May 8, 2005

"It was before we lived in a theocracy."

So says Barbara Hall, the creator of the "Joan of Arcadia," trying to explain the TV show's big drop in ratings in this, its second season. She adds, "God wasn't quite as controversial then as he is now."

Her theory seems to be that a show about religion -- Joan is an ordinary teenager to whom God speaks -- is being spurned by all the many Americans who are appalled by the great strength of religion in America. But if religion is so popular, why wouldn't there be plenty of people eager to take in a well-made show about a young person struggling to understand and live up to the requirements of religion?

I'd say it is Hall and her co-writers who are appalled by the strength of religion in our political culture, and they've imbued the show with their own politics, thus putting off the natural audience for their show: ordinary Americans struggling to understand and live up to the requirements of religion. Hall and her co-writers wrongly imagined that the audience was made up of people with Hollywood-style values.

The first episode of Season 2 featured a gratuitous dirty joke (suitably deniable). As I wrote at the time:
In the first episode of this season's "Joan of Arcadia," Joan's boyfriend Adam is telling her about his summer spent working full-time in a hotel and the caption reads: "What do you want to know about plaster, grout, or unclogging toilets? And don't get me started on caulk 'cause that's my passion." But the actor clearly mispronounces the screenplay's word "caulk" in the most hilarious way possible.

I'm sure in Hollywood they fell on the floor laughing, but I think a lot of regular viewers felt uneasy. The NYT article linked above reports:
Barbara Hall ... said in a recent telephone interview that CBS bought the show in 2002 when public discourse about spirituality seemed more gentle: post-9/11 prayer services rather than heated debates over "The Passion of the Christ."

So Hall, concerned about the success of "The Passion of the Christ," set us straight with Episode 1 about what the real passion is: cock.

The season proceeded on the theme of teenage sex. Will Joan sleep with her boyfriend? What if he has another girlfriend? What if she has another boyfriend? Religion had very little to do with the problems Joan faced in these dreary episodes. I was one of the people who stopped watching midway through the season.

And it wasn't just all the Hollywood sex rained down on the sweet, earnest teenager we came to love the year before. It was also the Hollywood politics. Two weeks after Bush won reelection last November, I wrote about another early episode in Season 2:
On last night's episode of "Joan of Arcadia," Joan's boyfriend said to her: "So what if you don't make Ivy League? Is it really that big of a deal? If George Bush is any indication..."

The actor says "George Bush" with a mild but scoffing inflection that invokes the Bush-is-dumb opinion it's assumed we share. But this a big, popular network show, and Bush just won a decisive re-election. Who do they think watches the show?
And now that the show has lost two million viewers and faces cancellation, Barbara Hall blames America's devotion to religion? Why not blame yourself for losing faith in the deep religious component of your own show?

UPDATE: The Anchoress approves.

44 comments:

Dave Schuler said...

Religion is a very complex behavior and, consequently, hard to do right on TV. The same is true of love and it's why there's so little of it on TV. Sex is much easier to portray.

TWM said...

Sex is something Hollywood knows. Religion is something they have no clue about.

And religion is not hard to do on TV. Michael Landon did it wonderfully in "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched By An Angel" is an excellent religious show.

A religious show failing because religion is too big a deal in America now? Yeah, right.

Ron said...

Whomever thinks sex is easier to portray than love hasn't had enough experience with either.

Dirty Harry said...

This is also Hall, who no doubt will want to produce another show some day, telling The Industry, through the media, "I'm not one of THEM."

Great post, Ann.

Meade said...

"Whomever thinks sex is easier to portray than love hasn't had enough experience with either."

but enough about Bill Clinton already...

Ann Althouse said...

I've got an idea for a TV show about a mysterious grammarian who keep showing up ...

PatCA said...

Hall's Judging Amy is also falling, so she's mad! The failing ER also makes Bush references, and don't even get me started on West Wing.

I think when the ratings get this bad, the producers know the end is near and just write for their core audience. They're thumbing their noses at the audience that they pretended to appreciate as long as they were still watching.

Ron said...

Ann:

Who is this mysterious grammarian?

The Conjunction Master?

The Dangling Participle?

The First Person?

I before E? (except...)


Ain't none o' my bizness; just askin'...

David Manus said...

On this subject (kind of) I've noticed that very few of the girls I've dated have called a penis a "cock", directly. I think maybe its too aggressive for a casual appelation. "Dick" seems to be the preferred nomenclature among girls I've known, or even "your thing". Kind of movie monsterish.

Ann Althouse said...

