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Articles about "What About Joan?"


'What About Joan': A Bouquet of Neuroses

By Tom Shales, Washington Post, March 27, 2001

There's something about "What About Joan." It must be Joan herself. A bundle of nerves, a font of foibles, a veritable wellspring of punishing self-doubt, Joan aims to please, misses by a mile, and convinces you the target moved. She's a linear descendant of all the wacky kooks who ever pitched a fit in a sitcom, and either because of or in spite of that, many a viewer will likely fall in love with her, or at least become moderately enamored.

Her name on the show is Joan Gallagher but the name in the credits is Joan Cusack, a truly gifted comic actress who had a brief and unspectacular stint on "Saturday Night Live" and appeared memorably in some unmemorable movies, and a couple of good ones, too. Her ABC sitcom premieres at 9:30 tonight on Channel 7, and the least that can be said for it is that it's positively aglow with Joanness and inimitably Joanacious.

A teacher at a not-too-big school located in somewhere-or-other (it's all interchangeable detail), Joan has found the man of her dreams, a stouthearted and extremely tolerant fellow named Jake, who is played by Kyle Chandler, the intensely likable veteran of the CBS drama series "Early Edition." Chandler's Jake resides in the eye of the storm that is Joan and tries his best to exert a calming, steadying influence.

But it isn't easy. When he asks Joan to marry him on tonight's show, she comes apart in seven directions at once, like an exploding wolf in an old Tex Avery cartoon. Marriage? So soon? "Two days ago, I thought it was premature to put you on my speed dial," she tells him.

They're sitting in a restaurant at dinner time, Joan having arrived late but affecting an amazing transformation at the table -- breaking out of her cocoon coat and becoming a butterfly, but not right before Jake's eyes. He is required to hide behind the menu and "count to 13, slowly," while she makes her metamorphosis.

"What About Joan" is full of clever and cute touches, smart dialogue, believably zany characters and a sense of being very contemporary even though few if any topical names are dropped. Gwen Macsai, who created the show and wrote the pilot, will likely find kindred spirits out there in America who identify instantly with Joan's neuroses and uncertainties and her hilariously uneven keel.

Since the character is very hyper, she takes some getting used to. It's easy to see how such a person could drive you up the nearest wall. Cusack lets us see Joan's compensating, underlying smarts, her wisdom about human nature, and the way she uses low expectations as a defense against disappointment. Of course, that doesn't always work. But she has other arrows in her quiver, too.

Charm shines from Chandler like light from a bulb. He's utterly assured and somehow reassuring as Jake; when Joan threatens to spin herself into a frenzy, he's there to apply the brakes. Jake's a lot more aware of Joan's good qualities than she is, which is what love is really about, isn't it?At least partly?

A stellar supporting cast includes Kellie Shanygne Williams as Alice, a teaching assistant who also becomes Joan's mother confessor and guidance counselor; Donna Murphy as Ruby, a friend who's also a psychiatrist, not that her years of training are always of much help with a case like Joan around; Jessica Hecht as Betsy, a fellow teacher who apparently doesn't own a hairbrush; and versatile Wallace Langham as Mark, also a teacher and Betsy's boyfriend.

Joan has issues, Betsy has issues, and boy does Mark ever have issues. He wears pull-away pants like a male stripper so as to disrobe more quickly at Betsy's apartment, then hides in the closet when Joan arrives even though Joan, like everybody else in the immediate vicinity, knows all about the romance. Mark, one of those God's-gift-to-women types, prefers to think of it as clandestine and profane.

Langham, who was a valuable asset to "The Larry Sanders Show" and a saving grace on "Veronica's Closet," shows he still has more tricks up his sleeve here, creating a character unlike the preceding two. Murphy, meanwhile, has a disarming way of mixing brashness and vulnerability and, like others in the cast, refuses to let her character become a one-note rag.

But Cusack must carry the show, and it's gratifying to watch her take Joan Gallagher to the very brink of being intolerably irritating and then pull back just in time. How refreshing, too, to encounter a sitcom character who doesn't like to talk about sex (!), who's shy about it -- although she does propose "medicinal sex" with Jake after an argument tonight.

On next week's show, she gets a hilarious lesson in feminine sexual gratification from Alice, whose map of the body female strikes Joan as looking like Florida. All right then, says Alice, it's Florida, and it'sokay to make side trips to Miami or Fort Lauderdale "just as long as you end up in Orlando, baby. That's the Magic Kingdom." There follows a Disney reference that one would like to think won't please the top brass at Disney, the company that of course owns ABC.

