Defining myself through the lens of Friends (a favorite pastime of my generation), I’m a Chandler man. A lot of guys in the 18-35 demographic feel the same way: we like to think of ourselves as the funny, witty, awkward, and sweet one in our little tribes. I don’t know anybody who identifies with Joey Tribbiani, the good-looking dope with a bottomless stomach, heart of gold, and Chamberlain-style notched belt. Yeah, we all like pizza, and we’re not always that bright, but we just don’t get laid that much. To fall in love with a character, you’ve got to see at least some of yourself in him, and up to this point, we just haven’t been cool enough to love Joey.
The first episode of Joey embraces this dynamic, reintroducing Matt LeBlanc’s title character so he seems more palatable. After signing on with a new agent (energetic Jennifer Coolidge), Joey flies to L.A. to pursue his acting career. He turns down a role as a nurse on a show that promptly becomes the hottest property on television, loses his job as the star of a cable police drama when it’s axed, blows his audition as a talking head for a celebrity tabloid journalism show, and finds out that neighbor/burgeoning love interest Alex (Andrea Anders) is married, presumably off the market.
That Joey kicks off his new life with this series of rough breaks allows him to philosophize about shifting circumstances. “Just hoping things stay the same doesn’t work,” he says, and “change can be good,” even when it’s hard. While the plea to the former Friends audience is kind of ham-handed, it’s also understandable. The series has to start somewhere, and acknowledging that it won’t be the same as its parent is as good a launching point as any.
With Joey, NBC hopes once again to catch lightning in a bottle. In order for “Must See TV” to compete with 2004’s Thursday competition (led by Fox’s The OC, smelling blood and moving in from Wednesdays), the network needs Joey to follow in Frasier‘s post-Cheers footsteps. It needs to be as commercially viable as its predecessor, but also forge its own identity, sell its audience on a West Coast move, develop an excellent supporting cast, and mature its main character.
That’s a tall order for anyone, but Joey/LeBlanc didn’t even stand out on Friends. Even in the last two seasons, when writers amped up his role by including him in the Ross and Rachel plotline, Joey wasn’t a focal point. There was Ross and Rachel, then there was Chandler and Monica, then Phoebe and Mike (Paul Rudd, upon whom I conferred the “Seventh Friend” status that Tom Selleck and Michael Rappaport never achieved). When the focus shifted back again to the two central couples, Phoebe all but disappeared whenever she wasn’t playing Oracle for someone’s love life. And Joey remained ancillary, peppering scripts with “How you doin’?“s and gags about his not sharing food.
Joey sets up a new support system for its star, in the form of Drea de Matteo as sister Gina, a self-proclaimed “hairdresser to the stars” (as she says, “It sounds better than ‘hairdresser to mostly Dominicans’”), and Paulo Costanzo (Road Trip‘s genius pothead) as her grad student son Michael, who desperately wants to move out of his house but doesn’t want to make her mad.
As de Matteo is 31 and Costanzo is close to 26, it’s not easy to believe she’s his mother. The show explains this by Gina’s teenage pregnancy, though she’s told him she was 22 when he was born because she “didn’t want him to think his mother was a tramp.” Both co-stars exhibit above-average comic timing. After Joey has kicked himself (metaphorically and physically) for turning down Nurses, Michael deadpans, “Hey, they’re making a new Indiana Jones movie. Maybe you can turn that down.” His willingness to kick Joey, gently, when he’s down recalls that other sarcastic guy Joey used to live with.
De Matteo must make her own place. (A friend noted that Joey’s numerous sisters were often referenced on Friends, and now that he’s reunited with one of them, others might show up as guest stars.) When Gina learns Michael is planning to live with his uncle, she flies across the room to put a vice grip on Joey’s ear, only letting go when he resorts to their childhood stop sign: “All right, all right, I’m gay for David Cassidy.”
Perhaps most importantly, LeBlanc turns small laughs into big ones with timing and tone, as when he lowers his voice to register disappointment at Michael for taking the kiddie souvenir pilot wings from his cross-country flight: “I was just gonna show them to you.” He also proves he can carry scenes, particularly when paired with Anders, who drags like dead weight here, which doesn’t bode well for the inevitable “unattainable love” storyline. Still, I’m intrigued to see how he’ll proceed with a married woman; for all his sexual conquests, he always seemed to have a solid moral code.
LeBlanc makes us believe that Joey has grown up a little since we last saw him (his “change is good” speech is surprisingly resonant), while providing fans with old-school Joey moments (the best of which comes in his tabloid audition: “Hello, and welcome to Hollywood Minute. I am name”). Sometimes nuanced, sometimes bombastic, LeBlanc’s resilient performance will buy producers some time to fine-tune their approach (hopefully the sped-up, almost Handicam-looking “We’re in L.A. now, let’s show some highways and palm trees” interstitials will disappear) and allow the writers and co-stars to develop their own apparent skills.
Before the premiere, I never thought I was cool enough to love Joey. Now, I’m convinced that he’s uncool enough for me to reconsider, and I like him just the way he is right now. If LeBlanc and the rest of the folks at Joey keep turning out episodes like the first, there might be a lot more people who feel the same way.