Sunday, February 13, 2005 by

Much like its main character, Joey is already lost during the opening moments of the first episode simply because its a spin-off from the biggest live-action sitcom on the planet. The pressure the creators and writers felt when handed this behemoth must have been extraordinary, considering the network will have been looking for something to fill a very big hole. Unless Joey was sitting in a New York apartment with five other people called Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel and Monica, then this was never going to happen for them.

Perhaps recognising that a pilot episode isn’t always the strongest way to begin the run of any series, five decided to broadcast it with the second edition back-to-back. Channel 4 often used a similar strategy at the beginning and end of seasons of Friends, so this added to the familiarity of watching the show. The big difference, then, is its appearance in an unfamiliar Sunday nighttime position. If you consider that C4 have dropped ratings magnet The Simpsons into the old Friday night timeslot, scheduling this series up against that would be suicidal. In addition, five have also acquired the services of LeBlanc himself – possibly as part of their rights deal – and we see him sitting at a kitchen table on the set improvising with the corporate logo. The channel undoubtedly has a lot of faith in the series.

As to sponsors Ginsters, the weirdness of that choice is a debate for another time.

Matching like-to-like, this first episode had a lot to live up to. The obvious unfair comparison is to the pilot episode of Friends which, for me, was a perfect 22 minutes of comedy that somehow managed to define all the characters, set up their relationships and still be barn-stormingly hilarious. Joey‘s intro, telling the story of the character moving to Los Angeles to start a new acting career, isn’t like that at all – it’s more of a slow burn and simply doesn’t fly in the same way. The funnier moments, for example, happened when references were made to the previous series, which is either lazy or provides good continuity depending on your point of view.

The equal comparisons with Frasier probably come to some extent from the choice of placing Joey within a family this time around, instead of another group of friends or a particular setting. However, it’s quite refreshing to find such a tiny ensemble who feel pretty well-defined from the off. With the sister Gina, an obvious attempts has been made to introduce a female character entirely unlike anyone on the previous series, all loud, brassy and extraverted. Her son Michael could have been a Mini-Ross but the expression is different, more introverted. Although Joey’s relatives are strangers to us, they’re obviously familiar to him so the comedy is about what’s changed rather than what’s new – the character’s reaction to his sister’s implants, for example, is priceless.

Despite the comparisons, differences also keep asserting themselves. The timeframe of the episode takes place over a few weeks, long enough for Joey to appear on a cancelled cop show and for another series he turned down to become a big hit in an overnight Desperate Housewives manner. The conceit just about works with the existing relationship between the Tribiannis, but in places it still felt slightly rushed, like edited highlights from three or four episodes.

However, no pilot can be described as “typical” which is why the appearance of episode two directly afterwards was helpful for the viewer to get a feel for what a typical show is going to be like. Disappointingly the plotline followed an old standby – older stud teaches younger geek how to pick up girls.

But curiously, it wasn’t totally awful. The script was fairly well constructed around Gina’s attempts to become co-tutor of Michael’s pick-up training, and the jokes were pleasingly character based; none of your Chandleresque pop culture references hanging around looking for a punchline, here. There was some good chemistry between LeBlanc and his co-stars. Drea de Matteo (of The Sopranos) as Gina has a real aptitude for comedy and, to a degree, there is a feeling that some of the slapstick has shifted from Joey to her. Paulo Costanzo’s Michael is pleasingly sympathetic and again bashes away excellently at the banter. Having a rocket scientist in the ensemble is a good choice, although they may have difficulties if they don’t eventually vary the idiot/genius dynamic between Joey/Michael before it gets tiresome.

And yet, there are a number of question-marks over whether the series can sustain itself. There remains the nagging feeling that we’re watching a subplot from another series of Friends writ large – like those scenes in special episodes set in London or Las Vegas when the writers were straining to find something for Joey to do while all the important action was happening elsewhere. Some of the funnier moments in the parent series were the times when we’d cut back to him doing something funny as a counterpoint to the more tragicomic scenes; but here they just sort of hang there, and after a while it could become repetitious.

I’m also not entirely convinced by characters outside the main family. Andrea Anders’ Alex seems a little blank to me. Perhaps the programme-makers are hedging, waiting to see what works and what doesn’t, but that can be dangerous as in this situation the viewer needs something to hold onto pretty quickly. So she’s married, and a lawyer and …? Also the legendary Jennifer Coolidge, as Joey’s agent, is probably going to be an important character as time goes on, but here she seems very tense, nervous even. Perhaps she’ll relax into it in a few weeks.

So I’m willing to give the series a chance, if only for nostalgia reasons. It doesn’t feel like the simple cash-in it could have been, with Janice turning up in episode two and Gunther passing by in four. Certainly, despite the similarities, there is a sense that Joey is most definitely a different show, with a different sensibility, and it’s quite pleasing they’re taking the time to set up the characters and relationships instead of relying on a constant stream of empty laughs. But the programme’s creators can’t leave it too long before providing us with that killer episode that will keep us around. These first two episodes were watchable – but a whole season like this?


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