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And tease what’s next for all of the Joes
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the series premiere of Ordinary Joe on NBC. Read at your own risk!]
If you’ve ever felt like there was not enough James Wolk on your TV — we’ll go ahead and declare there’s never enough James Wolk on TV — then NBC’s timeline-bending drama Ordinary Joe is the right show for you. The new drama explores three different lives of a man named Joe (Wolk) after he comes to a crossroads at his college graduation, with three paths leading to three very different (and not so different?) lives. One timeline sees him settle down with his college sweetheart Jenny (Elizabeth Lail) and become a nurse. Another explores what would have happened if Joe followed in his late father’s footsteps and became a cop. The third timeline sees Joe living the life of a famous musician and married to the mysterious woman Amy (Natalie Martinez), whom he met on the way to his graduation ceremony. While each of the lives look very different on the surface, the Ordinary Joe pilot explores how much they overlap 10 years after that graduation, with all three Joes dissatisfied with their love life and grappling with bombshells that threaten to change everything he’s built so far.
In the first timeline, Nurse Joe discovers that Jenny wants to get a divorce and sets out on a mission to win his wife back and build a better life for them and their young special needs son Christopher. Cop Joe sees sparks with Amy at his college reunion after not speaking to her for 10 years, only to run into Jenny as well, not knowing the young boy with her is actually his son. In the musician timeline, Joe is frustrated that his wife, Amy, wants to put their plans to try again to get pregnant on hold after she miscarries. He goes to his college reunion and finds Jenny, now a partner in a law firm, and she confesses that she gave birth to Joe’s son 10 years prior and gave him up for adoption. In each storyline a few things remain the same: Joe’s best friend is Eric (Charlie Barnett) and he remains close with his mother Gwen (Anne Ramsay) and uncle Frank (David Warshofsky). The attempted murder of a state senator also intersects with each of the Joes in different ways.
Does that feel like a lot to keep track of? Don’t worry. TV Guide spoke with Ordinary Joe showrunners Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend about balancing the three storylines, keeping the audience on track, and continuing the multiple stories from here.
James Wolk, Ordinary Joe
What made you think James Wolk was the guy to make the audience care about a character so much you’d want to see him in three different timelines?
Garrett Lerner: I feel like he’s so charming and winning, and just as a proven star… and he can sing to boot.
Russel Friend: We’ve loved him for years. He’s been in all these great roles. He’s always played like this kind of a nice guy. He’s a good guy’s nice guy. Then in Watchmen, which I love that HBO miniseries, he played this villain and was like, holy sh–. That was before we met him or cast him — before we wrote the script. This guy has tremendous range. He’s a great actor. Then when he came in to talk to us about this role, he did a few scenes for us as each different character, and just blew us away. He’s the guy. It just was undeniable.
The pilot introduces these three timelines and emphasizes how much they have in common no matter how different Joe’s life looks. How much are these storylines going to diverge going forward?
Lerner: We’re going to show both the similarities and the differences [between the timelines]. We have a lot of fun after we break these stories individually, combining them and putting them together, intertwining them, and seeing how they inform one another. Sometimes that [is] a comparison, and sometimes it’s in direct contrast. It says a lot about Joe, about life in general, about the different choices we make and about where that can put you and how that can change your mindset, depending on what path you end up on. But we’re going to continue the structure of the pilot all the way at least through Season 1, where we’re going to be pretty much equally balanced between each of the three worlds in every episode.
I know it’s a lot to ask about the series finale when we are just seeing the pilot, but why are we following these three timelines? Does that mean the end of the show is figuring out which one Joe chooses, or what is the message behind these three lives?
Friend: What’s important for us about showing these three worlds, and the reason we’re showing them, is just to show that no matter what choices you make, you’re sort of in the right place, that your life, even if you are on top of the world, famous rock star with money and have, you know, a Porsche or whatever, and live in a giant loft in Brooklyn, you’re still gonna have issues and problems just like the rest of the world. That’s what we love about it is that each of the Joes on his own trajectory, and when one’s up, one might be down, and vice versa. That’s sort of to us what’s important about it — that any choice you make is kind of the right choice.
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You have each actor essentially playing three different characters. What were your conversations with them like about what throughlines needed to be in each of the timelines?
Lerner: The good news for them in terms of preparation is they were all the same from birth through college graduation. Charlie Barnett said he thinks of it like a seed that grows out various vines and one goes up the tree, one goes up the wall, and one goes straight toward the sun, but they’re all the same seedling. I thought that was a pretty cool metaphor. They are not three completely different human beings. It’s just that their adult lives have gone in different directions. Something we learned a lot writing the show and thinking about the show philosophy is we’re not just the sum of our choices. We’re the sum of the choices of people around us as well — your partner’s choices, your family, how they affect you. In this case, all the ripples come out of Joe’s original decision in 2011, but there’s a version in which maybe in another season, somebody else’s decision tree splinters off in different directions.
How are you making sure that the audience can keep the plot of each storyline separated in their mind?
Lerner: Our actors really created different characters, not just whether they’re in glasses or have a beard. They all have different postures. They all have different ways they approach the scene. Jenny has a different amount of assertiveness depending on if she’s a paralegal or [a] partner in the law firm. She walks into a room differently. If Eric owns a pizza shop or if he’s a successful chef who has many restaurants, he carries himself differently. I think audiences are going to be oriented by that. They’re also going to be oriented by the stories being told, but also the color palette that we’ve infused into each world. We take a lot of care all the way down to wardrobe and props and set dressing in filters over our lenses. That kind of subtle visual guide hopefully will hold the audience’s hands and guide them [from] world to world as we travel between them. We are editing Episode 4 now and our greatest concern going in was confusion. So far so good as far as that goes. We feel like everything is very, very clear.
The pilot sets up that there are two very important women in Joe’s life, regardless of the timeline. Is one of them going to be the definitive best choice for Joe or could it be that Amy is the best choice for Cop Joe but Jenny is the best choice for Nurse Joe?
Friend: We don’t want to necessarily pick favorites. It sort of goes with the theory that he’s just as happy in either world. We want to do the same thing with the "Amy and Jenny" of it all, to say that they both could be the one. There could be multiple "the ones".
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The pilot ends with Joe saying what’s important is what’s next so… what’s next for these three Joes?
Friend: Amazing episodes. Each episode is better so keep watching. What we wanted to do in the pilot specifically was set up these very active story threads for each of the Joes and the people in his lives. The stuff we set up in the pilot, we’re pursuing those avenues. Music Joe and his son — that becomes a focal point of his life — Cop Joe and Amy, that’s the beginning of something. They reconnected at the reunion and we’re going to explore that. Nurse Joe and Jenny, we’re going to explore their marriage. The parents have a special needs kid and him working as a nurse or Jenny working as a paralegal and the fact that they both weren’t really doing exactly what they dreamt of doing. That’s a big theme in Nurse Joe world. All of those things are being explored and then a ton of new stuff that hasn’t been introduced yet.
Lerner: You’re going to learn more about the peripheral characters as well as we go forward. It’s going to deepen and spread out like in the pilot. It was so hard to squeeze into 42 minutes just to hit all the story points on Joe. As we go forward, we’re going to learn a lot more about all Amies, all Jennies, all Erics, and even Joe’s mom Gwen and his Uncle Frank.
Ordinary Joe continues Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.