Tuesday, September 27, 2005

New TV Season: Joey

Watching Joey is almost like a course in sitcom writing, because it’s trying so hard every minute that you can see the gears strenuously turning. They surely have the best writers they can find, the cast is talented, yet the show fails, and each episode is a mental exercise in which you can try to pinpoint why.

The Entire Concept of Building a Show Around Joey

This is the most obvious problem with the whole concept of Joey, and probably why the show carried an aura of doom before it ever aired. As Joey was the most shallow, one-note character in the cast of Friends, it was always doubtful whether you could do a whole show around a character conceived to carry a C-story. When you give him tortured emotions, you lose what makes him Joey, yet he is still an idiot, and now you have the least of both worlds. However, I think the show could have worked in spite of this.

The Supporting Cast

No one watches Joey except for me, so some background: The new characters include Drea De Matteo as Joey’s dumb, slutty sister, the guy from Road Trip and Josie and the Pussycats as Joey’s nerdy nephew Michael, and Andrea Anders from nothing as Alex, Joey’s cute but neurotic lawyer neighbor with a neglectful husband.

All of these actors are talented, likable, and fun. All of the characters, especially Alex and Michael, could be kind of interesting. But Joey’s writers, perhaps fearful of taking the focus away from Joey, the show’s flimsy reason to exist, refuse to allow these characters any reason to breathe. Never have they been allowed to carry a subplot; Joey must be in every scene. They are never even allowed to exist as equals with Joey, which is a huge mistake. What the show needs is to develop rich characters around Joey, like on Friends.

Instead, perhaps hoping it will make Joey look more complex, all of these characters are treated as one-joke caricatures. Michael is hopelessly, cluelessly nerdy, and we are never for a second not invited to look down at him. He could be the new Ross, but the writers won’t let him. By the same token, Alex is exclusively the butt of jokes about being insecure and neurotic. In other words, everyone is treated the way Joey was on Friends. It’s a whole cast of Joeys. And that can never work.

In fact, Michael and Alex are perfect for each other, and their friendship could have developed into some fun romantic tension. But no, Joey has to hog the spotlight, so we get Joey and Alex falling into bed together by the end of season one, which makes no sense and squanders any story potential they might have had. A whole story in the hourlong (!) season premiere is devoted to extricating the show from this awkward situation that was never worth bothering with.

The Fixes

Realizing the show is in trouble, the producers made a grand effort to save it this season. They have refreshed the staff with new writers and done all kinds of “retooling” work.

They’ve brought in Jennifer Coolidge as Joey’s weirdo agent as a regular cast member, and given the sister a job working for her. They’ve given Joey a nutty actor buddy named Zach, prone to dumbass schemes like kidnapping Kevin Smith’s dog to finagle an audition. And they’ve given Joey a big break starring in a big Bruckheimer action movie.

But the problem with Joey was not that there weren’t enough characters, it was that they refused to trust the characters and actors they have already. There’s no reason that Michael couldn’t get caught up in harebrained escapades with Joey—it would be a lot of fun, actually. But the writers have such a narrow, patronizing view of his character (nerd!) that they had to create Zach just so Joey could get up to harebrained escapades. It’s ridiculous.

Joey’s acting career has always been unconvincing. It’s been that way since the pilot, in which he acted in a show and it was on the air and canceled by the next day. It’s so hard to believe that Joey can get acting gigs at all that the less we follow Joey at work, the better.

Yet now we’re set to see Joey making a big movie, which will look ridiculous. This show doesn’t have the resources to show us Joey making a big movie. I didn’t believe it when he was shooting a WB-esque pretty-people show show called Deep Powder on a mountaintop set that looked like it was built for a school play. In the latest episode, Joey’s Deep Powder character is killed off in what is apparently a gruesome bloodbath with severed limbs everywhere. What kind of show was he on?!

Yes, it’s for laughs, but if you continually go for easy laughs at the expense of the show’s reality, eventually the whole thing falls apart. Indeed, this lazy logic does infect the rest of the show, from the plot mechanics to the characters’ motivations and behavior. Everything is strained and nothing makes sense. Stephanie and I have kind of stuck with it by default, wondering when the writers will see that the elements are there and might someday gel if they could just get it together. But it's gotten to the point where it's not just disappointing, but painful. The latest round of retooling just makes it clear that the writers can’t even diagnose the problem. They are doctors treating kidney failure with an appendectomy.

1 comment:

lydia said...

There was a preview on the DVD for the (awful) Bridget Jones's sequel. It looked so forced, I thought it was a fake ad for something. Sad. I kind of wanted the show to be good.

Did you get my e-mail? Let me know if you guys are free Sunday evening.