Nine years before the shooting, Ashbrook's mother died. This reportedly sent him into a cycle of erratic and frightening behavior. Ashbrook lived for many years with his father, Jack D. Ashbrook. Across the street from the Ashbrooks' home, neighbors said they saw Ashbrook treat his father violently but were afraid to report it. Newspaper editor Stephen Kaye, whom Ashbrook had visited days before the shooting, described him as being "the opposite of someone who'd be concerned about", saying he "couldn't have been any nicer."
However, his neighbors had an entirely different view of him, describing him as strange and violent. Investigators at his house discovered that he had virtually destroyed the interior of his house - holes were bashed into the walls with crowbars, the toilets were filled with concrete, and the fruit trees growing in the backyard had been poisoned.
Police investigating the shooting could find no solid motive for the crime. In the months before the shooting, people who knew Ashbrook said he became increasingly paranoid, certain that he was being framed for serial murder and other crimes that he did not commit. He also feared that the CIA was targeting him, and he reported psychological warfare, assaults by co-workers and being drugged by the police. Just days before the shooting he voiced these concerns to a newspaper, saying "I want someone to tell my story, no one will listen to me; no one will believe me
In the pilot episode, God appears to Joan and reminds her that she promised to do anything he wanted if he would let her brother survive a car crash that left him a paraplegic. God appears in the form of various people including small children, teenage boys, elderly ladies, transients, or passersby. Joan is asked by God to perform tasks that often appear to be trivial or contrary, but always end up positively improving a larger situation.
One of the more obvious effects of Joan's actions occurs when she is asked to take a reclusive bully to the school dance. While both her mother and the assistant principal object, Joan follows through with God's task. At the dance, it is revealed that the bully has a bottle of alcohol with him, but Joan convinces him not to open it. Despite this, the assistant principal later reaches into his jacket, finds the alcohol and expels him. In his anger, the boy threatens the chief of police (Joan's father) with a handgun, and he is then arrested. Joan later finds out from God that, while this turn of events seems rather bleak, it was the lesser of two evils—without Joan's actions, he would have shot over a dozen students and teachers with a handgun, before turning the gun on himself. This ending is noticeably more direct than most episodes, since it is the only time God comments so clearly on "what would have happened" rather than primarily allowing events to speak for themselves.