Ordinary Joe

Ordinary Joe: My extraordinary experience with the show that deserved more

On Friday, NBC canceled Ordinary Joe. Normally this is when I get up on my soapbox and talk about how terrible it is to lose another quality TV show—which this was, from the incredible cast to some of the best writing on a network drama in a long time. But this time I’m going to put the critic hat aside and talk about how much this series meant to me as a person, because that’s where this news really hurts. This wasn’t just a TV show to me, and that’s what made it special.

Ordinary Joe told an ambitious and heartwarming story about the three lives Joe Kimbreau could have led based on three directions he could’ve gone after his college graduation. It was the breath of fresh air we always clamor for when we complain that TV is nothing but procedurals and reboots. It gave the spotlight to some great actors who hadn’t yet gotten their due. From a writing perspective, it was impressive how Russel Friend, Garrett Lerner and their writing staff had three fully fleshed-out plots in 42 minutes every week—plots where the “what if” concept was the start, not the focus. Any one of Joe Kimbreau’s worlds could have been its own series.

But they were all tied up in one show that debuted last fall, three months after I walked away from a 20-year career and everything I’d ever known because of it. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and after I had a panic episode that lasted for the better part of three days, I finally chose to help myself. That choice broke me. Not only did I lose my job, but I lost the opportunities I’d worked toward and many of the relationships that I cared about. When I was struggling to make ends meet while seeing other people do the interviews I would’ve loved to do, it was impossible not to ask myself if I’d made the wrong decision.

Ordinary Joe came into my life at the perfect time. I saw myself in Joe Kimbreau, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. It showed the “what if” possibilities, but the underlying message was that none of those options was right or wrong. There were victories and difficulties in each one. Most importantly, all of them had hope. Watching Joe’s journey was entertaining to me as a viewer, but it also taught me that the path I was on wasn’t bad and it wasn’t lost. It was just mine—and there was hope for me out there if I could look forward instead of back. The show was my little dose of encouragement every week, and sure enough, a few months after it premiered, my renewed confidence led me to a new passion that I love and a chance to meet my hero.

Obviously the series didn’t totally overhaul my life; I had to do that for myself, and it took a lot of sleepless nights, several hospital trips, and my fair share of panic. But Ordinary Joe was my reminder not to give up on myself. It helped me to see the world for its possibilities instead of my fears. That’s something incredibly valuable in our current world that’s going through a pandemic and incredible social divides and all kinds of difficulties. It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes, or not to feel alone, and Ordinary Joe dared to look on the bright side and to tell us that we all have fears, dreams and choices we have to make.

Ordinary Joe
PORDINARY JOE — “Aftermath” Episode 113 — Pictured: (l-r) Charlie Barnett as Eric Payne, James Wolk as Joe Kimbreau, Natalie Martinez as Amy Kindelán — (Photo by: Matt Miller/NBC)

Plus, it was just a lot of fun. I’ll also remember this show because James Wolk has been one of my favorite actors since Lone Star, and it was a joy to see him in a role that finally reached his full potential. It made me happy to see him succeed because years ago, I got the chance to interview him and it was one of my favorite interviews in my career. We started out talking about another project and ended up discussing where I should put my Political Animals poster. I’ve always wanted to thank him for how fun that was and how much kindness he showed me at another time in my life that was difficult. I don’t remember what that other show was, but I do remember Ordinary Joe and how I appreciated that it would hopefully get people to notice his talent more.

I loved this show because Natalie Martinez and Elizabeth Lail played women whose lives were not dictated by the men in them. Their characters Amy and Jenny had their own choices, and as with Joe’s story, we got to see how those choices affected them and the people in their lives. Ordinary Joe was special in how it depicted a long-distance relationship between Nurse Joe and Jenny just so she could pursue her dream, and how the Amy in Cop Joe’s world had the strength to confront her ex-boyfriend/boss instead of falling into the same pattern. Neither of these things were convenient to the story, but the writers did what was honest for the characters, even if it was hard.

I loved this show because with John Gluck, the series gave us a character whose health issues were part of the story, but they did not define him. I give incredible credit to Friend and Lerner—and Matt Reeves, who wrote the original script—for writing those storylines where viewers saw a disabled character truly soar at moments and his health problems realistically addressed at others. Ordinary Joe was a great example of representation in a TV world where kid characters (disabled or not) often just become props to start drama or get forgotten about until there’s a story that needs them.

I loved this show because Charlie Barnett lit up the screen every time he showed up on it; it seemed like he was having the time of his life playing Eric, and that was kind of infectious. Eric’s life was just about as different as Joe’s depending on the universe and Barnett didn’t get enough credit for pulling that off. Being a TV nerd, I also got a kick out of seeing so many familiar faces in the guest cast, like Jack Coleman (Chicago P.D.) as Jenny’s dad or Christine Adams (Black Lightning) as the Congressman’s wife. And speaking of Diaz, it was neat to see Adam Rodriguez in something that wasn’t a procedural.

There were so many little things about Ordinary Joe that were different. And when it tackled the big things—topics like addiction, adoption, death and terrorism—it did so with grace and incredible heart. There will be other great TV series, but this is one of those shows I’ll always be able to go back to and rewatch with a smile. That’s the value of Ordinary Joe, and that’s what makes it so sad that it’s not going to continue. But its ending doesn’t diminish that everyone involved did something really special.

The complete season of Ordinary Joe is now streaming on Peacock.

Article content is (c)2020-2022 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.

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