Test Pilot: File #9, Joey

Test Pilot #9: Joey

Debut date: September 9, 2004

Series legacy: One of the biggest failures in recent broadcast television memory, a giant signal to the world that spin-offs don’t always work.

And Test Pilot is back! It’s a new year, but the historical pilot analysis continues! In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

This is our third quartet of series and this go-around, things are a bit different. Instead of discussing the medium’s canon (like we did in the first four files) or a very specific genre (as we did with teen dramas in the most recent files), we are going to dive into the history of one television network: The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.

Now feels like the perfect time to discuss NBC. The sale to Comcast has been completed, Zucker is finally gone and they have a brand-new, Peacock-less logo. NBC is obviously trying to signify this time as a new, fresh start so it makes sense to look back on this terrible era they’re just moving out of.

NBC has been discussed, derided and destroyed for nearly a decade, as what was once the most popular network in America that millions of people grew up loving has now been turned into the laughing-stock of the industry thanks to a regular dose of poor decision making.But it is really easy to pull up pictures of Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker and use MS Paint to caption them with “FAIL” and perhaps even easier to point to YouTube clips of The Event and Outsourced as obvious reasons for why NBC sucks.

While I would certainly enjoy those activities, I’m hoping that discussing certain series and their development over the next few months will help in connecting NBC’s failures together into some sort of pattern. At this point, it is still fairly unclear as to why NBC continued to make the stupid decisions it has made. I’m looking for something more than “bad management” or simply “Jeff Zucker.” Of course, I might not find those answers, particularly in this admittedly limited scope of series and contextualization. But I do think a minor backtrack through the NBC archives will allow us to highlight why specific series are examples of NBC’s errant decision-making and perhaps even figure out if they were given a raw deal because of the stench NBC has been putting off for nearly a decade now.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that while these four entries will most certainly follow the familiar framework established from the beginning of this feature – the newbie/veteran perspective, discussion of various contexts – I have to imagine that there will be an increased focus on the historical and industrial contexts.

Although it might not be the singular starting point for when NBC went downhill, I think a really good place to begin is with 2004’s Joey. It’s one of the most high-profile flops of the last 10 years, if not ever, and came on the air (obviously) the year after NBC’s megahit Friends left. Although ’90s holdovers like ER and Will and Grace were still around in the fall of 2004, there was certainly an uneasy feeling floating over the National Broadcasting Company. This is where we begin in our journey towards NBC’s damnation. While I certainly haven’t seen every episode of the series — my lord I hope no one actually has — I’m very familiar with Joey and Friends, so I’ll be playing the role of veteran viewer in this case. Finally, as you’ll see, I’m focusing a bit more on the context and the history surrounding this pilot and the series more than the series itself. Austin will be discussing the mechanics and beats of the episode a bit more in-depth later and so I think it seems pertinent for me to put my manpower elsewhere. Here we go:

If we travel back in time before Joey was even on the air and before Friends had even ended to July of 2003. The USA Today article announcing the creation of Joey had this to say about NBC and its comedy slate in particular:

Either way, it’s clear that NBC needs some help: The network hasn’t found a new comedy hit since Will & Grace premiered in 1998, and both Friends and the fading Frasier will be history in May. With CBS winning Thursdays last season, NBC views Joey as an insurance policy to protect its most important night.

No one expects Joey to capture as large an audience as Friends, which averaged nearly 22 million viewers last season. And the history of successful comedy spinoffs is limited: For every Frasier (spawned from Cheers), there are several After M*A*S*Hes that quickly faded. Joey will be expensive by new-sitcom standards, costing NBC nearly $2 million an episode, but still far short of the $10 million that the network is shelling out for the final year of Friends.

Again, this was BEFORE Friends, the biggest scripted comedy series of the aughts left the airwaves. What is particularly interesting about this article is how it suggests NBC’s troubles even though the first few years of the “Zucker era” (when he was just entertainment president in 2000-2003) were full of big moves for the Peacock. Zucker brought Donald Trump to the network and helped turn The Apprentice into one of the most popular reality television series ever (admit it, you watched those first two seasons too), he famously came up with the idea of extending comedies like Friends to 40 minutes and helped guide critically respected newbies like Scrubs and Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit to the airwaves.