Doc: I'm quite sure this is the only time I've written that word on this blog!

Gerry said...

I think you are right about them deciding to write in their own politics and thereby alienating the core of their audience.

I remember a few years ago, I became a fan of a show that was not all that popular but had a very loyal cult following- "Millennium", with Lance Henrickson.

During season one, the storyline featured Frank Black (Henrickson) as a profiler with a knack for getting into the minds of serial killers. He had a strong family life, a supportive wife, a loving daughter he doted upon. He also occasionally spoke of faith (in particular, in one episode he traded Bible quotations with a jailed Sherriff who was trying to take the blame for a murder he did not commit). It was a brutally dark show, with a fascinating weave of the role of faith in overcoming unbearable evil.

There was a mailing list for fans of the show, and towards the end of the first season, a brand new pair of writers were brought in to the series, and they both joined in the mailing list. They made it clear that they found Frank's family life bo-ring, and said it would have to change. (They killed off the wife).

They made it clear that the show needed to move away from the religious overtones, and towards a more X-files like combination of the supernatural and conspiracy.

They also said that the show would totally move away from profiling and from forensics, because that stuff was boring and no one would continue to watch it.

They were also completely obnoxious and rude to anyone on the mailing list who expressed that they liked the overt religiousness of Frank Black, or that he had a solid family, or any of the things they were changing.

"Millennium" was cancelled after three seasons.

I often wonder about Erin Maher and Kay Reindl (I think those were the names)-- those two obnoxious writers with highly condescending attitudes towards people like me. People who happened to be the audience of the show they were hired to write for. I wonder how they are doing, since the show was cancelled. I wonder what they think about the success of CSI and all of its clones, since no one would find forensics interesting. I wonder what they think about the success of Profiler a few years ago, or of Medium now. They had both genres first, but decided to blow them off.

I wonder if the current Joan writers are like them. I suspect they are.

Ann Althouse said...

Gerry: Interesting. As I wrote here, Season 2 ended headed into a Buffy-like change for Joan, who now must, with her friends, fight Satan, and the mother character is being set up with some extrasensory powers, similar to "Medium." So enough of trying to understand God within a real and supportive family and on to the occult.

Ron said...

"Millennium" I think is the darkest show I've ever seen on network television.


brrr...

As for Maier and Reindl... they seem to still be working together according to tvtome.com

lindsey said...

I think the MoneyMen should be very very concerned that the showrunners essentially decided to kill their tv show. There's no other way to express it. They actively chose to kill it. I wouldn't hire either to wash my car.

Matt said...

I think the concern Barbara Hall is trying to express is how religion has been used in America recently. The hard right has said (or seems to say) "it's not religion unless it agrees with us." The hard left thus denounces religion and says "religious people don't belond with us." That can leave religious people with a left-leaning tendency (such as myself) in an awkward position.

The show also had the problem of a premise that ultimately plays itself out after a relatively brief period of time.

Ann Althouse said...

Matt: The show had found a way to express religion in a very inclusive and nonsectarian way. It was extremely well done. And there was much left to do with the initial premise: Joan has still not revealed her secret to anyone, God had not yet appeared to anyone else, and the anticipated miracle (getting the brother out of the wheelchair) never happened. Lots of great secondary characters were created as well, and the actors playing them are incredibly good. There are at least eight characters in addition to Joan that we really care about, that have developed, interesting roles. The original idea was not played out.

who, me? said...

Agreed, the narrative has not played out. For one thing, a psychic helping the police department said the injured brother would dance at his wedding.

I've drifted away from watching, but remember with pleasure several plots about the importance of being guided to be in the right place at the right time, just doing your part in the tapestry of life. That God sent her to serve the Whole Deal by being there and being herself.

As to offhand slurs, Adam's dialogue had something about the University of Texas being in (gasp, yecch) Texas. I also lost A Fan's Edge when Amber Tamblyn talked about the 2004 election in a way I found particularly witless. Of course she's free to express her political opinions, but it broke the experience of the show for me, I couldn't see the character's innocence and guilelessness and suspend my disbelief any more.

And Barbara Hall's a big disappointment, fingering theocracy in a way that doesn't even make sense.

David Manus said...

Ann Althouse said...

Doc: I'm quite sure this is the only time I've written that word on this blog!


You don't have to explain to me, I was just saying. And yes, as a habitue of your site I'm well aware you prefer "love-wand".

This could provoke an entirely new thread btw. My current S.O. calls her own genitalia her "hoo-ha" which is somehow disturbing to me :|

Gerry said...

Ron, not just dark. Brutally dark. Almost crushing.

