Ordinary Joe is, pardon the corny expression, a once in a lifetime show.
The NBC drama premiered this week and knocked it out of the ballpark. It’s incredible how Russel Friend and Garret Lerner have taken Matt Reeves’ original script and turned it into something both so beautiful and so technically proficient. Much has already been written about how the show navigates three distinct versions of Joe Kimbreau’s life, all based on what he chooses to do the night of his college graduation. There’s so much detail put into each universe that not only separates them but also ties them all together, and the flow of the premiere is seamless. It’s one of the most tightly written pilots in recent memory.
Ordinary Joe is anchored by James Wolk, and I’ve also written a lot already about how incredibly talented he is. I’ve watched his career grow since the USA miniseries Political Animals and this seems like the role it was all building toward. Ordinary Joe requires an actor who can play multiple roles, but most importantly it needs one who can be that Everyman we all fall in love with.
There are only two actors that versatile and also that genuine—James Wolk and Jonathan Groff—and Wolk is the primary reason why this show succeeds. You can write the most brilliant script in history, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t come alive, and he brings so much life and so much heart to Joe Kimbreau’s character that it radiates through the whole series. He sets the tone for the show and sets an example for the audience because we want to be as good a person as Joe, even if we’re not sure which one. There’s a whole lot more worth saying about Wolk’s performance, but that’s an article for another time.
I don’t want to write another review. What I want to talk about is why this show had me in tears at my kitchen table. Why I think it’s a TV show that isn’t just brilliantly done, but could genuinely change people’s lives.
What’s so profound about this show are the messages that it sends. TV series and episodes that focus on multiple timelines tend to be self-focused, zeroed in on the protagonist and how the differences in the world affect him. Ordinary Joe is fantastic at reminding us that the choices we make don’t just affect us; they can also change the lives of others, often without realizing it. The series connects us to other people in a way that TV shows don’t anymore.
TV viewing has become a fragmented experience with the rise of streaming and DVR; many people don’t watch series in that live community anymore. Having this show in a time when we’re increasingly separated from each other—both physically and ideologically—means something. It gives us 42 minutes to remember that we’re part of something and that we can affect other people.
It also sends a message about how we see ourselves. A message that I, and I think a lot of other people, really need right now.
I made a major career change several months ago for physical and mental health reasons. It was the most frightening decision I’ve ever made. I needed to take care of myself because I was physically and mentally exhausted; I’m still recovering, and writing this article in between hospital visits trying to put myself back together. But that choice also meant that I walked away from a 20-year career and am having to start over again. It’s been a very tough road, because I lost everything I’d worked toward and all the relationships I had, and I sit up at night sometimes alone and scared and asking myself what my life would be like right now if I hadn’t made that decision.
Ordinary Joe gave me permission to be proud of myself again. It shows us the what ifs out there, but it also teaches that none of them are right or wrong; they’re just different. No version of Joe is better than the other. They all have challenges and they all have victories. And what’s particularly neat is they’re all still Joe; you can see personality traits and little mannerisms that are the same across all three incarnations. He’s true to himself no matter where life takes him. As someone who has an anxiety disorder that wants to tear me down every day, it was deeply affecting to have that peace, to watch this show and feel like I’m okay.
For all of us that have looked in the mirror and thought we’ve made a massive mistake, or considered that the grass is greener on the other side, or believed we needed to be someone else, Ordinary Joe inspires viewers to have faith in who we are and where we are. Life’s not perfect, but it is ours. Joe Kimbreau’s stories show us that happiness and success don’t have one definition. They have three.
Ordinary Joe airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.