The early 2000s were a great time to be a preteen girl watching teen TV. In any given week, I could dream of a day I’d shed my JC Penny jeans for cool, mature Pac Sun skinny legs and become an evil slaying badass like Buffy Summers, a Yale-bound genius like Rory Gilmore, or a budding investigative journalist like Chloe Sullivan.
They were super teens, with perfect hair and perfect eyeliner and the kind of talents and passions that would put any of their classmates’ AIM bios to shame. And though I did fantasize about reading Proust after drop-kicking a demon in a classroom full of new Macs, my heroine of primetime TV was always Joan of Arcadia’s Joan Girardi.
For those who skipped the two-season drama — which is criminally always left off of lists of series cancelled too soon — the show was based on a girl named Joan. Played by a pre-Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Amber Tamblyn, Joan’s predicament was that God talked to her, whether she liked it or not. In the height of my anti-religion rebellion, this should have been a deal breaker for me, but CBS’ God didn’t ask Joan to go to church or give up chocolate for lent, he (or she, depending on the form God took on any given episode) instead asked her to do fairly random tasks, from joining the swim team to befriending the class weirdo.
And Joan obliged, begrudgingly, joining extra-curricular activities she had no talent for, taking classes she didn’t really understand, and doing things that generally terrified her. And yes, there was that nudge from an all-powerful being, but it was still amazing to watch a girl, not much older than me, step out of her comfort zone every week just to help out a classmate.
If there was an overarching theme to every episode, it was that you can’t always save people, at least not in the way you want. But every week, Joan wanted to, and that’s what made her my favorite TV heroine. She always had her own stuff to deal with, a paper that was due, a boyfriend who was being annoyingly mysterious, but Joan always had time to make some poor kid’s life a little better, even when God said the assignment was over. In that way, it was kind of the ultimate anti-bullying public service announcement, long before bullying reforms became a hot topic.
To me, Joan crying over a classmate that she couldn’t fix was more inspirational than Buffy halting the apocalypse or Rory getting into Yale. Because without the help of super strength or super smarts, eventually she would dry her face, put on some music, and get ready for the next assignment. And if she could join chess club to somehow make the world a little better, I could probably get through Algebra II.