`Joan' needs more direction

Preview: `What About Joan' has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, a clear premise is not one of those things.

March 27, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"What About Joan," a midseason sitcom from ABC, proves that good producers can make a bad series.

"Joan," which stars Joan Cusack ("Working Girl") as a high school teacher in Chicago, has James L. Brooks as an executive producer. Brooks' incredible track record on television stretches back to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and, more recently, "The Simpsons," while his feature film work includes "As Good as it Gets" and "Broadcast News." The actual creator of the series and author of the scripts for the two episodes that I saw is Gwen Macsai, an essayist on National Public Radio (NPR), whose on-air work was published in book form last year as "Lipshtick." Let's just say Macsai's writing plays a lot better on the radio than it does TV.

Tonight's pilot is about Cusack's character, Joan Gallagher, receiving a marriage proposal from Jake (Kyle Chandler), the good-looking but somewhat staid banker she's been dating.

Unlike Joan, the ABC press materials don't list a last name for Jake. Such an oversight isn't surprising, since the series itself didn't have a title until a few weeks ago, when ABC quit referring to it as "Untitled Joan Cusack Project" and started calling it "What About Joan." Maybe studio executives will even add a question mark to the title in coming weeks. You get the sense that a lot of things connected with this series have not exactly been thought through.

The series seems premised on Joan's being in a state of over-the-top, hyper-manic anxiety for almost every minute. The primary source of her anxiety is her relationship with Jake, who seems more capable of commitment than she is.

There are other characters in the sitcom: Betsy, a fellow teacher and friend of Joan's (Jessica Hecht); Ruby (Donna Murphy), a psychiatrist and friend of Joan's; Mark, a fellow teacher in a tortured relationship with Betsy; and Alice (Kellie Williams), a teacher's aide to Joan.

The rhythm of the series involves Joan's running from her encounters with Jake, which send her into super-manic overdrive, to meetings over coffee or cake with Ruby and Betsy, which almost bring her down to the level of merely manic. And, then, it's back to Jake for another explosion followed by a phony hug at the end of each episode.

Tonight's closing has Jake saying, "I'm just glad to be holding you." The soundtrack playing underneath the hug features a woman's voice humming a melody that's supposed to suggest soulful gospel music.

To me, the scene felt like that Campbell's soup commercial with the theme, "Comin' home." Really, it's an artificial moment that reveals how intellectually bankrupt this pilot is.

The series' fundamental flaw is structural. The sitcom formula is incredibly simple in some ways: It starts with a semblance of normality, which is disrupted (by a misunderstanding, lie, whatever). And, at the end, the normality is restored. Even such postmodern sitcoms as "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" follow this arc.

The writers never establish what "normal" is in "Joan." So the audience is left watching Joan bounce off the walls for nearly half an hour. Fifteen minutes into it, the experience starts to feel like the nonstop wail of a baby at night - you just want to get away.

There are Brooks touches here, but while they were brilliant and seminal when they first appeared, they've been recycled too many times. Does the concept of a self-effacing, single, working woman living in a Midwestern city ring a bell?

Tonight's TV

What: "What About Joan."

Where: WMAR (Channel 2).

When: 9:30 p.m.

In brief: There's not much about Joan.

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