Joan Gallagher's high school students can't seem to understand how their teacher wound up with a hunk like investment banker Jake Evans. That's understandable because Joan herself spent far too much of the first season of ABC's Chicago-based "What About Joan" echoing their silly incredulity.TV, even more than life, is full of mismatched couples. The key to their success is not questioning it too much, which, sadly, is what Joan--who, like series star Joan Cusack, is more than charming enough to snag whomever she wants--did to a wearying degree last spring while bouncing off the walls and trying too hard and too loudly to sell her punch lines.Having shelved some previously shot episodes originally scheduled to run this fall in favor of a new beginning, Cusack's "What About Joan" opens its second season at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on WLS-Channel 7 with a less manic and more confident Ms. Gallagher explaining to her class how she and Jake ("Early Edition" alum Kyle Chandler) got together rather than explain the works of Robert Frost.The result is a *** relaunch of the series, a trip, as it were, down the road not taken, a path seemingly headed toward becoming a better show but quite possibly a less funny one. This is still a program that relies too heavily on the charm of Cusack and Chandler, but it wisely is doing less to get in the way of that appeal under new executive producer John Levenstein.Gallagher does remain a bit of a puzzle. She frets over dining alone yet is brave enough to wear red for the occasion and hesitates only a moment before asking the guy at the table next to her, a man who has just politely but very publicly broken up with someone after three weeks, "If you knew going in that she wasn't the right one, why do you even bother?"The same, of course, might be asked of Cusack and crew about her earlier, much-too-broad take on Gallagher for the first 13 episodes, nine of which were aired.But just as she lays out dating rules for her teen poetry students that she all but ignored en route to success with Jake, it's all right to break the TV rules that say that what you start with in a series is what you end up with. Better to change than to stick with something that isn't working, as former "Married ... With Children" executive producer Katherine Green's script hammers home hard. "One day," Joan tells her students, "there may come a time when you have to make a leap of faith and throw out a rule or two or four." Or two or four episodes already filmed, no matter how expensive that is, right?Joan's psychiatrist pal Ruby (Donna Murphy)--who oh-so-conveniently happens to be hanging out uninvited in Joan's apartment when needed for a chat in the middle of the night--offers a theory about men that could just as easily be applied to TV series and their stars. "When you find the right one," she says, "you can do everything you think is wrong with him and it still works out."Now it remains to be seen whether this one will work out, but most of the changes seem to help, except for, say, the one that has Jake keeping a guitar in his bachelor pad living room despite his apparent inability to play it or sing particularly well. It would be an interesting but unlikely twist, but what if he's more of a makeout artist than we have been led to believe?Probably not. "What About Joan" didn't go to all this trouble changing what's what about Joan only to keep tweaking it. You can only be born anew so many times, and lest you think this rebirth-of-a-series and rebirth-of-a-character stuff is overstated, there is Jake's commentary as Joan ventures tentatively into his apartment for the first time:"I see a head. Now we're crowning. That's good. Now find a focal point. Breathe deep, breathe deep and welcome."Now maybe we're reading too much into what is supposed to be a light comedy, but it's not our fault. Our high school English teachers didn't veer off their lesson plans to talk about their personal lives. We actually had to study the damn poetry.
October 1, 2001