For the terminally undecided, NBC Ordinary joe has to be the most or least appealing premise ever for a TV show. On the one hand, the hour-long drama postulates that a single decision as seemingly unimportant as who to dine with on any given night could set the course for the rest of a person’s life. On the other hand, it suggests that there are no real right or wrong answers – and that, in any case, fates have a way of going back to the same people, the same intrigues, the same worries about the work, romance and parenthood and the same heartfelt themes about the beauty and unpredictability of life.
It’s hard to say, in the first two episodes given to critics for review, where this is all heading in the long term. But for now, the series lands in the right place where it’s just outside enough to attract curiosity, and yet familiar enough to be considered a comfort viewing.
Banal but winning, thanks to the endless charisma of James Wolk.
The ordinary Joe of Ordinary joe is Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk), who graduates from college in the first episode and quickly finds himself with three choices for what to do with the rest of his day: he can approach Amy (Natalie Martinez), a charming classmate who ‘he just met, and ask for a date; he can follow Jenny (Elizabeth Lail), his best friend on benefits, to the beach for a chat; or he can meet his family, which includes his Uncle Frank (David Warshofsky), police officer, to celebrate.
At this point, a reasonable person in the real world might point out that it is, in fact, very possible for one person to accomplish all three in one evening. Corn Ordinary joe follows the logic of television, so the timeline splits into three parallel paths that lead Joe to three radically divergent but equally suited television careers. Ten years later, the Joe who chased Amy is married to her and has an enviable rock star career. The Joe who found Jenny is married to her and they have a son (Chris, played by John Gluck), and Joe burns the candle at both ends as a night nurse. And the Joe who went with his family is a cop who is still single, but hasn’t forgotten Amy or Jenny despite losing contact two years ago.
That’s a lot of groundwork to prepare before the plot can begin, and the series struggles under the weight at times. The pilot opens with a cheesy narration from Joe reflecting on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which is exactly as “college-based essay” as it sounds. (In Joe’s opinion, Frost had it easy because he found alone two roads diverged in a wood – as opposed to three on a college quad, I guess.) The following episode thankfully eschews the voiceover, but sticks with a sentimentality that hovers between sweet and sweet. And even with crisp editing and color coding, the timelines can get confusing, leading to scenes where it takes a minute to remember what Amy is doing in that timeline compared to that, or ones where it briefly seems like two different versions of Joe could cross paths in the hospital.
Corn Ordinary joe isn’t that kind of show. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding doors, not Loki in Loki. Everything is working pretty well at the moment, in large part because Wolk is an eminently sympathetic track. It’s as if the TV gods, realizing the number of leading TV roles Wolk has endured, have decided to give him three more chances at a time, and he’s certainly making the most of it. Wolk wears Joe’s three characters like old favorite shirts: worn, comfortable, flattering in their imperfections. And he shares such an affable chemistry with all of his co-stars – especially Charlie Barnett as Joe Eric’s childhood BFF, who balances Joe’s shy indecision with sarcastic humor and a caring attitude – that ‘It becomes easy to believe that all of these people would be destined to stay in each other’s orbit.
In its first two episodes, the series does an admirable job of balancing sympathy and interest across the three timelines; even the glamor of a rock star lifestyle seems to eclipse the most ingrained dilemmas Joe faces in all three ways, like the push-pull between family and career. But he has yet to offer the same level of agency to his other characters, who until now are not treated as individuals in charge of their own adventures but as mere props in Joe’s. Their relative levels of happiness and career success seem entirely determined by the choice he made a decade ago.
Again, the series is still in its infancy, and there are many different paths that can be traced. Ordinary joe can descend from here – some towards a messy plot or overabundance of sap, others towards ambitious plots that culminate in something meaningful about fate and free will, and many that fall into that middle ground of solid ideas that end up getting lost. But if the draw of Ordinary joe learns how his three options go (a privilege not even granted to Joe himself, given that each Joe is stuck on his chosen path), part of the fun of watching him is not having no idea what’s to come, and make the choice to stay and find out.