However, at times it was simply brilliant. There was a two part (each part being an hour long) story in season one that I would put up against most movies. The first half was called "Lamentation", and involved a Hannibal Lechter-like character. Only he turned out to be child's play next to the real bad guy. That episode was the single scariest episode of a tv show I have ever seen. And the conclusion, "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions" wrapped it up very nicely. Between those two episodes, and "Covenant" (the one I mentioned above) as well as "Luminary" from season two (with the narrative "God moves me not with rewards, but with pains and contradictions. He's given me not answers, but questions-- an invitation to marvel!!!") are still some of the best television I have ever seen.

I miss my show. :-( Oh well!

Ron said...

gerry: Yes, serial killers on "Millennium" were just an amuse-bouche to the greater darkness of the show. Kinda like clowns who make balloon animals would be to a kids show.

Even the "comedy" on the show was dark...I remember an episode of 4 catskills demons/comedians in a coffee house telling their tales...

but hey, all the shows will soon be available on DVD...

http://www.tvshowsondvd.com/newsitem.cfm?NewsID=2821

Timothy K. Morris said...

I'd be interested in the demographic they lost the most viewers in. I recall reading about half-way through the season that the valued teenaged/young adult female viewers were abandoning the show because of the "darker" atmosphere. I'm going to assume "darker" in this context means obsessed with sex, for the most part. I suspect the girls who identify with Joan and her friends are getting tired of having the subject, filtered through the values of middle-aged Hollywood types, shoved at them week after week.

Matt said...

The first season was generally pretty sunny--things worked out well because Joan listened to God. This season, we had the interminable Annie Potts cop plotline and the "Joan's best friend gets murdered" plotline long before the sex stuff ever became an issue. That's what they were referring to as "darker," I think.

And I've always firmly been against having a "miracle of Kevin" plotline. I think it betrays the show's premise of God--God doesn't act directly, but through the good works. Kevin's character was playing out rather quickly, IMHO, though the new relationship this year with Lily was interesting.

Gerry said...

"I remember an episode of 4 catskills demons/comedians in a coffee house telling their tales"

That would be "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me". I didn't really like the show that much by that point, but had continued to watch out of loyalty. That was deep into season two.

That's cool about the DVD. I'll probably get it eventually.

Ann Althouse said...

Matt: I also always thought it would be terrible for Kevin to be cured, but there was a lot of room to tantalize us with the possibility. I assumed the "dance at your wedding" prediction would play out in some surprising way, that wouldn't get him out of the chair, and I think they owed up the promised story line.

I don't know when the ratings dropped, but it wasn't the dead best friend that drove me away, it was the repetitvie fretting about whether to have sex and the constant kissing -- involving both Joan and her boyfriend and Luke and his girlfriend. What kind of a story was that? Also tedious was the endless worrying over where to go to college, including the bogus drama about Joan and Adam needing to go to the same school (as if they couldn't stay together by going to different schools in the same city). It was boring!

C. Schweitzer said...

I echo the "wasted potential" comments about JoA. I hate when people always have to blame the audience when their work fails to connect. It's never their writing--never. Remember when Oliver Stone's "Alexander" fell flat at the box office. It is because we're such a homophobic society! Not because it sucked.

Religion is very tricky in any artistic project, but I think JoA had a good formula. The problem with shows about religion (ie 7th Heaven, Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, etc.) is that they are frightfully humourless and therefore make us so-called "theocrats" seem humourless as well. These shows perpetuate the myth that if you believe in God, you must undergo a funny bone removal.

TWM said...

Highway to Heaven was "frightfully humourless?" I beg to differ -- the show was quite funny at times.

I still recall one show where Jonathan appeared to an elderly lady in a dream (after she had met him in real life as a handyman or something), and the lady upon seeing him remarked "Oh my goodness, I haven't had one of these kind of dreams in a very long time." Jonathan just smiles and kindly corrects her.

No sense of humor. Please.

Alcibiades said...

Thanks for the exegesis on Hall.

Heh! It now occurs to me that this "final battle" scenario is probably in its way, far more likely a metaphor for the coming "apocalypse" between left and right in the next election than any serious attempt to understand the *religious* nature of such a fight.

Which is why the devil guy, as portrayed, controls the "press" [hah!], the school administration, has coopted the police, and etc. I can't remember what else.

And Joan's suppporters are unquestionably the good guys, the unenfranchised, the powerless. They're unorganized and squabble among themselves, but of course, if there is another season, 'tis they who'll conquer. Because they're righteous dudes.

