Ordinary Joe airs its finale tonight, bringing to a close the first season of the most imaginative — and heartfelt — show on television. While audiences were brought in by the concept of three different timelines, they’ve stayed for an incredible cast telling stories that speak directly to the heart. Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner, executive producers of the series, took a few minutes to speak with me about how the show gets made and what it’s meant to them to tackle a project that’s both challenging and emotional.
Watch the season finale tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC and if you’ve missed any of the season so far, every episode is streaming on Peacock.
Brittany Frederick: Everyone’s talked about how the show is like three series in one. Now that you’ve wrapped the season, does it feel like you finished three seasons?
Russel Friend: I think we do. It was a lot — definitely a huge challenge, both writing-wise and production-wise. As we tried to basically round out the season, we even added basically a law show to the show, because Jenny in the nurse world, is down in Atlanta going to law school and she ends up having this case that she gets involved with.
So the final couple episodes, it was like a cop show, a medical show, a music show and then we had like a law show. It felt like we kept throwing more and more stuff at our actors and producers, and they always just sort of rolled with it and were like “Yeah, okay. We can do that.” It was kind of amazing, but definitely it was a ton of work, making three shows at once, essentially.
BF: How do you navigate that with your fantastic actors? What are the conversations you have with them as they’re trying to play three people at the same time, and develop them as they go?
Garrett Lerner: We did give them a heads up as much as we could, because it’s so complex. You want the actors to sort of discover it as the scripts come out, but on this one to really help them, we had conversations in advance of where each actor’s three worlds were going. To sort of help them form a bit of an equilibrium.
RF: We definitely would keep our actors in the loop as best as possible. One of the advantages, and also disadvantages, of TV is it’s so fast and furious. We’d be breaking story in the writer’s room and we’d come up with a new idea, and then we’d all kind of gravitate towards it as a writing staff and just do it, and then I think we’d forget sometimes to tell Jimmy [Wolk], or Natalie [Martinez], or Elizabeth [Lail] or Charlie [Barnett] what we were doing. (laughs) Sometimes they’d get the script and be like “Oh, I didn’t realize we were going to…,” We’re like, “You didn’t? We’ve been talking about that for months.” But we didn’t realize we weren’t talking about it with them because we were in Los Angeles, they were in Atlanta. But they all were great and we’d just roll with it.
Especially James Wolk, our star — he’s so game for everything that it was just a pleasure working with him and all our leads. They’re just so great. They would have questions obviously, and give us input and have ideas, but it was never like a no. It was always like an “Okay, yes and…” kind of thing. Like “Great, we can do that. What about this and that?” Everyone was really game and just excited about it. And it really helped us in that sense, that we could feel free to go in these wild directions and not be worried that our actors would not like it, or push back in negative ways. Everyone was very positive and it was very collaborative.
BF: What sets the series apart is that it’s not reliant on the concept. So many people talk about the timelines, but not enough are speaking about how Ordinary Joe is so well fleshed out that it stands up without them. How do you develop the characters and stories so well?
GL: Russ and I worked on several different shows with Jason Katims, who we respect greatly. When we initially read Ordinary Joe, it felt like there was this big concept, but within that was this very grounded, real character drama that kind of fit Katims’ mold. And so when we developed it, we did not lean into the concept any harder than it was. We just wanted to lean into each of the three lives as if each of these three lives are real, and what are the dramatic complexities, and the character choices, and the ethical dilemmas, and all of the good juicy drama fodder that comes along with each of them.
We sort of just use the concept inasmuch as it helps us look at how life is different, how one choice can give Joe a completely different relationship with his uncle, for example. And trying to be as true and honest as possible to each of these different circumstances so that they would all feel real.
BF: Did you ever catch yourselves wanting to make those different choices as writers? Like as the season went on, did you think about taking a character in a new way? Or did you stick closely to what you originally envisioned?
RF: I think that happened a couple times. And I think that is one of the challenges of a show like this. Luckily we have such a great writing staff. The writing room is over Zoom, so everything is virtual. We have this virtual whiteboard [and] the first two weeks I remember we were just brainstorming ideas. We have this whole giant virtual whiteboard filled with index cards of just ideas. I was just looking at it the other day and like 85% of those we didn’t even get to. There’s so many things.
A lot of it has to do with just having 42 minutes in an episode and 12 episodes. It really forces you to condense things, or focus on the heart or the emotion of the story. So sometimes, there are a few things. But the big moves of the season, and the big character arcs and emotional arcs, were stuff that we had planned from the beginning. We discussed these big arcs, and basically pulled it off. Overall there’s always those things, but I think in a macro sense we’re just really pleased with how it turned out, and all the directions we went in.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.