In the early part of the 2000s, NBC was still flying fairly high, despite the CSI:/Survivor challenges from CBS and the American Idol juggernaut over at FOX. Operating earnings — a figure that can surely be tweaked and reported in all sorts of ways — had increased more than $300 million dollars during Zucker’s first three years in a big role at NBC.

But as well all know, in this business, things can change very, very quickly. Especially when your network is anchored but just a few aging programs. With Friends and Fraiser both departing at the end of the 2003-2004 season, ER getting old, The West Wing sort of hanging on without Aaron Sorkin and Law & Order losing Jerry Orbach (first to a terrible spin-off and then to death), the biggest anchors in NBC’s schedule suddenly had a lot of holes to plug or audiences to re-cultivate.

And with Zucker in a brand-new position during that developmental season, it was time for the man who supersized Friends and The Today Show to prove that he also knew how to pick good pilots. Unfortunate for Zucker and for NBC, it turns out he was much better at stretching out ready-mades than he was coming up with and supporting good ideas on his own.

If my research serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure that of all the new scripted series that aired during the 2004-2005 season, only two of them lasted into the next season: Joey and The Office. During that season, Zucker famously championed for the Friends spin-off, but also through his weight behind Father of the Pride, an animated series produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg and the animation team from DreamWorks about a group of lions, the leader of which performs for Siegfried and Roy. Pride reportedly cost almost $2 million an episode thanks to the cinema-quality animation and expensive voice cast. Despite all that, the series was almost cancelled before airing an episode because of Roy’s almost-death. When it finally made it to air, Pride was shellacked for serving as little more than a platform for other NBCU products or brands, as Eddie Murphy’s Donkey from Shrek and Matt Lauer of The Today Show randomly made appearances. Critically derided and rejected by audiences, Father of the Pride was killed before 2005 came around.

In its failure, Father of the Pride represents some of the bigger talking points of Zucker’s programming ideology: synergy and stunt-casting. He and Ben Silverman are famous for their product integration methods, but NBC has been just as good/bad? at making sure almost every piece of content is related to something else in the NBCU universe. It had been done before 2004 and under Zucker, it never stopped, but Father of the Pride serves as an exemplar for how Zucker and Silverman planned its programming around things other than you know, the programming.

Although Pride and Joey are the most famous failures from that horrendous 2004-2005 developmental season, Zucker and NBC were dropping bombs everywhere. Hawaii and LAX were two fairly high-profile hourlongs that petered out very, very quickly before the network could even figure out how to fix them. The latter was particularly unfortunate since it starred “TV Star” Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood and even in my young age at the time, I can remember NBC promoting the hell out of it. Medical Investigation wasn’t terrible, but it was so obviously trying to be CSI: 2.0 set in a slightly different location that audiences simply rejected it. And finally, I can’t get out of this paragraph without mentioning Law & Order: Trial By Jury, which, like Joey, serves an example of Zucker’s attempts to stretch out already successful properties. That iteration of the series was mostly terrible in the few episodes I saw and by the time the season was over, it had helped kill Jerry Orbach and NBC’s schedule.

Making matters worse, as NBC’s schedule crumbled to pieces, so many of the other networks were blossoming. After spending years as the laughing-stock of broadcast television, ABC struck gold in 2004-2005 with two massive hits in Lost and Desperate Housewives and another series that would grow into an even bigger hit in Grey’s Anatomy. Over at FOX, Idol and 24 were still going strong just as the network premiered House, a series produced by NBCU that the Peacock could have had on their schedule.

NBC had only a few things to take solace in during the 2004-2005 season. First, while not a sizable hit, Joey stood out like a beacon of success compared to the rest of the new, terrible series. Secondly, the network did strike moderate gold with a reality competition series in The Biggest Loser. Not only was the series a ratings success, its format allowed for Zucker’s two specialties: episode extension and product placement. Before long, Loser went from one to two hours long and before things were all said and done, the series was on a few times a week with episodes jam-packed with integration. Victory, Zucker! These two events softened the blow of the disaster that were the other 90 percent of NBC’s new premieres, but it sure as hell wasn’t enough.

