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Joan of Arcadia: The First Season

The common, never-ending complaint about network television is that there just isn't enough quality programming. Now and then something special will rise to the top, an "NYPD Blue" or "24" that entertains without sinking to the lowest common denominator. But still, even though cable networks are discovering that millions of viewers will actually pay extra to watch smart, well-written television, the three-letter national networks continue to flood the airwaves with dreck like "Yes, Dear," "The King of Queens," and "Survivor: (Insert exotic locale here)." Those three shows, in fact, are all the product of one network: CBS. And all three were renewed for the 2005-2006 television season — which makes it all the more egregious that The Eye chose to cancel the critically acclaimed Joan of Arcadia after just two years on the air — and shortly after releasing this box set of its first season. The premise of the series, which debuted in September 2003, was one that seemed less than promising at first glance — a very average high school girl, Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), moves to a new town with her family and begins to receive messages from God, who takes a variety of forms (old lady, janitor, little girl, goth kid) depending on circumstances. God gives her tasks to perform, and — despite not understanding the point of these instructions — Joan does them, learning lessons and affecting the lives of those around her as she does so. It all sounds very stupid and schmaltzy and "Touched by an Angel," but the mechanics of Joan of Arcadia gave it real teeth — the writing is smart and crisp and occasionally snarky, with Joan bumbling her way through her missions (building a boat in the basement, volunteering at an art show, joining the chess club, going to a dance with a creepy misfit) and seeing unexpected outcomes from the choices she makes. In parallel stories, Joan's father (Joe Mantegna), the new chief of police, deals with politics in the precinct and solves small-town crime, while her mother (Mary Steenburgen) reevaluates her loss of faith and moves back toward the Catholic church. One of Joan's brothers (Jason Ritter) is a paraplegic as a result of a drunken prom-night car crash; her other, Luke (Michael Welch), is a science nerd. All of the characters deal with issues of faith and ethics without any heavy-handed preachiness, while Joan struggles not only with the weirdness of having God talk to her but the normal teenage problems of school, family, and first love.

*          *          *

Smartly written, wonderfully acted, and directed with real respect for the intelligence of viewers, CBS's decision to drop Joan of Arcadia is a blow to quality television (but be sure to tune in for the premiere episode of "Ghost Whisperer" starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a girl with large breasts and ESP!) However, despite the network's shoddy treatment of the series, Paramount has released a lovely DVD set of Season One — all 22 episodes plus the pilot on six discs, packaged in three slim-line cases in a paperboard slipcase. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and the DD 2.0 stereo audio is excellent — although, likely because of licensing issues, some of the music has been swapped out from the original broadcast versions of the episodes for different songs (something that only the most hardcore of Joan fanatics will notice or care about, but worth noting). Extras include commentary on various episodes by series creator Barbara Hall, executive producer James Hayman, the writers and the cast; the featurette "The Creation of Joan of Arcadia" with some fascinating background by Hall and really irritating comments by the really irritating Hayman; "A Look at Season One," a generally unnecessary overview with sound-bites from Hall, Hayman, and the show's principals; a "God Gallery," which looks at the various actors who played God in Season One, as well as the process behind the creation of each God character; and a wealth of deleted scenes sprinkled among all six discs.
—Dawn Taylor

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