STARTING FROM A TO Z
“STARTING FROM A TO Z”
By Eric Plaut
“I'd rather be on a good show that only runs two years than on a dumb show that's a hit for like eight years, which is usually the case these days.”
Here Amber Tamblyn discussed about completing her two-year run on Joan of Arcadia back in 2005. In this short-lived program on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Amber played the show’s leading character Joan Girardi. Joan was a high-school student who talked to God due to a promise she made. If her older brother Kevin (Jason Ritter) could survive an auto accident, which was caused by a friend’s drunk driving that paralyzed Kevin from the waist down, Joan would do whatever God told her to do.
Within the first few minutes of each episode, one of the Gods gives Joan a “task”. Some of the assignments may sound strange to her at first such as getting a job or trying out for an extracurricular activity at Arcadia High School. Joan has no idea about how God’s assignments will affect her, her family and her friends. What God wanted her to do confuses her. Joan’s parents Will and Helen Girardi (Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen) and her brothers Kevin and Luke (Michael Welch) do not understand her latest commitments either. The same concept applies to Joan and Luke’s inner circle of friends: her artistic boyfriend Adam Rove (Chris Marquette), Luke’s girlfriend for much of the series run Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom), quirky Glynis Figliola (Mageina Tovah) and the oddball Friedman (Aaron Himelstein).
Joan’s so-called assignments usually “came to light” near the end of each program. She would then learn from God how they were not about something monumental like saving the world. These missions, however, do affect Joan and her environment—for better or for worse. Joan would eventually realize that she had control of only two things—her thoughts and her actions. Everything else was out of her hands.
On Joan of Arcadia, the God character was never depicted with a flowing white beard nor dressed in robes. Instead, God looked and acted like an everyday person. The Supreme One is portrayed in many ways: as male or female; different races and ages; and a variety of occupations ranging from janitor to student to a wealthy socialite. Joan sometimes did not know it was God at first until He or She called her by name. Even though most of the interactions with Joan were done in person, there would be an occasional cameo by television or radio.
A pantheon of Gods, though seldom seen together, tended to appear in each of the show’s 45 episodes. For instance, each deity was referenced by how He or She appeared to Joan in the credits found in Wikipedia or on the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com). Names included Cute Boy God (Kris Lemche), Chess Master God (John Marshall Jones) and Old Lady God (the late Kathryn Joosten).
Other actors who portrayed versions of God included Juliette Goglia as Little Girl God, Jeffrey Licon as Goth Kid God, Sonya Eddy as a Custodian God and Amber’s father Russ Tamblyn as Dog Walker God. Performers who made one-time guest appearances on the show were: Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas as a Three Card Monte God; Curtis Armstrong (“Booger” from the Revenge of the Nerds series) as a Security Guard God; and Dharma and Greg’s Susan Sullivan as a Rich Woman God. The variety of God’s appearances helped make Joan of Arcadia keep an element of surprise.
I have noticed something about Joan of Arcadia and other programs like it. Many of these shows wound up being cancelled within a year or two. Even with social media these days, there usually isn’t enough time to build up a fan base to get the word of mouth out. Other shows I enjoyed watching that never got their due include A to Z and Freaks and Geeks. Even with the Internet and social media, TV programs can get the boot without much warning.
Yet there is something about a cult following of TV programs that are taken off the air long before their time should actually run out. With these previously mentioned shows, people can only shake their heads in disgust and wonder why this has happened. Often it takes a while to build up an audience. Everybody Loves Raymond, for instance, took about two or three years before people got around to watching the show. And Raymond lasted nine seasons on CBS! Sometimes it does take a while for the viewing audience to find a program that they can stick with and relate to the characters. Then the word can get out quickly whether one is at work, in school or even sitting around the dinner table!
However, many of these short-lived shows seem to have what’s missing in today’s society. Kindness, compassion, empathy and warmth are a few examples I can site. While these programs also depict the occasional conflict, the characters work out most of their differences by the next episode or two. They subconsciously let their viewers know that the world is neither black nor white. It’s way more than fifty shades of gray!
