Can story arc save 'Joan'?
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
God has always been there for Joan of Arcadia. Whether enough viewers have been there for her show, however, is likely to determine whether it achieves TV salvation: renewal.
The CBS drama, critically praised and nominated for three Emmys in its first season, concludes its second tonight (8 ET/PT) with prospects of a third in limbo because of audience losses. The fate of Joan (Amber Tamblyn), a teen who talks to God, won't be known until mid-May, when CBS announces its fall schedule.
Creator Barbara Hall and her cast are happy with the show creatively and want a third season. Instead of wrapping up loose ends, as some shows do when renewal is uncertain, Hall last week began an ambitious story, revealing that God talks to another character, Ryan, who has dark intentions.
If the show goes forward, Joan's charge will be to battle the young man; the previous two seasons of encounters with various human-looking Gods have served as "a training camp" to prepare her for the task. "We've learned a lot about the direction the show naturally wants to go in, a bit more dramatic, a bit more mysterious and a bit darker, because we end up dealing with issues of good and evil," Hall says.
Mary Steenburgen, who plays Joan's mother, Helen, doesn't think the new story line will dramatically alter Joan, whose appeal comes in part from her life as an average teen. "There's an excitement to what Barbara is proposing for next year, without it losing the humor and the charm," Steenburgen says.
Hall says that she isn't certain why the audience has dropped (from 10.1 million in 2003-04 to about 8 million this season) and that it's her job to write the best show she can. After learning that viewers especially liked the visits by God, Hall increased the frequency. She likes them, too.
CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler, a champion of the series, says Joan tried some small adjustments to add to its loyal core audience, such as easing off from serialized story lines. She praises Hall and the cast and expresses frustration with the ratings. A renewal decision "will come down to the wire."
Tamblyn says expectations were higher this season because of first-year acclaim. And, she says, the show veered heavily into sadness in early episodes, but now it's hitting full stride as the season ends.
"We deserve a chance for one more season," Tamblyn says. "I want it so bad I can taste it."