Joan Cusack, Kyle Chandler, ...
Credit: Joan: Bob D'Amico

I’d be doing Joan Cusack a disservice if I merely said that her foray into weekly television, the sitcom What About Joan, is pretty much a bust and let it go at that. Cusack deserves better, on every level. You’ve probably seen her steal scenes in feature films like 1997’s ”In & Out” (playing a perplexed girlfriend engaged to Kevin Kline’s sexually ambivalent lead) and especially 1988’s ”Working Girl,” as a perfect wiseacre pal — a latter day Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter — to Melanie Griffith’s title character. With her long, rubbery face, Cusack has the gift of seeming both vulnerably soft and prickly smart. Her ability to transform needy fear into fearless funniness is one of her most original, appealing traits.

Which doesn’t mean she’s an easy fit for television stardom. Look how other actors have failed to adapt their big screen personas to TV sitcoms this season: Bette Midler, who seemed to feel the medium was beneath her, worked against its ensemble work ethic and was canceled for her hubris; Gabriel Byrne trusted the medium too much and merely walked through his ”Madigan Men” role: Bye bye. And when will ABC put Geena Davis out of her misery?

Now let’s look at how Cusack’s skills are being deployed on a weekly basis. In ”Joan,” she plays Joan Gallagher, a Chicago high school teacher — by all evidence, a good, caring educator. That may be one trait that draws Jake (”Early Edition”’s chiseled Kyle Chandler) to her, and in a nice twist on the standard ”let’s drag this out” sitcom chronology, Jake proposes to Joan in the very first episode, supposedly after a scant nine dates. But Joan is so rattled, so racked with self doubt (”I’m not the kind of girl that sweeps guys off their feet — I’m the low maintenance, dependable one that guys call after they’ve gotten dumped by the girl that sweeps guys off their feet!”), she refuses. (Had she agreed, the series could have borrowed the title from a 1950s sitcom: ”I Married Joan.”) Indeed, Joan’s immediate reaction is one of querulous suspicion: ”Are you trying to break up with me?” she asks.

That’s the best joke in the pilot — the most poignant, and the one that suggests what could have made ”What About Joan” a distinctive show instead of a frustrating one. The Joan that Cusack plays is insecure about her looks and comfortably straitlaced: In the second episode she says, ”I’m very modest about sex.”

Unfortunately, the writers are maddeningly inconsistent in creating punchlines for Joan that jibe with this image. In fact, the second episode’s assertion of modesty is contradicted in this week’s debut, wherein, to relieve the tension of Jake’s proposal, Joan shouts, ”We need medicinal sex!” — i.e., intercourse as a stress reducing exercise. And soon after the April 3 episode’s modesty line, there is some all too typically sitcommy sex talk, from ”Family Matters”’ Kellie Shanygne Williams (all grown up as a no nonsense student teacher), who compares various orgasm inducing moves to places in Florida (”The Magic Kingdom” as a euphemism for the G spot? Does ABC overlord Michael Eisner know about this?).

Joan’s supporting cast is uneven. ”Veronica’s Closet”’s Wallace Langham is a lecherous colleague (will the sly Langham ever again get a role as good as Phil the comedy writer on ”The Larry Sanders Show”?); Jessica Hecht, from ”Friends” and ”The Single Guy,” plays a teacher involved with Langham’s character, and the slashingly smart Broadway actress Donna Murphy is Joan’s psychiatrist friend.

Only Williams and Murphy show any promise as personalities capable of working at Cusack’s level. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the nice but blank faced Chandler isn’t much of a romantic or comedic match for Cusack, who wrenches laughs from limp lines by scrunching up her eyes, wringing her hands, and generally contorting her Olive Oyl body in a neurotic anguish that’s new to TV.

Probably too new. Unless series creator and producer Gwen Macsai can quickly cobble together a better showcase for Cusack, I predict the actress will get tagged as a movie second banana who shouldn’t have been plucked from the bunch to be a lead actress, and that’s not accurate. It’s TV that is failing Cusack’s talent by stuffing her into the kind of snickering, ordinary sitcom audiences are increasingly tired of watching.

What About Joan
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