The comedian and clown Red Skelton once commented how television “used to have three channels and 1000 great shows. Now we have over 1000 channels and maybe THREE good shows!” Even with technology rapidly advancing in today’s society, computers and social media cannot replace good old-fashioned common sense! Maybe we should turn off our computers by 9 PM, put down the phone during mealtimes (that’s why we have answering machines!) and focus on the person in front of us instead of on the other end of the phone line. At least it would be a head start to improve interpersonal relationships with one another!
A new season of TV programs tends to greet us each fall. Now we see the occasional revival of a well-loved sitcom such as Murphy Brown or Will & Grace. Maybe these comeback shows are a way to live the “good old days”. Others may think that it resembles a “Where Are They Now?” series. If not an updated show, there might be a couple of two-hour movies lurking in the shadows.
Who knows? Could Hulu, Amazon or another network bring back a show like Freaks and Geeks or Joan of Arcadia? It sounds like wishful thinking even though there are no guarantees. Both of those TV programs had their main characters enduring the trials and tribulations of high school. The kids will have already received their diplomas with most of them graduating from college as well. They would now be more than likely be navigating through the everyday world with family, friends and even their own kids. At least social media didn’t exist during the 1980-1 year when the lone season of Freaks and Geeks took place at the fictional McKinley High School in Chippewa, Michigan!
One thing that was eye-catching about Freaks and Geeks was the titles of each episode. There would usually have one or two subjects involving both groups of misfits—the freaks and the geeks—with the twain meeting somewhere off-center. Names for each program included “Carded and Discarded”, “Beers and Weirs” and “Tricks and Treats”. With an updated version with technology, kids, et al., Freaks and Geeks could still have a catchy title with every episode. How about “Kids and Grandkids” or “Sitters and Jitters”?!
A few years ago NBC televised the sitcom A to Z. Narrated by Married with Children’s Katey Sagal, the “A” and “Z” stood for Andrew Lofland (played by Superstore’s Ben Feldman) and Zelda Vasco (Christin Milioti who appeared as the title role in the final season of How I Met Your Mother). Andrew works in the marketing department for a dating firm called Wallflower. He meets Zelda, an attorney, who comes into Wallflower to get a refund. They go out and it doesn’t go well. Andrew mentions that he’d seen her before wearing a silver dress at a concert. Zelda denies it at first, but later realizes that Andrew was right. They go out on a second date and we have a new series.
The ups and downs of this new-found relationship follows. A to Z becomes an abecedarian of episodes (“A is for Acquaintances”, “B is for Big Glory” et al.) Created by Ben Queen, the sitcom’s animated origami of the alphabet shown at the beginning depicted a scene under each letter—from A to Z. While the program wound up canceled after the fifth show (“E is for Ectoplasm”), it continued to run its remaining eight episodes concluding with “M is for Meant to Be”. It makes one wonder about the remaining 13 letters on the docket. It would have been nice to see Andrew and Zelda reach the end of the journey no matter if the result was good or bad.
The late mystery writer Sue Grafton was known for her “alphabet series” starring Kinsey Millhone. Grafton managed to nearly complete her abecedarian run with “Y” is for Yesterday. After her death from cancer in December of 2017, according to Wikipedia, Sue’s daughter said there would not be a “Z” to conclude Kinsey’s chronicles. The family decided to “end the series at Y.” Sometimes it’s for the best to end a series when its creator passes on. Why continue it then?
Roald Dahl, the author of children’s books including Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, once called television as “the dreaded box”. Maybe it’s time to put down the remote control and other social media and “channel” what our priorities should really be—work, school, family, friends, etc. As the late Jewel Akens once said, in regards to his 1964 single The Birds and the Bees: “That it's time you learned about the facts of life/Starting from A to Z.”
Wishing you a merry Christmas and all the best in 2019! Now it’s time to put down the remote control, tablet, cell-phone, et al., and enjoy the holiday season. Maybe we can learn something from Dr. Seuss and his most-famous creation from Whoville—the Grinch. So sit down with your family and friends at the table and carve the “roast beast”—the recipients on the other end of the line can wait.
As with life in general, there are no guarantees with what presents can be found under the Christmas tree or Chanukah bush. Remember, you alone are responsible for your own thoughts and actions so use them wisely!