Because she's certain she'll forget what she really wanted to say during key confrontations in her life, Joan carries around a notepad scribbled full of reminders and talking points. It's one more funny eccentricity for a very funny and yet recognizable character. "What About Joan," co-produced by veteran comedy writer James L. Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), is most definitely a comedy of note.

What about laughs?
ABC's new sitcom seems stale already, but it has something other comedies don't -- the witty, intelligent Joan Cusack.

By Andy Dehnart, salon.com

March 27, 2001 | Let's get the obvious, easy criticism of Joan Cusack's new ABC sitcom out of the way first. In the premiere episode, Joan and her two best friends end up in a coffee shop talking about their problems and cracking limp jokes. By then, it's already obvious that "What About Joan" looks and feels way too much like every other lame sitcom. It doesn't have the energy or the chemistry of a "Will & Grace" breakout, and it's definitely nowhere near as spastic or original as "Malcolm in the Middle."

But the show does have one killer hand that it hasn't fully played yet: Cusack herself. Although she may be best known for relatively small parts in movies starring her brother, John Cusack, Joan always manages to pull a strong performance out of whatever situation she's in -- whether it's serving as an assistant to a hit man in "Grosse Point Blank" or trying to kill off Uncle Fester as a psychotic gold digger in "Addams Family Values." The same is true of her performance in "What About Joan."

Starring in her first television series (excluding her appearance for a year on "Saturday Night Live"), Joan plays a semineurotic high school teacher who is surrounded by close friends and alternately plagued and blessed by her new boyfriend, Jake (Kyle Chandler). Developed by television producer James Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Simpsons") and Gwen Mascai (a National Public Radio essayist), the show's premise is simple, if thin, and it ultimately relies nearly entirely on Cusack's strengths.

And that doesn't always work. In the first episode Tuesday night, Cusack struggles against banal setups -- her boyfriend wants to get married, she freaks out -- and tries to cope with what looks like a genetically engineered, all-too-typical supporting cast. Among the show's six regulars, Wallace Langham plays almost the same tiresome character he played in "Veronica's Closet," and Chandler is just as green-eyed and straight A as he was in "Early Edition," only a mediocre match for Cusack's unhinged schoolteacher. When the show shifts the focus away from Cusack for a subplot or even just for a scene, it falls, fast.

It's not clear yet exactly what the show wants to be when it grows up. ABC says "the series focuses on the private lives of an intimate group of high school teachers, exploring the complexity and endurance of close friendships among women, as well as the challenging relationship between Joan and Jake ... as they blunder toward intimacy." The problem is that no one watches a sitcom to explore "the complexity ... of close friendships." That's what "Oprah" is for. Sitcoms are for cheap, fulfilling laughs, and they're at their best when they play to our intelligence but don't require much brain activity.

And that's the problem.

For some reason, we're demanding too much, too soon from sitcoms, and that's causing them to self-destruct into endless recasting and reworking, eventual three-episode runs and, finally, cancellation, resulting in a round of embarrassment for everyone involved.

Most significant, even if a show has potential -- and "What About Joan" certainly does -- it's usually not given time to develop. In today's ratings-obsessed, instant-gratification world, network executives, blind to everything but the numbers, often pull a show before there's even the smallest chance for growth. Watch the first season of "Seinfeld" and imagine it being judged from the first half-dozen episodes alone. The cast took several episodes to develop chemistry, and the writers needed just as long to come up with the show's smart, interwoven stories.

When they're not giving life to a show and then cutting off oxygen in just a few weeks, this season networks have tried to draw viewers based solely upon marquee celebrities. While it's somewhat understandable why they're attempting to revive the nearly dead genre of the sitcom using strong talent off the big screen, the networks are still demanding too much from shows that have too little to offer. Bette Midler, John Goodman and Geena Davis all had sitcoms that pretty much crashed and burned. Only Davis is holding on, barely; right now she's being held for the debut of Cusack's new show. As with "What About Joan," those series failed to exploit their stars fully, preferring instead to drop them into a situation, praying desperately that the star's charisma and talent would carry the crappy writing and supporting cast on their shoulders for a six-year run. Much of Midler's "Bette" and some of Goodman's "Normal, Ohio" were funny, but the humor was isolated, star-centric and out of place -- a hyena-style laugh in the middle of a bus full of placid yuppies. The stars didn't have anything worthwhile to work with.

"What About Joan" was developed without Cusack in mind, yet there's nothing there besides the star. Still, Cusack really has something, and her physical presence single-handedly rescues the show from immediate dismissal. Just by squinting up her face and jittering incessantly, she's funny; and when she lets loose -- snuffing out a series of candles with a wooden spoon, for example -- it's absolutely riotous. But in between doses of Cusack, we have to slog through pretty bad acting in horrifically unfunny and unrealistic situations.

