`Joey' really misses `Friends'

Fall TV

September 09, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Matt LeBlanc is every bit as likable in Joey as he was in Friends. There are lines in the pilot that are laugh-aloud funny. Andrea de Matteo (The Sopranos) displays a fine sense of comic timing as Joey's sister, Gina.

But, for all that, the series on which NBC is hanging its Thursday night hopes has considerable problems - the most serious of which is an emptiness where its sense of community should be. And if there is one thing fans of Friends have a right to expect in a spinoff, it is that warming sensibility of characters caring for one another as they did on the long-running hit series.

Thanks to promotional trailers for Joey in 6,500 theaters this summer and stories on LeBlanc in more magazines than one can count, the premise probably doesn't need much explaining. Joey Tribbiani (LeBlanc) heads to Hollywood to pursue his acting career. There he reunites with his high-strung hairdresser sister and her brainiac 20-year-old son, Michael (Paulo Costanzo), who wants to move in with Uncle Joey.

There is potential for chemistry among the three, but instead of working to establish it, far too much of tonight's dialogue is wasted in sophomoric jokes about Gina's artificially enhanced breasts. These are the kind of dumbed-down sexist lines one would never find on Friends.

Just as troubling is the pilot's failure to establish a sense of place and make it a location to which one wants to immediately return. Joey lives in a nondescript Hollywood apartment, and the one neighbor we meet tonight, Alex Garritt, seems so narcissistic and vacant that any real sense of friendship seems impossible.(Maybe NBC feels the same; the role was recast since the pilot was first filmed with Andrea Anders replacing Ashley Scott.)

Like Kelsey Grammer in Frasier, LeBlanc might prove a strong enough presence to carry Joey until it can create a community of characters that we want to visit with each week. But, as for tonight, be warned: As nice as it is to have Joey back, you are really going to miss the other five folks from Friends.

Joey airs at 8 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

Also premiering tonight on NBC is Medical Investigation, a fast-paced, but emotionally flat drama about a team of investigators for the National Institute of Health that troubleshoots epidemics. Neal McDonough (Boomtown) and Kelli Williams (The Practice) are competent actors, but there just isn't much for them to work with in this CSI-wannabe.

The series premieres at 10 tonight, with a second episode airing tomorrow at 10 in its regular Friday night time period on WBAL (Channel 11).

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