Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2004, Volume 24, No. 2
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Joan of Arcadia, WCBS Television, Fridays at 8 p.m. Cast: Joe Mantegna (Will), Mary Steenburgen (Helen), Amber Tamblyn (Joan), Jason Ritter (Kevin), Michael Welch (Luke)

Reviewed by Irma Jacqueline Ozer

When I first began to watch the new television series, I, as a former student of drama and now a sometimes-cabaret performer, was delighted with it. As a woman with both a physical and psychiatric disability, I have mixed feelings.

Joan of Arcadia presents a variety of situations in which Joan has direct contact with God and is transformed by the assignments she receives. Each time God gives an assignment to Joan, this God assumes many forms—a high school male "hunk," a little girl, a janitor, a store clerk who smokes. Joan Girardi has recently moved to Arcadia because her father Will is its Chief of Police. Her mother Helen, a housewife, is preoccupied with raising Joan and her two teenage brothers. Kevin, aged nineteen, was in a car accident caused by a drunken driver and is a wheelchair-user. Luke, at age fourteen, is a scientific "genius." Joan, other than being very pretty, appears to be a quite unexceptional sixteen-year-old--except for the fact that God talks to her and assigns her tasks that initially seem senseless but always change the lives of others. The episodes deal with serious matters, but the seriousness is relieved by humorous moments. ("God smokes!" yells Joan at one point.) The ensemble cast delivers fine performances and the story lines are almost always multi-faceted. There are often fascinating forensic cases occurring in Will's police precinct. Helen finds the courage to use her art background to take over the position of art teacher in Joan's high school. Luke excels in his science classes and finds a like-minded "science geek" girl friend. Joan's two best friends are Grace, a political radical suspected of being a lesbian, and Adam, who appears to be a high-functioning autistic artist. Each episode centers primarily around the task "God" assigns to Joan.

It is the depiction of Kevin, however, which is most intriguing to me. In the first episode the viewers see a young man who does not even want to leave the house. Slowly, with the encouragement of his family, he acquires a car. Then he finds a job as a fact-checker on a local newspaper. His female boss discovers that Kevin has an outstanding writing talent. The season has not yet ended, but Kevin and his boss become lovers. Their first sexual experience goes well ("And nobody sprained anything.") A former athlete, Kevin joins a group of wheelchair-using basketball players. Despite all his "overcoming," Kevin's way is not smooth. He is at times angry and lashes out at his family and those who want to help him. At times he is frightened and cannot ask a girl out because he does not want her pity. Above all, he is a nineteen-year-old kid who teases his younger siblings. He admits that he was "an ass" before and is now "an ass in a wheelchair."

Jason Ritter, the son of the deceased actor John Ritter, turns in superb performances, but he has appeared in other series and is not disabled. I am troubled by the fact that the producers could not have found an actor who is truly a wheelchair-user for this role. It might behoove us disability activists to follow the example of the NAACP. We could pressure the television stations to give disabled actors a chance to play themselves before casting the non-disabled as disabled characters. This would be a form of affirmative action that the disability community well deserves. Moreover, there are successful precedents. Among the examples are Marlee Maitlin (portraying a deaf woman in the film Children of a Lesser God) and Chris Burke (depicting a mainstreamed mentally disabled high school student in the television series Life Goes On). Casting disabled actors to play disabled characters would not constitute a lack of respect for non-disabled actors, but rather an appropriate creation of opportunity and access to actors who have much to offer but all too often lack the forum for their gifts.