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.