“God is in the details,” said Mies van der Rohe. But van der Rohe was an architect—not a VP of programming at a major network. If he had been, he likely wouldn’t have coined the phrase.
CBS’ freshman hit, “Joan of Arcadia,” has many critics wondering just how interesting a detail-less God really is.
“Joan” stars Amber Tamblyn as the titular character who receives visits from God in the guise of ordinary people—a cute guy at Joan’s high school, a cafeteria worker and so forth. God speaks to Joan and gives her guidance on various issues.
The ratings for “Joan” have already prompted CBS to renew the show—even as debate swirls about the efficacy of another “God show.”
A recent Associated Press article argued that, after “The X-Files” ended, a new theme emerged on network television: detachment from the metaphysical and an emphasis on material evidence. Hence shows like “CSI” and its various manifestations.
“The brashly offbeat premise for “Joan of Arcadia,” and its sizeable audience in its first few weeks, suggest a swing back to the sacred for TV’s truth-seekers,” the AP article read.
But generic truth-seeking doesn’t cut it for some.
“While ‘Touched By An Angel’ producer Martha Williamson professed a devout relationship with Christ, as did several others involved with that show, none of those interviewed here expressed any such devotion,” wrote Phil Boatwright at Baptist Press, referring to “Joan” creator Barbara Hall and star Tamblyn. “Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Jesus ever gets the spotlight on this new ethereal drama.”
Jesus may not. As Mary Steenburgen, who plays Joan’s mother, recently told a group of religion reporters in New York, “The idea is that the show is inclusive, not exclusive.” To Hall, that translates into an emphasis on God and spirituality—not a particular religion.
In fact, Hall drafted a “Ten Commandments” for the show—essentially, a list of rules for its writers to follow. (You can read Hall’s Ten Commandments here.) Commandment No. 3 is: “God can never identify one religion as being right.”
Hall said, in a Beliefnet interview, that she was raised in a Methodist household. After “a period of very loud, noisy rejection” of religious life, she converted to Catholicism, though she has declined in interviews to enter into much detail.
Though some critics complain that the God on “Joan” is too generic, Hall doesn’t see it that way.
“Every now and then there are nerves about getting too deeply into theological discussion,” Hall said of CBS network executives, in the Beliefnet interview. But she tells them, “We can’t do the show halfway. You cannot do a show about God and avoid talking about religion. The show won’t have the courage of its convictions if it can’t do that.”
Steenburgen’s character does have conversations with a cleric (who sports a collar), but those conversations don’t occur in a church—on purpose.
“We don’t actually make it into a church because it’s non-denominational,” Steenburgen said in New York.
The generic nature of the show’s divine discussions doesn’t bother everyone, however.
Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., wrote approvingly of the show at AmericanCatholic.org. She referred to a bit of dialogue between Joan and God in which Joan says she’s not religious, and God responds that life isn’t about being religious, but fulfilling your nature.
“One would think the writers have been reading John Paul II from this kind of dialogue because it’s not sentimental religiosity but theologically informed, mature and contemporary,” Pacatte wrote. “The conversation about ‘other worldly’ things such as the nature of God and divine providence entertains. You never know where or in what human gender, race or age God will show up next.”
The Parents Television Council has given “Joan” a green light for family viewing, saying, “The themes of faith and family are very strong and well presented by the writing and acting.”
At least one commentator praised the show’s rejection of religious endorsement, so to speak.
Austin Bunn at Slate gave thanks that the show is not “a Christian ethics procedural a la ‘Touched by an Angel’ and lacks the wall-to-wall moral carpeting of ‘7th Heaven.'”
Nancy Franklin at the New Yorker just calls it as she sees it: “It should prove especially rewarding for those who think that belief has more to do with asking questions than with getting answers.”
Online discussants at the self-styled “conservative news forum” known as the Free Republic were skeptical of the show’s ability to do much good. In fact, they generally believed that the show would eventually be a platform for, yes, a Liberal God.
“Just wait,” wrote one of the forum participants. “The ‘God’ figure will start condoning things that only a radical lesbian feminist leftist could love, and start condemning anything that resembles traditional virtue.”
In that vein, Noel Holston, staff writer for Newsday.com, wrote that God’s appearances on “Joan” are so “smartly written” that “getting a guest-cameo as the Creator could be the most coveted role since villain of the week on ‘Batman.'”
But Steenburgen said creator Hall has already rejected the idea of “celebrity Gods” for the show. “It won’t ever be a celebrity,” Steenburgen reiterated.
It will be interesting to see if that holds, assuming the show sticks around.
Author Teresa Blythe believes it will. But in concluding her Beliefnet article about what we’d know about God if we received our information only from television, she predicted that God—even on “Joan”—will eventually be in the details.
“The demands of good storytelling make it likely that writers and producers will eventually favor characters who sincerely and intelligently practice a specific religion,” Blythe wrote.
“Audiences seem to know instinctively what theologians in the interfaith movement discovered early on: generalizing about God is never as invigorating as sharing our deep and particular experiences.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
“Joan of Arcadia” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. Visit the show’s Web site.