Auds tire of friendship with ‘Joey’

NBC OFFICIALS SCOFFED last spring at the suggestion that “Joey” undergo a square-one revamp — something like the old “Hey, it was all just a dream” approach, thereby serving notice that this isn’t the same series viewers sampled and abandoned in droves.

Yet two episodes into the second season, that kind of big gamble — even at the risk of a fast flameout — sounds infinitely preferable to allowing the network’s last link to the “Friends” franchise to die the slow death of a thousand cuts, dragging down NBC’s once-vaunted Thursday lineup in the process.

Put it this way: If this program were a date, someone would have smiled sheepishly by now and said, “You know, you seem really nice, but I don’t think this is going to work out.” If it were a prizefight, the ref would have called it.

Having continued to watch the series as a service to the millions who gave up, here’s a brief recap of what’s transpired thus far. After overplaying his hand and losing a marginal role on a primetime soap, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) appeared to be in real career trouble. Then presto, he stumbled into the leading part in a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie, catapulting himself into star territory.

His co-star is a petulant African-American child actor, who kept taking dialogue away from Joey and giving it to a grizzled star (John Larroquette, in a two-episode guest stint) slumming to pay off debts. As for his personal life, Joey’s cliffhanging fling with neighbor Alex (Andrea Anders) left an enduring mark on her but not much of one on him, so she’s laboring to hide her true feelings.

Oh, and Joey has acquired an African-American pal, played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr., which, given “Friends'” monochromatic palette, feels about as organic and plausible as the rest of what I’ve just described.

NO ONE EXPECTS documentary-style accuracy from network sitcoms, but the absurdity of this season’s story arc reflects an even greater sense of desperation than my proposed solution, which would have opened as Joey commiserated with his sister — long distance — about how the whole L.A. experiment didn’t pan out.

Leaving artistic considerations aside, the audience that bailed last year not surprisingly found no compelling reason to take another look. Following the indignity of being beaten by UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris” during premiere week, “Joey” essentially held flat in its second go-round, as ABC’s “Alias,” Fox’s “The OC” and the WB’s “Smallville” claim their niches and everyone trails a slightly anemic edition of “Survivor.”

The real question is, now what? NBC isn’t really in a position to cancel the show, yet at “Joey’s” current level of about 7.5 million viewers a week (with just under 4 million of those in the 18-49 age bracket), it’s difficult to justify renewing it, especially if there’s further erosion. And with the series leading off Thursdays, NBC’s entire night can only answer Joey’s trademark “How you doin’?” by saying not so good, in part because its foundation has the consistency of marshmallows.

THERE ARE SEVERAL CAUTIONARY FLAGS in this tale, beginning with the danger in placing too much emphasis on pilots. In hindsight, the “Joey” premiere that critics, including myself, overwhelmingly lauded didn’t adequately erect a framework to support its limited protagonist on a go-it-alone basis, and the subsequent execution fizzled.

To be fair, any “Friends” spinoff was destined to face unflattering comparisons to its sire, despite that show’s uneven later seasons. “Joey” also bore an unrealistic burden in being asked to prop up a lineup whose “Must-See” pedigree had yellowed from years of neglect.

Nevertheless, NBC’s decision to bring Thursday back unchanged remains a mystery, the poker equivalent to standing pat with a pair of threes. And while the net’s challenges on various nights should preclude any hasty moves, in better times “Joey” would surely be winging toward the great spinoff burial ground, in the rear section housing “After MASH” and “Joanie Loves Chachi.”

More than anything, “Joey’s” plight brings to mind another attempted encore by a sitcom star, Valerie Cherish, whose ordeal was chronicled in the HBO series “The Comeback.” Valerie’s situation actually worked out in a roundabout way, but watching the once-mighty struggle there’s a certain poetry in her catchphrase, “I don’t need to see that.”

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