Sentiment and Home Shopping Collide in an Ambitious Outing

Like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Flight Attendant before it, Showtime’s bright-eyed new comedy, I Love That For You serves up a determined protagonist in the throes of reinvention. My, how clumsy her efforts are. Vanessa Bayer’s Joanna Gold is genuinely motivated to make her life and the world around her better. So, we root for her. We want her to succeed. Even though watching her occasionally trip is such fun. That’s the general thrust of I Love That For You, and while it may have more in common with the sweetly infectious Kimmy Schmidt — big heart, big dreams, big splashes of naivety — there’s a refreshing balance of grounded sentiment and realism here that makes this show worthy of attention.

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Bayer created this dark comedy with Jeremy Beiler, an SNL and Inside Amy Schumer writing alum. We first meet Joanna as a teenager with leukemia holed up in a hospital bed. For comfort, she binges the Special Value Network (SVN) and quickly learns the art of “selling,” which soon comes in handy — why not use her condition to garner attention? It’s the perfect vulnerable teen move, but it comes back to haunt her. Flashforward 20 years and Joanna is healthy but nowhere close to living her dreams. She still lives with parents (Matt Malloy and Bess Armstrong offering memorable turns) and works with her pop at Costco. But when she discovers SVN is hiring, she sees an opportunity to start fresh.

At SVN, we find a dizzying array of colorful characters, chief among them home shopping network queen Jackie Stilton (Molly Shannon), Joanna’s idol. But Jackie has grown weary of pushing everything from tacky onesies to fine china, and her recent divorce was a sobering wake-up call. Still, she lingers on, agreeing, reluctantly at first, to bring Joanna up to speed at the network while lady boss Patricia Cochran (Jenifer Lewis at her best) watches on, ready to pounce. And pounce she does. So much so that Joanna, fearing she’ll lose her dream job, relies on old methods to get what she wants: she blurts out that she has cancer. Intrigued — “people like it when you talk about cancer” — Patricia gives Joanna another chance, which sets up the flow of the remaining episodes. Will a guilt-ridden Joanna fess up and lose everything? Or… should she ride things out?

The Joys of a Big-hearted Dreamer

As workplace comedies go, there’s a compelling posse of characters here, some familiar, others inventive. SVN star Perry (Johnno Wilson), a smartly dressed southerner who, at least in the first half of the season, is coy about his sexuality, stands out and there’s plenty of room for his character to move beyond just being sassy. (Fingers crossed.) Ayden Mayeri’s Beth Ann feels a bit contrived as the spoiled territorial “almost a real star” at SVN. Matt Rogers’s Darcy, Patricia’s doting assistant, has the best wardrobe, but not the self-esteem to full come into his own. It will be interesting to see how he develops in the second half of the season. And Paul James’ Jordan, the office hunk Joanna fawns over, is the most down-to-earth of the bunch if not the lone “stable” character in the inner show’s mayhem and mischief.

Overall, these characters play off each other to winning and, at times, hilarious ends, but there’s a tendency for this series to give in and play things a little too over the top when it doesn’t have to. And that’s where it occasionally teeters, struggling to allow itself to deliver a meaningful message and having it breathe a while — before returning to a punchline. It doesn’t mar the overall endeavor, though. But at this point, TV audiences have seen it all so, why not savor more depth?

It would be interesting to see, perhaps, some scenes play out longer rather than rush to the next frenzied endeavor. That’s the hope as we move toward the final stretch of the season. Judging by the decent ratings, there’s a good chance this new series will be picked up for Season Two and I can see a clever way to keep audiences hanging, longing for more by season’s end: hey, what if Joanna’s cancer actually does return. My, wouldn’t that be something to play off of coming into a new season?

Related: The Phantom of the Open Review: Mark Rylance Astounds in a Fantastic Film

Backstory, Themes, and Acting in I Love That For You

Showtime

Bayer and Beiler penned most the episodes with a premise based on real-life. Bayer was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 15. Eventually she went on to thrive. She’s also been a longtime fan of home shopping. Combining the two into the show pays off. It’s fun, quirky, and you find yourself wanting to invest in the characters and see how things pan out.

But one of the most refreshing things about I Love That For You is that it offers a glimpse, however comedic at times, at how people handle vulnerability, especially among their peers. Who hasn’t been “triggered” by a boss, a coworker, a parent? In this setting, there’s a surprisingly interesting dynamic set up with the Joanna-Jackie-Patricia troika that revolves covering up those vulnerabilities — the doe-eyed newbie thinking success will rectify her past, the burnt-out TV star searching for deeper meaning, the ice queen boss covering up her own insecurities and misgivings. I’m enjoying the way Bayer and Beiler unfold some of the complexities of these characters and hope, by season’s end, we find them reaching new personal plateaus that the audiences relate to.

Acting wise, this bunch has it pretty much dialed in — they hit the right marks, are sharp and on point — although they are susceptible to what the scripts offer them. Bayer, playing off her own material, delivers, but there’s an underlying hint that we’ve seen her play this character before. I recall her story arc as Amy/Friday on the reboot of Will & Grace (Season 3) and in some other skits from SNL. But audiences tend to love Bayer playing it sweet and innocent albeit befuddled and stumbling. You might wonder: What more does she have? Even though you’re devouring everything she’s feeding you. Lewis, as Patricia, sinks her creative teeth in the role and in doing so, nearly walks away with the entire series, claiming it as her own. She’s the strongest character by far and tends to overshadow some of the others. It’s a surprising twist because typically Shannon winds up in that capacity. Of the other stars, it would be nice to discover new layers to the characters of Darcy and Perry, played by Rogers and Wilson respectively.

At its best, I Love That For You offers a generous blend of social commentary about the workplace and the lengths people go to protect themselves from past hurts. In that respect, it really is a noteworthy comedy for the times in which we live.

I Love That For You airs at 8:30 p.m. Sundays on Showtime.



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