CBS has God and ratings on its side thanks to the hit drama ”Joan of Arcadia” (Fridays, 8 p.m.). The show is currently No. 1 in its time slot, having clobbered the much-hyped (but now on hiatus) NBC series ”Miss Match.” EW.com talked to ”Arcadia” creator Barbara Hall and stars Amber Tamblyn and Jason Ritter about why the show’s a hit, how they’ve handled an off-screen tragedy, and whether they think God is one of us.
How has working on the show influenced your views about a higher power?
HALL I’m as confused as anybody. But I want to talk about it, that’s all.
TAMBLYN I wouldn’t say I had a personal epiphany. But I’ve become more engaged and interested in the fundaments of religion and God and belief. I wasn’t raised with a specific religion but I was raised to believe in God. I’ve sort of become this person who’s read all these Joan of Arc books and got really into that, not even for research but just because I became interested in her story. So many people were like, you don’t know her full story? And at first I didn’t want to know, because I didn’t want the show to be about Joan of Arc. But the show has opened my eyes.
RITTER I’ve been walking around looking at the world in a completely different way. I’ll read a script and go, ”Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.” I remember there was this one script all about death, and the foreword had this quote from Kierkegaard: ”The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have.” And I thought, ”Wow!” I’ve seen a couple of dramas where the conflict is ”Who is my boyfriend gonna be?” And sure, we’ve all experienced that, but to have these big questions like death and why bad things happen being tackled is amazing. With God in the show, we have an opportunity to say to Him, ”Why are you making all this happen?”
Why do you think the show has become such a breakout hit?
HALL For one thing, it asks questions that people ask in their own lives and it doesn’t try to provide answers. It just opens up the discussion. And I think any resistance to it in the beginning was the fear that the show was going to try to preach. But because it asks interesting theological and metaphysical questions and combines those with a great cast, some humor, and the odd nature of the show, it works for people.
RITTER I would think it’s performed well because, regardless of who you believe in or what your religious status is, the idea that there’s some kind of system, whether that’s someone looking over us or a system of physics and facts, is comforting to people. It allows you to start seeing the world in a different way. When bad things happen you just go, okay, why did this happen, and what good can come out of this?
Jason Ritter’s character, Kevin, is partially paralyzed. Can you discuss why you decided to put that character in a wheelchair and how you avoided making his story line sappy?
HALL I wanted the family to be functioning under extreme stress and provide a very obvious visual tragedy, then ask everyone to contend with God anyway.
RITTER First I researched that injury and I found out technically what I can and can’t do physically and how the body is changed, and then I talked to a few guys who were injured around the same age as Kevin is. They told me all the details I couldn’t get from reading books, the day-to-day things. And the last thing I did was take my wheelchair home and go out to restaurants and parks to see how people interacted with me. That was the most helpful, to experience how it felt to have people be nice or act strange around me. I think one of my biggest concerns was that people who are in Kevin’s situation would say, ”Oh, this guy doesn’t know anything about it.” But as far as I’ve heard, people who either are paraplegic or know someone who’s paraplegic have said that it’s been pretty faithful. Half of it’s me and half of it’s the writing.
As great as the success of the show has been for all of you, there’s also been personal tragedy. After the death of Jason’s father (”8 Simple Rules…” star John Ritter), what has the mood been like on the set?
RITTER The cast has been wonderful. They’re the warmest, kindest people, so it’s like a complete web of support. Going back to the set after that happened was such a pleasure. It was amazing.
HALL The cast is very happy doing the show, and because they love it and they’re very enthusiastic about it, I think that’s actually helped them through the tragedy. I certainly think it’s helped Jason. The cast really is an extended family and he’s able to use us. That has helped keep him going.
TAMBLYN I don’t think its been that difficult. There were a few circumstances, obviously, that were hard for some of us, but as a whole we’re a family and love each other and help each other through any tough times.
What’s coming up next?
HALL We have a lot of romance with the kids. And we have an evolving relationship with Joan and God. She’s getting better at recognizing Him, and He’s going to be asking her to do more difficult things. We’ve shot a story line about a suicide attempt for one character. We want to bring up real issues, and teen suicide is a real thing. We always want to bring up some of the hardest things that people have to look at and put them in the context of God being real.
TAMBLYN Well Joan recently kissed Adam on the show, so that’s something that’s hanging nicely in the air. I don’t know if they’re going to keep that going or if there’s going to be someone new. But I kind of like Joan when she’s single because she’s bitter. It’s very funny to watch. The other fun thing coming up is that my dad, Russ Tamblyn (a star of ”Twin Peaks”), is going to be on the show as God.
RITTER I have a romance coming, and it’s a lot of fun. Kevin’s starting to get back into the world. He’s playing basketball again, getting his confidence back. But with him it’s always two steps forward, one step back. It’s never simple, but it’s good.