Saturday, December 12, 2009

Because of Joan of Arcadia VIII

Posted by Webster 
I've fallen behind in my series of posts on the TV series that for two years, 2003–2005, reminded me again and again why, after 40 years in the wilderness, I was meant to be a Catholic. Even though I wouldn't become a Catholic until 2008. In a catch-up frenzy, here are brief summaries and quick thoughts about three episodes in the middle of season one.

Season 1, episode 12, “Jump” Rocky, the little boy Joan took care of in a previous episode, dies; a dream in which Rocky turns into Adam makes Joan fear that Adam might commit suicide in grief over his mom's suicide. Meanwhile, Will (Dad) wrestles with a job change; Luke and Grace work on a science fair project; the paralyzed Kevin begins to contemplate what a love life with co-worker Rebecca might be like; and Helen (Mom) waits on the sidelines, only to land the best scene of all, when she reads Adam his mom's suicide note.

As always, the encounters with God in this episode offer something to chew on. After Rocky's funeral, Joan runs into God in the form of a creepy old man. Joan is understandably angry at God for taking Rocky away. And understandably miffed when God gives her a truism to explain the greatest mystery: "Death is a dividing line."

Joan: I don't need God to tell me that death is a dividing line. Everybody knows that. What we don't know is what it divides us from. 
God: One of the necessary mysteries . . .
Joan: Oh, come on! God, try me! Give me a hint!
God: I leave hints all over the place. I'm all about hints. Like Adam appearing in your dream. 
Joan: Well, maybe you could give me a quick look into the big picture, then maybe I could be good at this.
God: As you wish, Joan.

Whereupon, in a cacaphony of voices and a blinding flash, Joan apparently gets a look at "the big picture." She wakes up in a daze, babbling, and the only hint of the magnitude of what she saw comes in her next encounter with God, now a doctor hunched over a vending machine. Joan calls hints "all that I can handle without falling over." Which suggests to me that the vision of life after death, of the total divine plan, is far too stunning for our little human minds to encompass. Which is why God can only communicate to us in hints.

In this scene God talks about the "ripples" we all leave behind after we die. Rocky's ripples were good; Adam's mom's ripples, not so good. Which leads to the suicide note. Adam was afraid the note would blame him for his mother's death. Instead—

Dearest boy, my Adam: I dreamed a dream, you and I facing each other in a tiny yellow boat on green water under blue sky—me and my son and the yellow boat. And we laugh and the boat rocks and the ripples spread from boat to pond to sea to sky, and nothing can stop them, nothing ever will. When you think of me, Adam, know that in a world of pain, you were and always will be my joy. Love, Mom

It's one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole series, beautifully read by Mary Steenburgen as Helen, and it leads finally to a reconciliation between Joan and Adam.

Season 1, episode 13, “Recreation” I'm going to make my job easier here, this Saturday in Advent, by saying simply that I think this is one of the weakest episodes in the series. I didn't say it's not entertaining. But the message—despite God playing on the word recreation, as in re-creation, as in starting anew, as in big deal—seems to boil down to a worthy but wimpy "Just say no" (to drugs and alcohol). Though not necessarily to violence.

This episode has two major plots: (1) Will and Helen go away for a spa weekend, with hilarious scenes between Will and some obnoxious men at the spa, ending in a fistfight and knock-out for Will. (2) With the "parentals" away, the kids play, throwing a party at the Girardi home. Why? Why does Joan do most things? Because God tells her to.

The upshot of throwing the party, and of the party getting out of hand, is that Lt. Williams (Will's lady colleague) is drawn away from a stakeout at a meth lab to handle the noise complaint from the party; as a result, her life is probably saved when the meth lab explodes. The point made is made better many other times in the series. Still, it's a good point: If we do God's will (throw a party), there will be positive consequences (Lt. Williams lives), even if the consequences aren't direct, even if they don't involve us.

Or as Bob was saying at men's group this morning: Guys going to Adoration daily can have far-reaching consequences for others, in ways the guys don't even suspect.

Season 1, episode 14, “State of Grace” This episode features hilarious scenes with Friedman, Luke's buddy and unofficial sex counselor. Friedman tells Luke to give up his crush on Grace ("You're always throwing yourself against the one gate that's locked") and to go after Glynnis. ("Did you see the look Glynnis gave you in Chem today? That's a look you usually have to download.") Meanwhile, Will investigates a brutal attack on a (Protestant, Harvard Divinity School) priest who may have been having improper relations with a young man; the high school art teacher quits, which will lead to Helen taking the job in a subsequent episode; Rebecca invites Kevin to dinner at her place; and God tells Joan to join the debate team.

For her first debate, Joan is paired with Scott, a boy with a terrible stammer, and the two have to defend tighter security at Arcadia High School, which of course leads Grace to accuse Joan of "giving voice" to fascist ideas. (Gotta love Grace, don't you? The photo is Becky Wahlstrom, the actress who plays Grace, in a very un-Gracelike moment.) It turns out that while Scott has trouble speaking, he has no trouble doing the research.

Joan: You have so many great ideas in here and so many impressive big words. I mean, it would take two guys to lift these words, they're so big. Look, all you have to do is find your voice, Scott. Just let the world know what great thoughts you have. 
Scott: My voice?
Joan: Yeah, listen, if Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, and Carly Simon can all cure stuttering, so can you.
Scott: Who's Carly Simon?
Joan: I don't know, but James Earl Jones is Darth Vader. That is so freaky.

Through his experience with Joan, Scott realizes that while debating may not be his personal charism, he does have a talent for writing. In that way, Joan helps him "find his voice." Joan thinks she has completed her mission and decides to quit debate too. Butcher God tells her that she's not finished, that he told her to join the debate team so that she could debate, leading to an interesting discussion of belief vs. truth.

God: So you think believing something to be true makes it true?
Joan: Well, if believing in things was wrong, that would put you out of business pretty fast, wouldn't it?
God: I don't exist because people believe in me. I simply exist, whether they believe in me or not. Hanging onto beliefs, that's not truth. Open your mind, Joan. Read [the research that] Scott gave you. Be a part of that debate tomorrow.

When Grace taunts her past tolerance during the debate, Joan finally finds her own voice, speaking out in favor of gun control, partly with a very heartfelt defense of her father's work with guns. Then having delivered her argument, she runs from the room. When God catches up with her, Joan tells him that by forcing her to debate, God cost her a friend, Grace. "Do you know the meaning of grace?" God asks Joan. "It's a touch of truth that lets you see the world in a new way. It's a gift that can be felt only when you're open enough to accept it." The scene ends with God walking away and Grace—evidently moved by Joan's passionate argument—approaching to apologize.

Oh, and Kevin backs out of his date with Rebecca (to be continued), Luke kisses Glynnis kisses Luke, Will discovers that the priest was innocent of child-molestation, and Helen applies for the art teacher's job. Until next time . . .