If there’s one thing to be said about NBC’s new series Ordinary Joe, it’s that it’s ambitious. The show, which started as a script written by Felicity co-creator Matt Reeves in 2007, explores a question we’ve all had at one time or another: What if there were three TV shows starring the handsome visage of James Wolk on at the same time? That’s essentially what we’re getting here, and in a way it almost makes up for the fact Fox cheated us out of an entire show by prematurely canceling Lone Star, in which Wolk played a con man living a double life, all those years ago.
The soapy series, which feels tailor-made for the This Is Us crowd (NBC clearly hopes it will fill the void the family drama leaves once it ends this season), opens on the day of Joe’s (Wolk) graduation from Syracuse University in 2011. It explores three different versions of his life, each determined by what he does following the commencement ceremony. There’s the path Joe’s life takes when he meets up with his family, including his uncle Frank (David Warshofsky), who wants Joe to become a cop like his father, who died on 9/11. There is also what happens when Joe joins his best friend Jenny (Elizabeth Lail), whom he’s also been dating on and off, at the beach. And then there is what happens when Joe works up the courage to talk to Amy (Natalie Martinez), a woman he just met.
If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is, at least on paper. The show does a surprisingly effective job of using visual clues so it’s easy to follow which version of Joe we’re watching at any given time, whether it’s the one who became a police officer (colored in blue, naturally), the one who married Jenny and became a nurse (colored in green, the color of sickness), or the one who married Amy and followed his dreams of becoming a rock star (colored in red because red is sexy?) It also helps that Wolk’s hair and facial hair are all styled differently as well (everyone knows only rock stars have beards).
While the different color palettes border on overkill at times, especially when it comes to the use of red in Rock Star Joe’s timeline, they do at least make sense. It’s not like Ozark, where everything is colored dark blue for reasons no one understands. The use of the different colors here really helps to differentiate what’s going on at the outset, as the show sets up what is a high-concept premise featuring multiple timelines in just 42 minutes. While other shows debuting this fall manage to be confusing despite showing a literal timeline on screen, it’s appreciated that a show like Ordinary Joe recognizes the audience is going to need a lot of help to understand what’s happening and when, especially since viewers are probably also scrolling Twitter while watching (we all do it, don’t pretend you don’t).
But while executive producers and showrunners Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner have gone the extra mile to make sure the series is as easy to understand as possible in the beginning, one does have to wonder what Ordinary Joe will look like week to week, and how it can sustain the complex “what if?” scenario of its premise. In the pilot, which quickly fast-forwards 10 years to the present day after introducing its point of divergence, we’re introduced to Joe’s three different lives, as well as a cast of supporting players who are all destined to be included no matter which path he chose that fateful day. In addition to Uncle Frank, Jenny, and Amy, we also meet Joe’s mother (Anne Ramsay) and his lifelong best friend, Eric (Charlie Barnett).
Without giving too much away, the pilot finds Joe attending his 10-year college reunion; there’s a theme that runs through each version of his life, setting up what is no doubt going to be an emotional and heartfelt (if sometimes predictable) ride as we see events come to pass for each version of Joe. But when you consider this is an ongoing series, it’s hard to imagine the show will be able to devote enough time to each version of Joe every week to make all three of his storylines emotionally fulfilling. The pilot does a solid but not totally seamless job of moving between the character’s different lives, but once we move past the introductory phase and dig into the more complex, character-driven narratives that unspool after the events of the pilot, will it still be able to move so easily between them? And will it feel cohesive, or will it be a series of stops and starts that don’t allow for any of the threads to build up enough emotional or narrative momentum?
NBC sent two episodes to critics for review, and while the second episode paints a clearer picture of what Ordinary Joe will look like every week, it remains difficult to see how a show like this, with a gimmick such as this one, can remain novel as it grows. It appears as if each episode will have a central theme or event around which each version of Joe revolves, which gives the three timelines a unified feel. But this could also be to the show’s detriment, as it limits where each story can go without feeling repetitive. For instance, the second episode is centered around the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a storytelling choice that risks turning off viewers who watch shows like Ordinary Joe to escape from the events of the real world (the fact that most shows don’t have the ability to properly tackle storylines like this or COVID-19 makes it frustrating as well). Making matters worse is that by the third time we see Joe refuse to go to the event celebrating the lives lost that day, it begins to wear on the viewer. So, if each episode follows this same formula, I’m not sure Ordinary Joe will live long enough for it to explore the more interesting aspects of its story.
It’s hard to say the underlying premise of Ordinary Joe isn’t intriguing. It is. Everyone wonders what might have happened if they’d made a different choice, if they’d turned left instead of right, if they hadn’t left a party when they did. This idea that our lives can be changed in an instant depending on what path we choose isn’t new. Pop culture has been feasting on this very scenario for a long time, and with great success. Hell, Marvel has an entire series exploring its own “what if?” scenarios right now. But the framing of these stories is usually limited. They have obvious endpoints. That’s not the case here, so it’s not yet obvious what the goal is, or what the lesson is supposed to be other than our lives are a series of choices. The show synopsis provided by NBC reveals that there is no “right” choice for Joe, that his life is always messy as well as beautiful, so perhaps the goal of Ordinary Joe really is just to give us three James Wolk shows for the price of one. And even if I’m not sure I can call this show good in any traditional sense of the word, it’s kind of hard to argue against that.
Ordinary Joe premieres Monday, September 20th on NBC.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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