Wolk, at 36 a veteran of projects including “Mad Men” and “Watchmen,” first came to audiences’ attention on network TV, and it’s to network TV he returns this month. “Ordinary Joe” tracks one character through three lives, investigating the consequences of three possible decisions its protagonist might have made. If, after his college graduation, he spent the day with his family, with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Lail), or with a new and intriguing young woman (Natalie Martinez), his life might have branched in three different directions, which we see 10 years down the line, toggling between potential lives.
In one reality, Wolk plays a rock star; in another, a cop; in a third, a medical professional. In all of them, some fundamental thing seems missing, though, naturally, what that missing element is varies from timeline to timeline. Characters recur throughout: Lail plays Joe’s former college girlfriend Jenny, who becomes in one case his partner in a loveless marriage and in another his ex-partner with whom he reconnects. The presence of Lail, of the first season of “You,” and of a best friend character played by Charlie Barnett, of “Russian Doll,” intriguingly suggest that network TV is eyeing top talent from among TV’s more experimental and ambitious shows.
But for all the gifted performers onscreen — not least of them Wolk, a compelling performer who even sells the rocker persona despite often reading elsewhere as a bit of a square — “Ordinary Joe” feels, in its pilot, a bit stuck. It’s plainly attempting to capture some of the magic of “This Is Us,” scrambling the equation: While NBC’s signature drama hops through various real times in one family’s life, its new entrant skitters between possible experiences one person might have had, reconfiguring his family each time.
A key difference, though, is that “Ordinary Joe” isn’t just fictional — it’s hypothetical. “Ordinary Joe” intends to make you feel, with a pilot touching on big, elemental emotions for its characters. And yet we know these feelings are only being evoked by a hypothetical set of circumstances — we’re celebrating, or mourning with, a story that even within the show’s world is not real. Transitions between the trio of Joes often don’t land, only emphasizing the stagy unreality of the show’s three worlds. There’s raw material here on which the show may yet improve, but in its pilot, at least, “Ordinary Joe” feels a bit too high-concept for its own good.
“Ordinary Joe” premieres Monday, Sept. 20, at 10 p.m. E.T. on NBC.