Los Angeles Times

‘Joey’ gets help from new friends

What can live up to "Friends"? This was the question on everyone's minds when they tuned in Thursday night to the premiere episode of "Joey," probably the most anticipated new show of the season.

Predictably, NBC has built up the hype around the show, and why shouldn't it--it needs a hit to anchor this year's Must-See TV lineup. Fairly or unfairly, it all comes down to one lone pair of feet to fill six giant pairs of shoes.

Fortunately for the NBC brass, Matt LeBlanc's feet were up to the task. His Joey was ultimately a winner, thanks to his strong portrayal--and a little help from some new on-screen friends.

LeBlanc's portrayal of Joey Tribbiani made him a fan favorite through 10 seasons of "Friends," infusing the lovably dim lothario with charm, sweetness and a whole lot of heart. Joey's role in the overwrought Rachel-Ross storyline provided a welcome respite from David Schwimmer's whining Ross and gave Joey a depth previously untapped.

As "Friends" matured, so did LeBlanc's character, which set off and was in turn highlighted by his castmates, from the warmth of his best-buddy schtick with Chandler to the dumb-and-dumber moments with Phoebe and all the Central Perk wackiness in between.

But "Friends" was, after all, an ensemble show, and Joey was just one character. Would his dumbness be as funny without Chandler's wisecracks to chase? Could his machismo have the same appeal without Monica rolling her eyes? Did we want "Joey" to begin, or just for "Friends" not to end?

As it turns out, a little bit of both. The savvy producers of "Joey" didn't fight it, but instead wove Joey's backstory into the new story, turning the looming shadow of "Friends" into merely a familiar echo, adding a familiar dimension to the show even as we were introduced to new characters and situations.

The story began with Joey's move to L.A. to pursue acting, where he was met by his hairdresser sister Gina (Drea de Matteo, back from sleeping with the fish on "The Sopranos") and his nephew Michael (Paulo Costanzo, "Road Trip").

Gina is tough-talking, street smart and very proud of her brand-new breasts (a frequent punch line). Michael is a gangly, likeable 20-year-old with a smart mouth and an even smarter brain (the apple has to fall far from the tree sometime). The one-liners shoot easily between them, creating an immensely likeable family dynamic that was fun to watch.

Rounding out the cast is pretty blond neighbor Alex (Andrea Anders--we're already rooting for her to lose the absentee husband and fall for Joey) and the wonderful Jennifer Coolidge as Joey's blowsy, bleating agent.

It's a great cast, and they work the material like pros. De Matteo has a welcome comic presence, and Costanzo has a genuine chemistry with LeBlanc that could well make him the next Chandler Bing. For his part, LeBlanc remains equally adept at physical comedy and in believably conveying an emotional core.

The real pros are the writers, though. Taking their cue from years of "Friends," the artistry in the scripts is apparent, with the interwoven jokes and frequent callbacks to earlier punch lines (Gina with the blond hair; the whole "Nurses" sidebar). And for every Gina's-got-fake-boobs joke (which did get old), there was a sharp, witty one that hit the mark. (One of the best: "You rarely hear the argument for teen pregnancy.")

It may seem to get off to a slow start, but it is deliberate; "Joey" is expertly written and paced, taking its time to build arcs of character and story that hit you unexpectedly at the end with a solar-plexus payoff.

LeBlanc's speech about forcing himself to accept change was a terrific moment, a glimpse into Joey's character and the fledgling Tribbiani family dynamic. Kudos to the writers for weaving in the "Friends" backstory so effectively and for giving LeBlanc a chance to really win us over with his acting chops.

Ultimately, though, they've given him more than that: They've surrounded him with meaty, fun characters, and in doing so, have given him precisely what Joey really needs to shine: an ensemble.

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