That doesn't mean we need Very Special Episodes or even realistic, logical situations for Cusack's able physical comedy and eager personality to break through. "The Golden Girls," for example, was full of plot holes the size of Miami, yet nine years after the last episode aired, the sitcom holds up, enjoying marathon repeats every weekday on the Lifetime cable channel. You can watch the same episode over and over again, and the jokes, although entirely forgettable, are just as funny. And that's because the show was carried by the strength of the writing plus the strength of the actors and their chemistry -- not by plot. Nearly every episode of "The Golden Girls" sacrifices logic in its story line to make way for Rose to tell another one of her nonsensical St. Olaf stories, to permit Sophia to relentlessly mock her daughter, Dorothy, or to allow Blanche to act like a slut.

Just as no one watches MTV's "Undressed" to examine the psychosomatic intricacies of teenagers and young adults -- they watch to see those people stripping to their underwear in every sort of sexual situation imaginable -- no one watches sitcoms to be drawn into a compelling, believable story. We watch to laugh, to spend some time with characters as funny as we wish we could be in our comparatively dreary existences.

Sitcoms are all about capturing the perfect balance among the actors, the writing and a situation that both can play off. The situation in "What About Joan" isn't inherently funny or ripe with possibility; it's just a tired amalgam of a woman with a job and some friends and a boyfriend. The show doesn't use Joan's high school workplace for much more than another set on which to angle for a few laughs. Likewise, although the show is set and entirely filmed in Chicago (it's the first to do so), the city is hardly ever used except for a gratuitous El reference here and a painting of the Wrigley Building there.

That gratuitousness hurts "What About Joan" and tramples on Cusack's ability to truly break through. But again, it's ridiculous to expect so much so fast. While some shows fit tightly into their groove right away, others take time. Let's hope ABC gives "Joan" that time.

"What About Joan" (ABC)

Time Slot: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.By Marc Berman, Mediaweek

Rubber-faced comedienne and two-time Oscar nominee Joan Cusack ("Working Girl," "In & Out") plays Joan Gallagher, an insecure high-school teacher who panics when newish boyfriend Jake (Kyle Chandler) proposes marriage. Since every sitcom girl must be forever surrounded by a retinue of loyal pals, jittery Joan is never far from the three-tiered support system of The Voice Of Reason (Donna Murphy as psychologist Ruby), The Concerned, Hand-Wringing Co-Worker (Jessica Hecht as Betsy) and The Gal Who Tells It Like It Is (former "Family Matters" co-star Kellie Shanygne Williams). And, since the producers have set the laugh track for stun, Wallace Langham (a mainstay of the abysmal "Veronica's Closet") is thrown in for good measure as the Harmless Male Antagonist, a goof-ball teacher who happens to be dating Hecht's Betsy.

The Skinny:
Although leading out of a declining "Dharma & Greg" is not a positive, "Frasier" viewers too lazy to grab the remote at 9:30 p.m. now have a better option than the recently introduced (and extremely annoying) "Three Sisters." While the material on "What About Joan" may not be necessarily original (or always funny for that matter), just watching Joan Cusack deliver a line will put a smile on your face. In the manner of classic TV actresses like Valerie Harper and Julie Kavner on "Rhoda," Joan is an underdog viewers will root for. And, unlike the faux lovebirds on hiatus-bound "Geena Davis Show" (which, unfortunately, will be back after six weeks), Joan and Kyle Chandler actually seem to create some real chemistry in their scenes together.

Mr. TV's Inside Track:
While the Emmys won't necessarily come knocking at Joan Cusack's dressing room door, if you're looking for a few good chuckles, you won't be disappointed with "What About Joan." And considering ABC is in dire need of new hit sitcom blood, a decent early run should be enough to ensure a spot on the fall schedule.

Odds of Survival:

Joan Cusack sitcom has promise What About Joan (Tues. (27), 9:30-10:00 p.m., ABC)

Reuters/Variety, Sunday March 25, by Steven Oxman

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - 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.

Joan Gallagher .... Joan Cusack

Jake .............. Kyle Chandler

Betsy ............. Jessica Hecht

Dr. Ruby Stern .... Donna Murphy

Alice Adams ....... Kellie Shanygne Williams

Mark .............. Wallace Langham

Filmed in Chicago by Gracie Films in association with Columbia TriStar Television. Executive producers, James L. Brooks, David Richardson, Richard Sakai; producer, Gwen Macsai; director, Michael Lembeck; writer, Macsai; camera, Alan Keath Walker; production designer, Stephen Lineweaver; editor, Robert Bramwell; original theme, Hans Zimmer; music, James S. Levine; casting, Mali Finn (L.A.), Claire Simon, Lindsey Hayes (Chicago).

