Joan Cusack did something on TV last season that Bette Midler, Geena Davis, John Goodman and Michael Richards--talented and beloved though they may be--could not even approach. She got renewed for this fall. ''It was really hard,'' said Cusack, who's steeling herself to begin work on the second season of ABC's Chicago-based ''What About Joan'' in two weeks. ''I had no idea how hard it would be. But I realized that I love doing it. It's a great medium for me in some ways. I'm figuring out the finesse of my performance and [how to work with] an audience and all that.'' ''What About Joan'' had something of a shakedown cruise in its first season. As Joan Gallagher, a high school teacher dating a hunky stockbroker she can't quite believe is as head-over-heels in love with her as he is, Cusack worked to make the sometimes-rough transition from Oscar-nominated actress to sitcom star. ''In the movies, if you do a little part here, a little part there, it's not so out there, but if it's you on a TV show, you're really out there--there's no flying under the radar,'' she said. ''I have more input now. This year I'm trying to get more of what's meaningful to me in there, so at least I feel as though I've given it my best shot.'' Those who suggested Cusack was projecting past the cameras to the last row of the studio bleachers only knew half of it. Turns out she was playing all the way to Los Angeles, where executive producer James L. Brooks (''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ''Taxi,'' ''The Simpsons'') and others monitored run-throughs via a T1 closed-circuit hookup, offering suggestions from afar. ''It was confusing,'' she said. ''It was hard to get a sense of creative connection sometimes. Sometimes it was great [and] it didn't matter. Jim is so great and so brilliant and so inspirational, so a lot of times it didn't bother me at all. [But] it's all going to be done from Chicago, so we don't have that confusion.'' John Levenstein has been brought in to run things in Chicago, along with a handful of other new behind-the-scenes people. So if Brooks or anyone else wants to suggest something during run-throughs, they will have to get on a plane and fight the Kennedy Expy. traffic, like the rest of the team. ''I learned some stuff about my own performance,'' Cusack said. ''I'm used to being sensitive and intuitive to the medium I'm in, and [because] there were audience members, too, I didn't find the right balance. So I'm excited to be able to finesse that. I learned so much, and it's great to have all that raw information to take into another season because it's so hard to get it right.'' Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's manager in HBO's ''Curb Your Enthusiasm,'' is joining the cast as a friend of Jake's. Jessica Hecht, meanwhile, is out as Joan's friend and co-worker. The fate of the four as-yet-unaired episodes, taped as part of the original order of 13 last spring but shelved as strike insurance, is uncertain in light of the changes being made. ''We're just gonna try to make [the show] a little more realistic all the way around,'' Cusack said. ''Audiences are a little more sophisticated, and they expect more.'' HBO's ''The Sopranos'' and ''Sex and the City,'' she said, have upped the bar for network shows such as ''What About Joan.'' ''They're more thoughtful and it just seems audiences are ready for that,'' she said. ''You don't have to spoon-feed them.'' Among the first scripts she has seen for the coming season is one that shows how boyfriend Jake (''Early Edition'' alum Kyle Chandler) and Joan first met, which presumably will be part of fleshing out their chemistry and determining exactly what their relationship is all about, something that was much discussed between the two characters last spring but too rarely seen. ''We're figuring out what the dynamic is between the two characters in a more subtle way,'' Cusack said. ''Jake is maybe somebody who's a thoughtful guy and a business guy and a smart guy, but maybe he's not as emotionally developed. How does that reflect on your life if you're not emotionally developed in that way? You kind of get to a tough family situation, and you just have a couple of cocktails and don't say anything, which is I think a newer, more interesting approach.'' So maybe Jake this season will not seem quite as remarkable as he first seemed, both to Joan and to the audience, and maybe she can more easily discern what he sees in her. ''It's more her fantasy that he's perfect,'' Cusack said. ''Reality is, he's not perfect. Nobody's perfect. He's got his shortcomings, too. You learn that, along with the fact she's got her strengths, and that balance is part of what makes it real.'' Hey, she's coming back for a second season. In network television, it doesn't get any more real than that.
July 26, 2001