For seven years on SNL, comedian Vanessa Bayer continuously proved she was an incredibly gifted MVP within the ensemble. Wiedling her expressive, toothy smile for good or evil, she created memorable characters, from her precocious Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy to sweaty, “fake-it-til-you-make it” meteorologist Dawn Lazarus. She left the late-night comedy show in 2017 and now she’s finally returning to television with a series that she created, Showtime’s half-hour comedy, I Love That for You.
Loosely based on her own childhood experience overcoming acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Bayer takes that portion of her life as a sheltered Ohio teen trying to reconcile her cancer diagnosis and uses it to fuel the stalled life of the show’s perky heroine, Joanna Gold. Having also survived teen leukemia, Joanna has been helicopter parented, and now finds herself in her late twenties working for her dad at Costco. As that sick kid, she spent hours watching the TV home shopping network SVN, where she formed an enthusiastic attachment to top seller Jackie Stilton (Molly Shannon).
As an adult, during a cringe-worthy third date, it finally hits Joanna that she’s so socially awkward and immature that she’s not doing anything with the life she fought so hard to keep. The realization prompts her to go after an audition at SVN, which she nails with a compelling pitch around a pencil. She then almost loses it all when she candidly reacts live to a whiff of a pillow perfume like she wants to hurl. Beyond pissed, Patty threatens to fire her, but Joanna panic counters by blaming her screw up on her current cancer fight. Seeing a sympathy sales bump, Patty gives her a second chance but requires that she make it part of her on-air story to connect with viewers. Now Joanna is living the dream, and living the lie.
In a breathtakingly effective and efficient pilot episode, writers Bayer & Jeremy Beiler take us through everything we need to know about Joanna, from her developed skills as a kid using her cancer to get what she wants, through to her SVN audition and first days at work. In the span of Joanna’s wide-eyed tour of her new workplace, we meet her fellow SVN hosts: ruthless, sales-centric boss, Patty (Jenifer Lewis), and potential love interest Gopher Jordan (Paul James). Michael Showalter directs the hell out of the first two episodes, giving the ensemble plenty of space to play, while also having some meaty moments that flesh out the characters beyond their quirks.
The show also benefits from the multi-generational casting of female comedians to really fuel the bulk of the storylines. Molly Shannon, who can play it big when needed, actually dials it back with Jackie, playing her as a compassionate, middle-aged woman who finds a kindred spirit in the star-struck Joanna. As two women who are tentatively embracing scary new chapters, their quiet confessionals to one another earn the kinds of tears and laughs that come from authentic female relationships.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the wicked fun of the mean girls, played by the always powerfully funny Jenifer Lewis and Ayden Mayeri. In the first three episodes available to review, Patty is relatively one-note as the standard “bottom line bitch” CEO of SVN, but Lewis is such a hoot to watch and so great in her power, does it really matter? Hopefully as the show progresses we’re able to see more of who Patty is and why she is, because Lewis can do a lot with a little. As for Mayeri’s spoiled influencer host Beth Anne, she nails the contemporary narcissist vibe by getting territorial in the trenches with Joanna, scrabbling for better times on the schedule and dressing room space. Watching her throw down just by chewing popcorn is a revelation. It’s in their face-offs that we get to see how manipulative Joanna is quite capable of being too, and where the dark path of increased fame and power might lead her.
The show’s biggest potential achilles’ heel is the sinkhole of Joanna’s cancer lie which can only continue to infect all aspects of her life. At SVN, everything is built on shaky ground, from her hosting gig to her newfound friendships, because she can’t admit her deception. Every day she doesn’t spill, the potential betrayal gets worse, especially as she’s also benefiting from the special treatment. That’s a stakes spiral that’s going to be hard for the show and the character to sustain in the long run without the show’s plausibility buckling under its weight. Luckily, the SVN ecosystem is such a fresh and fascinating backdrop for a sitcom, with all of its cheap cheats and internal squabbles, that at least there’s a place to go outside of the lie if they build the narrative and characters right.
There’s also Bayer’s Joanna ,who is the epicenter of the comedy and the heart of the show. As a comedian, Bayer is a whole-face actress, and she is selling a universe of emotion to the camera in every scene—be it painfully bumbling or extra earnest—which makes her particular talents and this character such a perfect fit. Behind Joanna’s deceptively wide smile and gift for salesmanship, Bayer is able to convey everything else that’s really swirling inside, from self-doubt to crippling awkwardness, and even the simmering anger of being reduced down to her ailment with no value outside of it. In scenes where Bayer lets some of that come out, it’s startling how potent those shared truths become in revealing Joanna’s inner self. It’s not an easy thing to use your own terrifying experiences with mortality to feed the engines of comedy and pain, but Bayer is sharing that through Joanna and the authenticity of her experience makes all the difference in shaping character into a flawed human that we want to root for even when she’s done a very bad thing.
I Love That for You premieres Friday, April 29th on streaming and on demand for Showtime subscribers, before its on-air debut Sunday, May 1st
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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