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'Joey' could use a hug

Two sidekicks may not a series make. Without pals, Matt LeBlanc is a little empty-handed.

September 09, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

After you took away the jokes and the zany bits of plot, "Friends" seemed to me at bottom a show about the importance of hugging. Hugging as metaphor, hugging as ideology. While the other sitcom touchstone of the '90s, "Seinfeld," had a no-hugging edict, the "Friends" characters hugged repeatedly and in different combinations: Rachel hugged Chandler, Monica hugged Joey, Phoebe hugged Rachel, Chandler hugged Phoebe, Phoebe hugged Ross (this is by no means a comprehensive list).

Now they're hugging in syndication, after a decade on the air, and "Joey," the "Friends" spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc, debuts tonight at 8 on NBC. The pilot is not horrible, and "Joey," like "Frasier" after it spun off from "Cheers," retains the tone and patter (and some of the writers) of the mother ship series.

Still, my immediate suggestion is that they bring in more people for Joey to hug. Or something. For as it stands the series feels kind of bereft -- a subplot cast into the world and left searching for its main story, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Tom Stoppard play.

Some of this is simply the nature of the beast: Sidekick from wildly popular show does sitcom of his own. It worked for Kelsey Grammer, but one could argue that's because the Frasier Crane character was nobody's sidekick, and meanwhile the series nabbed the sublime David Hyde Pierce to play his brother, Niles.

On "Friends," Joey was the sweet but dumb one who was there to soften the harder edges of the show's other characters. Now LeBlanc has to prove that he and his Joey character are worthy of a world unto themselves, without the other huggers, and this is where things feel a tad drawing-board thin.

As constructed, Joey Tribbiani has left New York to make it as an actor in Hollywood, which reunites him with his equally flaky and more broadly Italian American sister Gina (Drea de Matteo). Gina's a hairdresser after being voted "the Southland's most dangerous dental technician" by the local news.

Last seen being taken to the woods and shot on HBO's "The Sopranos," De Matteo on "Joey" is a version of the Adriana character, all right -- a less interesting one. Immediately, at the airport, she wants Joey to feel her fake breasts ("Let's get my bag. I'll feel you up in the car, I promise," he tells her).

Gina and Joey, I noticed, hug three times in the first two scenes -- twice at the airport and then again when she shows him his new apartment. Then Gina's grown son Michael (Paulo Costanzo) appears a short time later. He and Joey hug too. Michael, a Cal Tech brainiac, lives at home and is unschooled in the ways of women. Enter sitcom device No. 16: He wants to move in with his Uncle Joey, over his mother's objections.

He will, of course, and so too will Joey stay in Hollywood, and possibly land a Lifetime movie or maybe a "Fear Factor" -- I don't know, I just have a good feeling about this. In the pilot, Joey passes on a show about male nurses that becomes an instant hit, and he meets a potential love interest, his blond corporate lawyer neighbor Alex (Andrea Anders).

As on "Friends," "Joey" features a curiously large apartment as its home base. This one, situated in a Hollywood complex filled with other wannabe actors, has exposed flagstone above the fireplace and a living room that reminded me of the country cottage on the later episodes of "I Love Lucy."

All of this bigness throws into relief the show's creative smallness. I'm sure landing De Matteo reassured NBC executives that they had great PR clout. But De Matteo, like LeBlanc, is a sidekick, brassy and gum chewing and more compelling when she's wearing a wire.

That may be why "Joey" perks up with the appearance of Jennifer Coolidge as Joey's agent. He goes to see her after the auditions soon run dry. Coolidge, a comedic chameleon seen in several of the Christopher Guest mock documentaries including "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," breaks the episode wide open, the way great comedians do.

"It's not really acting but it may work since you have such a tremendous head," she tells Joey about a job anchoring an entertainment news show.

I really liked that line; I also liked that LeBlanc was finally in a room where he didn't have to hold my interest on his own. That's not meant as an insult. LeBlanc, more than anything else, always seems willing -- he says every line and marches through every pratfall exuding pluck about what he's doing, and when he runs across an actor with bigger range he stays out of the way.

It'll get him where he's going, but it won't make "Joey" great. Just memorable in a fleeting way, the way you recall, but only vaguely and having to squint into the middle distance, whatever it was you did last night.



Where: NBC

When: 8 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, premiering tonight.

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Matt LeBlanc...Joey Tribbiani

Drea de Matteo...Gina

Paulo Costanzo...Michael

Creators, Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri. Executive producers, Kevin S. Bright, Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri. Writers (tonight's pilot), Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri. Director, Kevin S. Bright.

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