The 2004-2005 season is also important because it was the first time the Peacock worked with their future co-chairman of entertainment, Ben Silverman. At that time, Silverman was a young hot-shot producer, leading Reveille. He brought both The Biggest Loser and The Office to NBC and based on the former’s immediate success and the latter’s explosion in late 2005, NBC and Zucker decided it was probably best to bring Silverman into the fold. And of course, Silverman just happened to also enjoy synergy, format purchasing and product integration as well. Again, you know, the stuff doesn’t actually improve the content of a series.

So we know where NBC was and where they were going, but what of Joey? Was it actually that terrible? How does it fit into NBC’s programming schemes circa 2004-2005? And what can it tell us now?

Well, what’s really interesting about the USA Today article above and other pieces about Joey‘s development is that no one seemed particularly invested in doing it. David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the two primary minds behind Friends, wanted nothing to do with a spin-off. LeBlanc took a well-discussed pay cut so it wasn’t like he totally doing it for the money, but I mean (and no offense to him) what else did he really have on the table? The fact that Episodes is able to make such a big deal out of his return is the fact that he had little to do before and after Joey.

And yet, NBC went along with it anyway. As the USA Today article kind of hints at, when you’re working with one of the biggest worldwide television properties of all time it’s hard to just let it go without a spin-off. In that respect, I personally can’t really fault NBC and Jeff Zucker’s thinking. He wanted to keep the Thursday night advertising money training going. I get that. But when, as the article suggests, you struggle trying to even figure out what your big spin-off idea that is going to save your slowly diminishing schedule is going to cover and which of the series’ big stars might be willing to do it, that might be a sign it’s time to move on. Shockingly, NBC, presumably learning from their awful experiences with Joey, learned their lesson in 2008-2009 when they ultimately decided to let Michael Schur and Greg Daniels create a new program instead of trying to jam a square-pegged Office spin-off into a round hole. It took a while, but they still learned something. (Yay NBC?!)

When re-watching the actual pilot episode of Joey, you can sort of see Zucker’s hand-prints all over it in a way. The episode does make an effort to create a new world for Joey, but so much of the pilot relies on your knowledge of Friends and mileage of the dense Joey that the original series had actually moved away from in the final two seasons when he became the anchor of Friends. People like to knock Joey the character now because of the mess that was this series, but when Ross and Rachel got tired, Phoebe became stale and Chandler and Monica were settled, Joey was there to keep things interesting. The character experienced some nice developments over those final few seasons and even if they were kind of entrenched in the writers’ desire to keep Ross and Rachel separated, it still worked.

But when you separate Joey from those other people and surround him with less likable characters who don’t know the Joey from the last few seasons that the fans knew, it’s going to be a disaster. That is of course what NBC did. The Joey of  Joey is more like the character from the first few seasons, fully and blissfully unaware of his surroundings and although I can attribute some of that to the fact that he’s now the center of the series instead of a supporting player, it’s just too much. Joey grew up in the last few seasons of Friends and he totally regresses in this pilot episode and it’s unfortunately worse as things move forward in the series. It’s okay to have Joey be the butt of the joke and have his career get derailed here and there, but when he’s the driving force, he can’t become a dejected sad-sack who can’t get a job and pines for a married woman. But that’s Joey.

Again, some of this is familiar for all spin-offs. The nostalgia, the shorthand storytelling, etc., but it didn’t really end after the pilot. In Friends, they peered out the window at the naked guy; here, Joey peers upwards to see the Hollywood sign and into a neighbor’s window. The gay jokes about he and Chandler continue. I could go on. Despite his best efforts, Matt LeBlanc got the worst of it. He did his best work in those final few seasons and then he had to play a regressed, watered-down version of Joey here and it probably wrecked his career. Andrea Anders’ Alex reminds me of the fellow theater performer Joey made out with but who was dating the director way back in the early going of Friends and Jennifer Coolidge’s character is just a younger, more extreme version of Joey’s long-time manager. And if you really wanted to stretch it, Paulo Costanzo’s Michael is a basically a younger, watered-down version of Chandler. It’s so sad.

