well, it is God working behind the scenes.
  • N-Word Privileges: Averted, Helen asks Kevin not to make jokes about his disability because "if anyone else made those jokes about you, I would scratch their eyes out."
  • Not So Different: Despite Luke's assertion that all they have in common is DNA, Joan seems to have inherited her communications with God from her mother, while Kevin (reporter) and Luke (scientist) seem to have inherited their investigative abilities from Will (detective).
    Judith: A cop and an artist. An avenger and a visionary. What kind of kid did you think they'd have?
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • It seems virtually everyone who works in a job with authority in this town besides Joan's dad is a conniving Jerkass.
    • If they aren't this, then they're a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
  • Omniscient Morality License:
    • Well, it is God giving the orders.
    • One episode that stands out in particular would be "Queen of the Zombies" where God is the school's musical director. He has a girl who had the lead singing role whose family was coming in from across the country to watch her perform get Demoted to Extra in the play, and shoving Joan into the lead for no explainable reason besides showing her that she is good at singing. The girl and her family isn't touched on at all.
  • Opposites Attract: Luke and Grace.
  • Oracular Urchin: "Little Girl God" is reminiscent of one.
  • Ordinary High-School Student: Joan.
  • Part-Time Hero: Joan again. One of her frequent complaints to God is "I'm allowed to have a life, right?"
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Comes up in "Just Say No." God tasks Joan with holding a yard sale, and while she's searching through the attic for merchandise, she discovers dark, disturbing art that Helen painted. Helen refuses to talk about it, which makes Joan mad; the viewers discover that Helen created the paintings after a man broke into her dorm room in the middle of the night and raped her. When God (in the form of a businessman) urges Joan to consider the pain that might have motivated the work, she slowly realizes that it's something related to the trauma of sexual assault, and asks, "Was it bad?" God Himself replies: "It was evil. And I don't throw that word around."
  • Real Dreams Are Weirder: While God does occasionally talk to Joan through dreams, her normal dreams also include Adam as a dog and evil koala bears in hats.
  • Refusal of the Call: About every other episode.
  • Romantic False Lead: Iris (for Adam), Glynis (for Luke).
  • Running Gag: Joan yelling embarrassing things as God walks away.
    "You're the one who made us ashamed to be naked!...Yeah, I should really stop doing that."
  • Secret Keeper: The only living person who knows that Joan talks to God is Adam. It's only mentioned that he knows in about two episodes after he believes her. Lily the ex-nun is the only one who knows about Helen's charism.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Glynis briefly gets a make over to look more feminine and pretty, after getting tired of her boyfriend Luke treating her more like a lab partner than a girl who wants to get a compliment on her appearance now and then rather than her brain.
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Joan, regarding boyfriend prospect Adam, for the first half of Season 1.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The season two episode "The Rise and Fall of Joan Girardi". By the end of the episode nothing really was accomplished or changed at all. Which they then point out.
  • Single-Minded Twins: Literal; God briefly appears to Joan as a pair of twin girls.
    Joan: I thought we were going with monotheism.
    God Girls: I'm impressed you know what that is.
  • Spirit Advisor: Others can see God; (s)he just doesn't let them know who (s)he is.
    Joan: You talk to my brother?
    God: I talk to everyone.
  • Spock Speak: Luke and Glynis often talked this way.
  • Status Quo Is God: Glynis and Luke break up after she gets a makeover and wants to enjoy people who acknowledge her appearance. By the next episode she's back to her same old image, friends, and mannerisms.
  • Strawman Political: Grace is a Conspiracy Theorist who very frequently mouths off about how things were "fascist."
  • Straw Vulcan: In "Touch Move", Joan defeated the best Chess player in the school, despite not knowing how to play Chess well. The reason given was that you can't use order to defeat chaos. In reality, using chaos against a computer chess player is always a losing proposition, and practically all chess players beyond the novice level would recognize a threatened mate in one move.
  • The Television Talks Back: One of the ways God communicates with Joan.
  • Theme Tune Cameo: God as a street performer in "Double Dutch."
  • Totally Radical: The science teacher. Who tries way too hard to look cool.
    • A better example might be the guidance counselor, who basically acts like a teenager despite being in his thirties
  • Tuckerization:
    • Joan is named after Joan of Arc.
    • The Girardi family are named after Robert Girardi, who wrote "Vanity, Thy Name is Human".
  • Turn in Your Badge
  • TV Genius: Luke is only believable if you've never met anyone with an IQ above 110.
  • Two Girls and a Guy: Joan, Grace and Adam. Contrasted with...
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Luke, Friedman and Glynis.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting
  • Two-Teacher School: If there's any teacher shown besides the science teacher or Helen, it's safe to assume they're either God in disguise, or only here for just that week.
  • Unnaturally Blue Lighting: Every scene in the police station. Not just the police station. Every time Will is shown doing anything on the job whatsoever, it turns gritty and blue. Considering how bright and yellow every other scene is, it's always very noticeable. Especially during one scene where Helen walks through the station wearing a bright red coat. It stands out so much that it feels like you're watching the girl from Schindler's List.
  • Universe Bible: No, not the literal Bible.
  • Very Special Episode: Several, including character death, sexual assault, school shootings... plus Kevin's disabled state. Very few "right" answers were ever given, however.
  • Wild Teen Party: God Himself requests the party (but veto alcohol). The parents never find out, but the cops came by to shut everything down, much to Joan's relief. This ended up saving the lives of the police officers by preventing them from being at a meth lab when it exploded.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Both Joan/Adam and Luke/Grace.
  • Woobie of the Week: Joan helps out someone new every week, whether she wants to or not. For the first season, at least.
  • Worthy Opponent: After getting over the shock of his opponent being a 17 year-old girl, Ryan views Joan this way.
  • X Called; They Want Their Y Back:
    "Copernicus called. He said the world doesn't revolve around you."
    "The dork police called. They want their leader back."
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Adam didn't tend to call Joan by her name much. He does it once they've broken up, and when he starts calling her "Jane" again, it means they've reconciled.
  • You Watch Too Much X: Said by Rocky when he visits Joan as a ghost after she tells him to go into the light.


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