What About Joan boasts some bright writing and an appealing ensemble, which comes together like H2 and O. Most important, it has Joan Cusack. That's what matters to at least two networks, ABC and CBS, which have been trying to get the expressive comedian in front of a sitcom for several years. ABC agreed to shoot Cusack's sitcom entirely in her hometown of Chicago to seal the deal.
The enthusiasm for Cusack is only somewhat understandable. She brings sterling credentials to her episodic TV debut. She has been twice nominated for supporting actress Oscars (In & Out and Working Girl), and her work on the stage has earned consistent raves. But other actresses have brought gaudy credentials to TV and failed. Geena Davis won an Academy Award and her rookie sitcom stinks. Bette Midler came up with a gem of a pilot but never matched that before throwing in the towel.
What's more, Cusack isn't exactly a TV virgin. She had one season on Saturday Night Live, 1985-86 (coincidentally the same year as Robert Downey Jr.), and was found wanting enough to be fired. It's also noteworthy that Cusack's strongest notices have come when she was in secondary roles. It's a big step to center stage, one many performers have been unable to take.
The nature of her persona also might work against her. If she were a blind date, she would be described as a load of fun." This isn't to say she's unattractive, but if she were still a teen, you wouldn't find her on the WB. In life, this shouldn't matter. In a medium as superficial as TV, it sometimes does. She's also loud, shrill enough to be off-putting to some people. This might be a product of growing accustomed to project to the back row of theaters.
Cusack's character, Joan Gallagher, is certainly likable enough. She's a school teacher given to unconventional methods, which seem to work for her. In her personal life, she's dating a real prize named Jake, a hunk with bucks, who is so madly in love that he's ready to propose marriage before she feels secure about putting his number on her speed dial. Kyle Chandler must have something about Chicago in his karma. The former star of the Windy City-based Early Edition is back in town as Jake.
But nuptials are not in the immediate offing, according to co-executive producer David Richardson. "We have no plans at the moment of getting them married. That's where we're going with another couple on the show."
Seemingly this would be Joan's teaching colleagues, Betsy and Mark. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In the premiere, even though they have been exclusive for four years and can't keep their hands off each other, Mark won't agree to be seen in public with Betsy. He's convinced rumors of a romance between teachers are career killers. Jessica Hecht and Wallace Langham are superb in the obligatory wacky-friends roles.
Joan also has a couple of grounded friends. She has known Ruby (Donna Murphy), a psychiatrist, for years and listens carefully to the free counsel Ruby offers. Then she pays absolutely no heed to it. Joan actually puts more value on the advice of a fellow teacher named Alice (Kelly Williams).
But the supporting players are merely accessories for Cusack, who is on screen virtually every minute. This might be too much for an actress who seems to work best in lesser doses.