Tuned In: Lots to like about two new ABC sitcoms

Tuesday, March 27, 2001, By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In ABC's "What About Joan," Joan Cusack rages funny, she hurts funny, she embarrasses funny, she exasperates funny, she even extinguishes candles funny. And all the while she's cute and lovable and you just want to give her a big hug. You may want to hug the show, too. And ABC for putting it on.

"What About Joan" is the easiest-to-love sitcom of the season. There will be some curmudgeons who won't like Cusack's cute-as-a-button persona. Lou Grants of the world may growl, "I hate spunk," which Cusack has in spades. Phooey on them.

Cusack plays Joan Gallagher, a Chicago high school teacher who is dating nice-guy banker Jake (Kyle Chandler). He's straight-laced -- not in a boring way, but in a gentlemanly way.

She, on the other hand, is a whirling dervish of nerves and contorted facial expressions. Her shyness and modesty is probably a little overdone in tonight's premiere and too much of it could grow tiresome on a weekly basis, but my bet is producers will tone it down some.

Tonight, on only their ninth date, Jake proposes marriage, sending Joan into a tizzy.

"My answer is: Two days ago I thought it was premature to put you on my speed dial," Joan says.

She has a kaffeeklatch of girlfriends from whom she seeks counsel. These scenes are a bit like those with Geena Davis' buddies in "The Geena Davis Show" (with Donna Murphy playing a less one-note version of the Mimi Rogers character from Davis' show), but the characters here are funnier and the writing is far superior.

"I'm not the kind of girl that sweeps guys off their feet," Joan says. "I'm the low maintenance, dependable one that guys call after they've gotten dumped by the girl that's swept them off their feet."

"What About Joan" was created by former NPR essayist Gwen Macsai and is executive produced by James L. Brooks, who began his career in television ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and continues to develop TV shows (including "The Simpsons") while making hit movies ("Broadcast News," "As Good As It Gets").

"What About Joan" has a good sense of its lead character, but the supporting cast is not quite up to muster. Murphy's friend-of-Joan psychiatrist is pointlessly brittle tonight (she softens next week), while fellow teachers Betsy (Jessica Hecht) and Mark (Wallace Langham) are just weirdo caricatures. Thankfully, student teacher Alice (Kellie Williams) brings some much needed sanity to Joan's frequently zany life.

ABC has wisely put "What About Joan" on at 9:30, a good move since there is some sex talk in the first two episodes (a lot more next week). But it's comparatively tame for prime time and infinitely more clever than what we usually hear.

Three cheers for "Joan" -- let's hope ABC can build this sitcom into the long-lasting hit it deserves to become.

What About Joan
by Becky Farrell, Matinee Magazine, Television Critic

Something strange is afoot in TV Land. I’m beginning to fear that network execs are being held hostage by a team of angry—albeit talented—terrorists, whose only demand is good television. What other explanation could there be for The Job (see review this issue) and What About Joan, two midseason sitcoms, that are, dare I say it, funny.

What About Joan, stars the beloved and irrepressible Joan Cusack. It’s sort of a Sex and the City about women who watch Sex and the City, versus live it. Cusack’s lovable, slightly unhinged high school teacher is joined by her two best friends, fellow teacher Betsy (Jessica Hecht, Carol’s lover from Friends) and Broadway Diva Donna Murphy, as stable psychiatrist Ruby. The three of them commiserate about the men in their lives, job problems, etc. in the safe confines of a local coffee shop. And boy, does the series’ pilot give them much to discuss. When Joan’s flawless boyfriend of nine dates (Kyle Chandler) proposes, it throws her into a near nervous breakdown.

In one lively scene, she explains that she just doesn’t understand how this could happen, as she is not the woman that sweeps men of their feet. She is the woman the men call after having been dumped by the women who sweep them off their feet. Of course, no one watching would question why Chandler’s Jake has fallen in love so fast. Cusack is wacky, lovable, intelligent, and not in the usual cloying sitcom way. She’s someone you’d want to be friends with, or perhaps would like to be. Chandler’s sturdy banker is her match in every way, with his old school charm particularly open and inviting, and watching their relationship develop should make for a most entertaining plot line.

It will be interesting to see the future treatment of the supporting actors, all talented veterans. The long term success of What About Joan will depend on whether the rest of the cast is allowed to become fully realized characters or if they’re stranded as strait-men. If the show’s premiere is an honest harbinger, there should be little to worry about. We should look forward to discovering what it is about Joan for a very long time.

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