Out with Geena, in with Joan. Sounds like a fair trade in my TV playbook. Trading up, actually, in terms of enjoying genuine comedy.
It appears the networks can't kick their fixation on building new shows around established stars, despite this season's brutal treatment of brand-name celebrities from Bette Midler to Michael Richards. At least this spring's star crop is of a more offbeat variety, especially at ABC.
Among those testing the comedy waters: Denis Leary (as an acerbic cop in the terrific The Job), Damon Wayans (as a Cosby-like dad in My Wife and Kids) and now that gawky gamine Joan Cusack.
Giving an overdue rest to The Geena Davis Show, one of TV's most painfully ordinary star vehicles, What About Joan (Tuesdays at 9:30 pm/ET) is, in its best moments, a hyperventilating hoot, with a tone of neurotic hysteria set by the dizzy star.
The genius of the slim premise is to let something good finally happen to sad sack Cusack, her pixieish face scrunched up in self-doubt while her body language is locked in a cringe, as if always fearing the worst. Some will call it mugging; others will find it a scream.
"I'm not the kind of girl that sweeps guys off their feet," high school teacher Joan Gallagher (Cusack) tells her friends about her new romance with dreamboat banker Jake (Early Edition's Kyle Chandler). "I'm the low-maintenance, dependable one that guys call after they've gotten dumped by the girl that swept them off their feet," she insists, arms flailing.
Her panicky inability to comprehend and accept that Jake is completely smitten with her provides the show's loudest, longest laughs. And Chandler is a great straight-man foil, earnestly exasperated as Joan resists his advances then suspiciously studies his every move for the first sign of disaffection.
The able supporting cast has less to work with and is largely adrift. Wallace Langham and Jessica Hecht as teachers conducting a tortured secret affair and Donna Murphy as a brittle psychiatrist seem like stock characters more suitable for Geena Davis's trite sophisticate-in-suburbia time waster.
Joan may be far from perfect, but what about Joan, you ask? I agree with Jake: She's a keeper.