At a certain point, the series has to stand on its own, but Zucker, NBC and the writers didn’t seem to be interested in moving on. Zucker was most certainly more concerned with sustaining the cash cow that was Friends — remember those operating earnings figures earlier — than helping Joey mature into a somewhat interesting series. As Austin discusses a bit below, despite the cost, this pilot looks cheap. The apartment set is awful looking, the “set” of Joey’s television series looks horrible and nothing feels real at all. The whole episode, from the jokes, to the characters, to the sets, feels uninterested in the new and only wants you to think about the past. But Zucker didn’t care.

NBC stuck with Joey for a second season despite declining ratings because well, what else could they have done after spinning off one of the most popular television series of all-time? They couldn’t just give up. Well, that and their schedule was so depleted by terrible decisions in 2004-2005 that they had little choice. But nothing changed in season two and Joey didn’t even finish airing all its produced episodes in the 2005-2006 season, and this was still during a time when NBC’s schedule was an epic mess. That tells you how bad this was.

I’d like to say that NBC and Zucker learned something from Joey, but I can’t be sure. Like I’ve said a few times, I don’t think it was a terrible decision to make Joey. Unfortunately, the execution was all wrong from the beginning and nothing ever changed. After Joey, the network made some smarter moves in the comedy department, championing the single camera aesthetic made popular by Scrubs, Earl and The Office, but also continued to push for spin-offs, format programming and remakes of things that no one really ever cared to see like Bionic Woman, American Gladiators, Knight Rider and probably 10 other things I can’t think of right now. The product placement that Zucker, Silverman and NBC loved in this era wasn’t as popular on Joey (which actually might have helped the series stay on the air since LeBlanc’s contract was so high that it made the series almost too expensive to not air), but it definitely popped up everywhere else.

To this day, 2004-2005 season has to be known as the one that truly wrecked NBC. Although Joey isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen on NBC since that time, its high profile means that it will always be discussed as a beacon for NBC’s downfall. And I’m not really sure I can disagree with those charges.

–CB

Playing the role of newbie viewer is Austin Morris, an all-around good guy who has more or less replaced me at the Indiana Daily Student as the go-to man for televisual knowledge. If you’re interested in television criticism or pop culture in general, he’s a good person to follow on Twitter. Austin has included a more-detailed analysis of the episode itself, so I think our perspectives work together really well. Austin, take it away:

I feel the need to give full disclosure here at the start: I’ve only seen scattered episodes of Friends, the megahit NBC sitcom from which Joey is a spinoff. It’s not that I don’t like the show—I’ll laugh if I happen to catch an episode while waiting for something else to start on another channel—but that I was a really sheltered child. Not, like, Amish or anything, but not really allowed to blithely watch primetime TV, either.

Even with my limited Friends experience, though, it’s clear to me what the executive producers of Joey were trying to do. As Joey Tribbiani was, by design, the only character who didn’t really get closure in the final season and, especially, the series finale of Friends, he was the most natural character to build a new show around. And I don’t blame the executive producers or—more likely—their bosses at NBC for wanting to create a spinoff of Friends, the runaway success story of the network’s “Must-See TV” Thursday lineup. After all, the show closed with the fourth-most-watched series finale in the history of television, racking up an absurd-sounding 52.5 million viewers. A follow-up series was almost a no-brainer decision.

It’s really too bad for everyone involved, then, that Joey is a severe miscalculation. Part of the magic of Friends—the largest reason, I think, for both its great critical and audience reception—was the ensemble dynamic. Those six characters and the actors who played them simply worked together; their chemistry was undeniable, and the laughs came organically from placing the characters together in many different situations. (Credit surely goes to the writers, as well, for knowing the characters extremely well, and knowing how to play them off of each other.)

