In 1997″s satisfying gem “In and Out,” Joan Cusack plays a beleaguered fiance whose husband is outed as a gay man. In the film, Cusack demonstrates impeccable comic timing to accompany her energetic performance. She was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Somewhere amidst Cusack”s transformation from film actress to television star, that comic timing is lost. In “What About Joan,” Cusack”s first foray into the situation comedy, she maintains the quirky neurosis that made her so lovable in “In and Out,” but what was off-the-wall is now incomprehensible foolishness. Instead of erratic and endearing, we get irrational and irritating.
Cusack portrays Joan Gallagher, a high school teacher who looks to her two best friends for daily advice on men, sex, dating and life in general. How original! Shot entirely on location in Chicago, and executive-produced by James L. Brooks, the show features a formulaic plot, predictable jokes and dreadful delivery.
The supporting cast is hardly original either. It is chocked full of recycled television actors. Kyle Chandler, from CBS” “Early Edition,” plays Joan”s television obsessed boyfriend, Jake. Jessica Hecht, who is put to much better use as Susan on “Friends,” stars here as Betsy, one of Joan”s best friends, as well as a fellow teacher. Wallace Langham, whose resume ranges from the biting “The Larry Sanders Show” to the pointless drivel, “Veronica”s Closet, also stars as a teacher. Also on board is Kellie Shangyne Williams, best known as Laura Winslow on “Family Matters,” as another teacher that tries to bond with Joan.
The pilot episode includes a decision of dealing with a marriage proposal, a device used far too often in series premieres, (see “Friends,” “Will & Grace”), as well as an affair, which is not exactly innovative writing. It is surprising to see Brooks, who is responsible for some of the most successful television shows in history, with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Simpsons,” lend his talent to a show whose high-point incorporates the phrase “emotional premature ejaculator.”
The overall message of this show seems to be that Cusack should stick to supporting film roles. If you want to see a show about the intimate lives of women, where the complexity and endurance of female friendships is not confined by the restrictions of network television, then watch “Sex and the City.”