Anticipation and expectation are a hell of a thing. They can ruin what would otherwise be an acceptable experience. Go into something expecting too much, and you're guaranteed to be disappointed. Based on expectations alone, NBC's new sitcom “Joey” seems like it would be a major disappointment. It's got the onus of continuing one of the most successful sitcom franchises in TV history. It's also being forced to anchor the last crumbling vestige of NBC's once-great “Must See TV” empire. How could it possibly live up to such hype?
Answer: It can't. Viewed in a vacuum, however, “Joey” is a likable little sitcom lark, neither too inventive nor too brain-dead. The “Friends” spin-off follows would-be actor Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) as he moves out to Hollywood to pursue his acting career. There, he hooks up with his trashy older sister (the nicely cast Drea de Matteo formerly of “The Sopranos”) and her brainy college-age kid (Paulo Costanzo). The show puts Joey in an apartment complex run by a sexy but married neighbor (the so-far not-so-interesting Andrea Anders) and has him rooming with his nephew, whose attempts to escape his controlling mother seem, so far, futile.
Right now, de Matteo is the standout castmember, grabbing her role as Gina and holding onto it with real gusto. Costanzo (who's done some funny stuff in Road Trip and Josie and the Pussycats) makes a good counterpoint to our main character. Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie), meanwhile, puts in a funny cameo as Joey's new agent. LeBlanc, for his part, is a seasoned performer and is capable of milking laughs from so-so situations with a combination of snappy delivery and expert timing.
In its first few outings, the show doesn't exactly feel fresh. So far, the writers have made a lot of fun of Joey being dumb (a joke we'd sort of gotten over on “Friends”). We know Joey's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he's got other qualities that could be emphasized as well. It would be nice to see some of the real emotions LeBlanc let loose on the final couple seasons of “Friends” come into play soon. Obviously, by pairing Joey up with his rocket scientist nephew, the producers were hoping for an “Odd Couple”-type pairing. That's OK, but it has been done before.
Still, I'm hopeful for the show. I think it's at a good starting point. No show starts off firing on all four cylinders. The one good part of the show's stellar expectations is that NBC is going to give it the benefit of the doubt for a long time. Instead of canceling it after two or three airings (an event that will happen more than once this fall season), NBC will give it time to find its legs. Once the characters start to develop into real human beings instead of walking punch lines, the jokes will flow more naturally and the entire show will feel less fabricated.
Whether “Joey” ends up as another “Frasier” or another “Golden Palace” (the late, not-so-lamented spin-off of “The Golden Girls”) remains to be seen. But so far, he's doin' OK.