Sunday, November 15, 2009

Because of Joan of Arcadia VII

There are a few throwaway episodes in the two-year history of “Joan of Arcadia,” the TV series about a latter-day Joan of Arc that had a short, lamented two-year run (2003–2005). One of these is “Drive, He Said,” season 1, episode 10. The following week’s tale, “The Uncertainty Principle,” is anything but a throwaway.

“Drive, He Said” has a good trigger and an explosive climax, but it's little more than melodrama, lacking the meaty exchanges between Joan and God that make the best episodes compelling. Older-brother Kevin, confined to a wheelchair following a car accident and now working as a fact-checker at the local daily paper, has okayed an editorial accusing his police-chief dad of racism. Dad leaves the house determined to prove to his son that he is anything but and promptly pulls over a speeder he thinks is an important white official. The car does belong to the official, but the driver is a white punk who has already shot and killed his parole officer and has now stolen the car. Punk takes Dad for a ride, a drama that preoccupies the rest of the episode. God's contribution to the plot? He (as a plumber) and She (as a test administrator) tells Joan to (a) get her driver's license today and (b) take the new license for a spin in the country. This leads to a climactic scene in which Joan and younger brother Luke come upon their kidnapped Dad, who has already contrived his escape from the felon, on a dark country road. God has only a couple of interesting comments:

God: Being an adult isn't merely about risking your own well-being. It's about risking others'—in cars, in love, in family. Hurting others is always a possibility. That's what's difficult about being an adult, facing the harsh fact that you may hurt others, even when you don't want to.
Joan: Then there's a flaw in the design. And whose fault is that? 
God: It might help if you think of the universe as an obstacle course. There's no flaw in the design.  

There's little flaw in the design of “The Uncertainty Principle,” for my money, one of the best season-1 episodes. First, a confession: Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom, left with Amber Tamblyn as Joan) is my favorite character in the series. A rebellious rabbi's daughter and Joan's disaffected pal, she dresses tough and talks tougher. Most kids in school think Grace is a lesbian. “The Uncertainty Principle” is her coming-out episode.

We've been waiting four or five episodes for Luke to invite Grace to be his partner for the school science fair. At the beginning of this episode, he finally asks her. She thinks he's asking her to the prom, “The Crystal Ball,” and retorts with her usual gracelessness, “What is it with these sanctioned mating rituals that make everybody drool over each other like zombies?” When Luke says he's talking about the science fair, Grace says she has already agreed to that. Luke suggests they develop a project based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. And—pretty rare for a TV show about teens—he explains in simple terms: “There's no way to know where a nucleus is with any certainty. The observer is always changing what we observe. Reality itself is indeterminate. And atoms, the very building blocks of matter, are mere clouds of possibility.” Grace answers thoughtfully, “Quit eating my grapes!”

Luke's friend Friedman (who has already accused Luke of being gay because he is attracted to Grace) says to Grace: “Guess we won't see you at the dance tomorrow night.”

Grace: Based on what?
Friedman: Based on the assumption that you won't wear a dress.
Grace: Well, guess what, Galileo? Your assumptions suck. And we'll see you at the dance. Now, beat it, before I give you a wedgie.

At the dance, Grace, fed up with Friedman's taunts, throws off her leather jacket, rips off Luke's jacket, and wraps the happy seventeen-year-old boy in his first passionate embrace. For the rest of the evening, Luke and Grace boogie up a storm—to Friedman's amazement.

I am not a physicist and cannot tell you whether Luke's is a fair summary of the uncertainty principle. But it is a pretty interesting view of reality, in a divinely created world of free will, one in which one of the most important choices is what we look at and where. 

Both Joan and her father choose to look in dark places. God, as a pierced Goth youth, tells Joan to invite the meanest, saddest, most antisocial kid in the whole school, Ramsay, to The Crystal Ball. Meanwhile, Dad, as police chief, decides to look where no one has previously dared: into the chain of corruptibility in Arcadia's city government that reaches all the way to the mayor's office. Both of these instances of observation have far-reaching consequences. Dad's investigation leads to an FBI raid and (in later episodes) job troubles for Dad. Joan's inviting Ramsay to the dance plays out with more interesting twists.

The dénouement is set up by the first of two conversations between God and Joan. Goth God enters the school library to find Joan reading a book on self-defense.

God: I wouldn't worry about self-defense. (God pulls out a book entitled “Lost Souls.”) Joan, have I ever endangered you?
Joan: Well, you never told me to ask evil out on a date before.
God: Evil is not a word to use lightly. It's only the darkest end of a broad spectrum.
Joan: You mean like light?
God: Exactly like light. Nobody is born in total darkness. Most of you live on the grey end of the spectrum, a lie here and there, jealousy, wrath. But you only get to absolute evil by doing one thing after another till eventually you're transformed.
Joan (looking at the book “Lost Souls”) Like . . . into a monster?
God: A monster is a creature with no consciousness. They're extremely rare, but they do exist.
Joan: Have you watched the news? I'm not sure they're so rare.
God: Almost everybody has some light somewhere. And light is always worth fighting for.
Joan: Ok. So I'm supposed to find Ramsey's light?
God: I just want you to listen and observe. Be present.
Joan: That's it?
God: (No answer)

Accosted at The Crystal Ball by vice principal Gavin Price for carrying a bottle of whiskey in his pocket, Ramsay flees the dance. The DJ at the dance (God again) tells Joan to follow him. What seems to be another melodramatic ending, as in the previous episode, leads to a great concluding scene. Joan hops in Ramsay's truck; he drives to a junkyard, pulls a gun, then has an armed stand-off with Joan's dad, who finally talks the boy out of his pistol and leads him away to custody. Joan is saved; so is Dad; Joan is grounded; and then . . .

The following day Joan meets Old Lady God in the school corridor. God is holding a tray of cupcakes and wearing a button that reads: “Help Soccer. Eat More Cookies!” Joan is upset: Ramsay is going to jail.

Joan: What do you want me to fail at this time?
God: Now, what makes you think you failed? You did exactly what I asked you to do. You observed. 
Joan: What good did that do? 
God: Observation is a more powerful force than you could possibly reckon. The invisible, the overlooked, and the unobserved are those that are most in danger of reaching the end of the spectrum. They lose the last of their light, from there anything can happen. 
Joan: Fine, I observed Ramsay, his life is still ruined. 
God: His life wasn't the only one at stake.

Then in a chilling evocation of the Columbine shootings, God shows Joan in a vision what would have happened if Ramsay had not been arrested. He was preparing to open fire at school, and students, teachers, even Ramsay himself would have died if Joan had not observed and been present to him.

God: For each of these there are twelve more that would have been altered irreparably, people alive today whose lives were altered by you—by the simple fact of being present—by entering the light—by joining the dance.