It’s been a tough season thus far for star-driven sitcoms, and sitcoms in general, a fact ABC hopes to remedy with its midseason Joan Cusack vehicle, “What About Joan.” An endearing performer whose quirks always seem to fit perfectly the character she’s playing, Cusack is naturally funny, which is a gigantic asset for a first-time sitcom star. In the first two episodes, she amply demonstrates her pleasing charms, which makes this show particularly promising. Its ability to sustain what it has rather ambitiously set up, though, remains exceedingly unpredictable, given that outside of Cusack herself, the show doesn’t have a whole lot of personality. Fortunately, “What About Joan” may not need more than Joan.
Cusack plays Joan Gallagher, a schoolteacher who considers herself “low maintenance,” the kind of person more likely to offer counsel than to need it, although she does have psychiatrist Ruby (Donna Murphy) as a best friend, just in case.
Joan is also confidante to her needier pal and colleague Betsy (Jessica Hecht), who has co-dependent written all over her as she allows boyfriend Mark (Wallace Langham) to treat her shabbily and deny their relationship in public despite the fact that they’ve been dating for years.
Joan’s self-sufficiency is tested in the pilot episode when Jake (Kyle Chandler of “Early Edition” fame), the very nice, handsome and possibly perfect man she’s been dating for six weeks, suddenly proposes to her.
Creator Gwen Macsai presents the premise that Joan must confront the possibility of having everything she thought she wanted in life, which sends her into a panic attack. All her bubbling neuroses rush to the surface, as she self-consciously analyzes everything about her situation and everything she says and does before she says and does it.
This idea puts forth some strong, character-driven comedy, and Cusack, letting herself go under Michael Lembeck’s direction, is certainly up to the task of making Joan complex, charismatic and likable. In all her film performances, she makes us root for her, and she accomplishes that here as well as she makes us laugh with her pained antics.
But there’s a structural question mark hanging over this show. All series must set up a few basic conflicts that can be played out again and again, and can hopefully develop and grow over time. In “What About Joan,” the primary conflict comes from within Joan herself — she wants to be happy, but can’t seem to allow herself to be.
In the second episode, for example, she insists on pushing Jake to admit that she’s not the best sexual partner he’s ever had, which sends her into another anxiety attack. This gives Cusack plenty of opportunities to shine but may be especially difficult to sustain.
After just two episodes, Joan is verging on replacing the normal but antsy character she probably envisioned with a neurotic one. If the producers feel the need for her to keep topping her nervous breakdowns, this could potentially go over the top in a hurry.
As is, there’s not too much else to rely on. Chandler is ideally cast as a genuinely nice guy who genuinely loves Joan and genuinely wants to enjoy his time with her without over-analyzing it. He’s the plain vanilla to Joan’s rocky road, and as such, he’s a good foil for Joan more than an especially entertaining character.
That’s OK, but the writers will need to find comic support in the rest of the cast, which is a talented ensemble but will need to give more convincing shape to their somewhat contrived personas.
The second episode has the confident Ruby attempting to help Betsy by talking to Mark on her behalf, which only causes Mark to start obsessing on Ruby. The idea is clever, but the execution is dry.
The show also introduces a teaching assistant for Joan in the form of down-to-earth Alice Adams (Kellie Shanygne Williams). The workplace element of the show will likely become more prominent in future episodes.
The show is shot in Chicago, which doesn’t yet give it any particularly unique feel. Tech credits are strong.