Thus, the fundamental flaw of Joey is part of its essential premise—Joey from Friends goes it alone in Hollywood in pursuit of an acting career. Along that same line of analysis, separating the character of Joey from the others fundamentally changes how we view him; he goes from being the goofy, somewhat dim oddball sidekick of Ross and Chandler to the extremely, obnoxiously dim center of his show’s universe. It boils down to something that Joey addresses in this speech from the show, in which he tells his sister, Gina, about his fledgling career in the hands of his new agent:

Anyway, she got me offers from two new shows…The first one’s about a bunch of male nurses, and I wasn’t really crazy about that one. I mean—I’ve already been a brain surgeon. I don’t think my fans will buy me as a nurse.

This one of many meta lines in the opening scenes of the Joey pilot. It first links with the Friends mythology, talking about the brain surgeon role he took on Days of Our Lives during Friends, but beyond that it’s a wink at the circumstances of this new show. If Joey’s not sure his fans will buy him as a nurse after being a brain surgeon, will fans of Friends buy Joey’s conception of its title character?

That answer might depend on how much patience you have for stupidity. Matt Leblanc plays dumb very well, and Joey can be endearing at times. But he has his work cut out for him here, because the show often forces Joey’s buffoonery to be dependent on sitcommy clichés. That Joey’s dumb enough to get in a taxi during his layover in Dallas, thinking it’s Hollywood, is endearing. That Joey bad mouths his sister while she’s in his apartment (twice) is sitcom cliché.

Worse, the show draws attention to its own sitcommy-ness—Gina takes Joey to the apartment she’s found him (which seems really aspirational for an out-of-work actor or his allegedly-hairdressing sister, but I digress) and opens the door to find it empty…and looking distractingly like a soundstage. I know that most soundstage sitcom sets look like soundstages, but this seemed a little egregious. The plastic-leaved jungle that Joey’s back porch seemed to exist in didn’t help matters.

The supporting cast may be primarily made up of Joey’s family members—his loudmouth sister with breast implants, Gina, and her brilliant-if-socially awkward son, Michael—but in the pilot they don’t seem to be as much of a family as the Friends cast was. That’s not to say they don’t have interesting dynamic between them, but I just didn’t really care for it. By far the most interesting relationship between the central characters was, for me, that between Joey and his nephew, Michael. Joey’s, er, “street smarts” and Michael’s actual intelligence—he’s an engineering major of some sort at Cal Tech—actually work really well together.

I was pleased to see Andrea Anders here, since I enjoyed her work in the criminally underwatched Better Off Ted, but she’s not allowed to do much in the pilot besides pull the rug out from under us by announcing to Joey that she’s married, and didn’t he see the ring? That scene was, I thought, one of the better parts of the pilot, the one piece of it that took a sharp left turn away from cliché.

And then there was Jennifer Coolidge, whose character took a sharp right turn and drove off the dock into an ocean full of cliché. Not that I mind, necessarily, when it’s Jennifer Coolidge playing the role, but her agent character was a mishmash of many of her other roles in other, better shows and films. Still, the woman has charisma to spare, and she chews up the screen for every second she’s on it.

On the whole, the issues with Joey aren’t necessarily flaws within the episode, although there are plenty of those. Instead, it’s the issues with the show’s conception which I think dogged it to the end of its run. It’s easy to see where NBC found potential in the idea of a Friends spinoff, but I don’t necessarily understand why it had to be Joey. Nor do I understand why, since Joey failed, NBC has continued their track record of finding success, however minor, and then trying to bloat it with more or inferior product in hopes that audiences are dumb and will make it just as successful as the original show that they loved.

Unfortunately for NBC, their audience is not made entirely of Joey Tribbianis.

-AM

Conclusions on legacy: Not as bad as people say, but still rightfully criticized for its place among NBC’s high-profile downfall.

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2 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #9, Joey

  1. One thing you might want to check out there – I don’t think Roy (of Siegfried & Roy) died after being mauled; I think he’s alive and well to this day.

    And oddly, compared to the ratings now, Joey wasn’t half bad. I agree though, that it’s too bad more focus wasn’t paid to actually making it GOOD. The basic concept, I think, was there; it just lacked a lot of what made Friends shine.

    1. Thanks Craig, I’ve updated it with “almost-death.” Just missed a word.

      But I agree, Joey isn’t the worst thing ever, just disrespectful in the scope of what Friends happened to be.

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