The political analysis is built in. And built in just as simply as so much political commentary from the left: we're good, you're evil.

O! for subtlety from the left.

I still think Wonderfalls was much, much better. Ann, you never got to the good part, which explored the nature of ambiguity, and ambiguous feelings in relationships in a way that rang more true than just about any treatment I've seen on a TV show. Not to mention, the ambiguity of the messages that were received. And was quite, quite delightfully funny at times. Yay Tim Minear!

True, the talking animals might not appeal to everyone. Obviously they didn't appeal to you.
But these days, a message from on High, if it were from on high – and there was more ambiguity about that than on Joan – is almost never going to be received with the clarity of what Joan receives each show. That's the trouble with religion in the modern age.

And of course we never got to see what a full season would have looked like. Thanks Fox.

Ann Althouse said...

Alcibiades: Yes, I think you're right about the devil. He's the Republican Party.

As to "Wonderfalls," I did like the idea of the talking animals at first. It just didn't seem to be going anywhere. Which episode that I didn't get to is good? The show just seemed to empty and undeveloped to me.

Ann Althouse said...

All you people talking about "Millennium": I'd never heard of this show. Coming out on DVD, eh?

Palmer said...

What are "Hollywood-style" values?

lindsey said...

Ann, Millennium is excellent! Excellent! It was an X-Files spin-off and, if they hadn't done exactly the wrong things already mentioned in this topic, it would have grown to be a great series.

Another show that dealt with religion in a dark manner (indirectly) was the tv show American Gothic, which was set in the South. It was wonderful.

lindsey said...

" What are "Hollywood-style" values?"

Rum, sodomy and the lash!

Palmer said...

"Rum, sodomy and the lash!"

Shane MacGowan is from Hollywood?

lindsey said...

Actually, I was thinking more of pirates. Aaarrrr, pirates!

Anyway, I just thought it was funny. Guess not.

Palmer said...

Avast, Matey! Aar! Double your grog ration!

Alcibiades said...

You wrote:

As to "Wonderfalls," I did like the idea of the talking animals at first. It just didn't seem to be going anywhere. Which episode that I didn't get to is good? The show just seemed to empty and undeveloped to me.

I don't know the numbers, but the episode where Jays starts dealing with why she is so ambivalent about her feelings of attraction to the "love interest" and how that is impeding her in general, begins an interesting arc that continues until the end. Of course, it got a bit overcompacted what with the fact they only made 13 episodes, and not a regular, season-long 22.

I thought the treatment of confronting her ambivalence in this situation (and others) to be quite psychologically astute.

Timothy K. Morris said...

Wonderfalls - excellent show. The network messed with the order of the shows and only aired, what? four of them? You really need to see the series on DVD, in the proper order and with the overriding story arc complete.

Millennium, season one, at least, has been released on DVD.

Another show that touched on the paranormal and, again, did not get a full run, was Miracles. The complete series, including seven unaired episodes, is now available on DVD.

John Guilt said...

Uhhh...guys, in large parts of Southern California, what we normal coastal elitists (with big noses and horns, I might add) normally pronounce "KAWWK" is pronounced "KAHHK".

The first time my LaJollan wife talked about "hawks" I thought she was talking about pig feet.

Joe said...
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Joe said...
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Joe said...

and oh yeah.. who won the case for Norma Roe?? Sarah Weddington, that's who.. A Univ of Texas Law School grad...

Joe said...

To Who, me....

Okay.. I'm tired of you damn yankees freakin' out at the merest mention of the lone star state...
Well.. the Univ or Texas is in Texas geographically, but culturally, etc., it's not..
..the university of texas is in austin, which luckily is unlike the rest of the state. It is jokingly referred to as Texafornia.. Travis County (where austin sits) came up blue by a 55-40 margin in 11/04 with 5% going to Nader or some such idiot. In fact, next to San Francisco, Austin is the coolest city in this country.. You've obviously never been to Austin.. If you had, you'd know better than to make such a gasping comment as you did. In fact, I'll bet you'd fall in love with it.. Austin is a growing dynamic city with more creative and cool people than you can shake a stick at..And yes, they flock to the A-town from all over the world.. Michael Dell.. Or Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez, Willie Nelson,Kinky Friedman, or Stevie Ray Vaughn.. all do or did their thing in the A-Twon and that's a very very short list..

Austin totally rocks.. so until you've been there.. withold your ridiculous yankeecentric judgments..

Ann Althouse said...

Joe: Everyone knows about Austin. Anyway, "Slacker" is one of my all-time favorite movies.

leeshink said...

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Lee Shin
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