How You Doin'?

Two of the greatest actors to ever live: 'Joey' stars Matt LeBlanc (left) and Paolo Costanzo

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Since starring on Top of the Heap, a long-forgotten Fox sitcom about garbage collectors, Matt LeBlanc has had a vaguely trashy image. I'm not slamming the boy's acting chops (toned to Olympian fitness after a jillion seasons on Friends) or his dimpled mug (still hunky--he's like Johnny Depp's sunny, less credible cousin.) No, I'm referring to Hollywood's insistence on typecasting LeBlanc as a likeable C-story meathead, the kind of guy who gives the David Schwimmers of the world a reason to furrow their brows and sigh with comic exasperation. True, LeBlanc was gifted with some serious screen time during the late-series death-rattle era of Friends, but did anyone actually think that that preposterous subplot would pan out? (Memo to all you obsessive Rachel/Joey 'shippers: They totally sucked as a couple. Rachel + Ross 4-EVAH!) Luckily for LeBlanc, NBC fingered him for a spinoff and he landed comfortably, with a much-hyped show in a Cottonelle-cozy time slot. And while the initial ratings were less stellar than projected, Joey would have needed Super Bowl numbers to meet the network's swollen expectations. Besides, spinoffs are notoriously tricky to pull off; for every Facts of Life there's a Blansky's Beauties. (Don't remember what the latter was about? The answer appears in the last paragraph of this review!)

Anyway, like Kelsey Grammer and Tony Danza before him, Matt LeBlanc has found his niche and wisely cleaves unto it. He excels at playing Joey Tribbiani, a character not without nuances. Well, okay, Joey really only vacillates between "dumb and happy" and "dumb and love-struck," but at least he's believable in both modes. The problem with Joey, if anything, is that the show's premise is a curious inversion of the Cheers/Frasier formula: In that situation, a solitary character (Frasier Crane) was uprooted from his barstool and twinned with an ideal comic foil (his brother Niles). Much Emmy-grubbing farce ensued. Whereas on Joey, we have a protagonist who used to be paired with a hilarious buddy (Chandler Bing) and has now been transferred to alien Los Angeles to bounce his goofy observations off a cast of relative strangers. Granted, the supporting cast on Joey is likable, and it's fun watching Joey spar with his intellectual, socially awkward nephew (the adorable Paolo Costanzo), but the show, now well into its second season, still suffers from a slightly lonely vibe. Certainly Joey hasn't forgotten his Friends that quickly, has he? Why don't they ever call or visit? And why does that woman next door (Andrea Anders) have eerily Aniston-like mannerisms? I feel like a baby condor in captivity being fed by a zookeeper's hand puppet--everything looks right, but the scent is all wrong. Joey wants us to remember how much we love the titular character while conveniently forgetting his origins.

Perhaps feeling the burn of last season's (relatively) disappointing ratings, the creative powers that be have altered the setup slightly. "This season, Joey becomes a movie star," the fall promos blared, and sure enough, our man has finally clawed his way out of the daytime drama ghetto and into a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Joey even buys a house, a shocking move for a man who once memorably shared an apartment with a chick and a duck. Fresh characters have been rolled out, including a new regular (Miguel A. Nuñez Jr.) who's being groomed to fill that gaping Chandler-shaped void in Joey's life. Also, Jennifer Coolidge now appears in every episode as Joey's agent, a brash Jennifer Coolidge type who's fond of berating her client. The changes work, to an extent, but it can rattle an audience to see such extensive renovations taking place so early in the series. The new characters and barely plausible subplots (Joey's a movie star!) feel like desperate measures, or worse, grist for an inevitable discussion on (Sure enough, the show is already listed on that website's homepage under "Latest Leaps." Ouch.)

That said, I like this show. LeBlanc never falters; the man has an honorary Ph.D. in playing Joey. Also, the Hollywood setting accommodates a lot of hilarious dumb-Joey moments. At one point, when Joey discovers that he and his neighbor have been photographed by paparazzi for Us magazine, he says, "I wonder if they'll call us Bennifer!" His neighbor replies, "Why would they do that? Our names aren't Ben and Jennifer." The look of realization that crosses Joey's face is priceless; sure it's a cheap topical joke, but LeBlanc is a master of the "Now I get it!" gaze. Subtle comedians are always hailed these days, but it takes equal panache to pull off broad humor and still seem believably human. LeBlanc treads that line expertly. The writing on Joey is nearly as funny and fluid as that on Friends; it's just the awkward scenarios that leave me cold. Maybe all characters become unfunny when they move to Los Angeles; call it the Law of Laverne and Shirley.

And now, an answer to the Blansky's Beauties reference I teasingly tossed off in the intro: Blansky's was a 1977 Happy Days spinoff starring Nancy Walker as the leader of a group of Vegas showgirls. Inexplicably, the show took place in the '70s but attempted to weave in characters from the familiar 1950s Fonzie universe as if viewers wouldn't notice the discrepancy. Compared to a train wreck like Blansky's Beauties, Joey is masterful, memorable television. In other words, spinoffs are easy to dog, but please, try to appreciate the finesse that goes into the best of them. Maybe with a little more time to mature, Joey will join the proud and selective ranks of spinoffs with legs.

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