Among the Friends, Joey Tribbiani was second only to Phoebe in cartoonlike broadness: His primary traits were amiable dim-bulbery, a way with the ladies, and sandwich lust. As played by Matt LeBlanc, Joey certainly was endearing — and even briefly lifelike during his romance with Rachel. But Friends was an ensemble, and basing an entire series around a fellow who’s little more than a grab bag of lunkhead jokes seemed a stretch. Basic spin-off math holds that for every Frasier there are five Enoses, that shivery Dukes of Hazzard spawn (which also featured a sweet dope transplanted to Los Angeles). No one wanted to remember Joey that way.
Surprise! Mr. Tribbiani’s solo project is a loose, goofy bit of proof that the sitcom is not completely unviable. It’s much-needed reassurance after taking a gander at the networks’ limp comedy lineups, with their litter of Listen Ups and Rodneys. Refreshingly, Joey’s not built around the now ubiquitous According to Jim formula of a TV family — a doofus dad, long-suffering wife, and wisecracky kids. Here the wannabe actor is relocated to Hollywood, home of his hairstylist sister, Gina (Drea de Matteo), and her 20-year-old son, Michael (Road Trip’s Paulo Costanzo), who becomes Joey’s roomie.
Groundbreaking it’s not — the Joey gang definitely doesn’t exist in the wonderfully bizarro California of Arrested Development’s Bluth family. With its laugh track and punchline pauses, bite-size stories and strange, frozen moments where the characters all stare at each other before a commercial break, Joey is, to its core, a traditional sitcom. But so was Friends. Each works because of its witty comedic cast and producers (Joey was launched with three longtime Friends players in place: director Kevin S. Bright and writers Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan). The Joey team has created a successful dynamic: Joey’s always had the aura of a beloved child, and allowing him to play uncle is a graceful acknowledgment that the guy’s now pushing 40. It was also a wise move to make nephew Michael not a slick mini-Tribbiani but a Little Man Tate-like genius amongst the monkey-brained. De Matteo loans Gina the same New Jersey swagger — and accent — with which she tackled The Sopranos’ Adriana (a role that just won her a well-deserved Emmy). Here, however, she has control: Bossing her brother around or doting on her geeky rocket-scientist son, Gina is what Ade may have been had she been graced with a nice family instead of the Family.
So far, the series is deploying Best in Show’s bracing Jennifer Coolidge to just the right degree as Joey’s brusque agent, Bobbie. The one character reeking of stale sitcomedy is Joey’s married next-door neighbor, Alex (Andrea Anders). If she’s not supposed to be a love interest, her hubby should have shown up in the first few episodes. If she is intended to be a love interest, the character is way off track. Joey already has a nice conflicting relationship with his brainy nephew — he doesn’t need Alex, a pert, uptight corporate lawyer, to provide I’m-with-stupid zingers. While giving Joey an attraction to a married woman would lend the sitcom some serious, grown-up themes, Joey’s fluffy humor would hardly support it for long. In the end, Alex seems destined to be one of those horrible TV neighbors who enters, deposits a laugh line, and then disappears to hang with Edie McClurg and Squiggy.
Of course, Joey ultimately hangs on Joey himself, and LeBlanc thankfully hasn’t over-stuffed his character to fill the spin-off’s extra space. With new cast members to spar with — he and de Matteo lob effortlessly together — he seems revived, yet quite comfy. The writers have continued to supply him with ludicrous lines so evocative they’re almost sight gags. Complaining to his nephew that he’s a fun-spoiler, Joey whines: ”Why do you have to ruin stuff?” and then mimicking Michael, adds, ”’The curveball’s impossible. Don’t eat that, it’s solid mold. That’s not a dog, it’s a possum — stop letting it lick your face.”’ Even if Joey is a three-joke character, the jokes are proving as durable and springy as a Super Ball, and it’s a relief to see a sweet sitcom hero amid all the selfish, jerky males on TV today. The show may come to embody the sign Joey’s posted in his new L.A. digs: Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last.