Pilot Script Review of Ordinary Joe
Not unlike The CW's The Lost Boys (read my pilot script review), Ordinary Joe is another long-in-gestation passion project to receive a pilot order this year. This one comes from Matt Reeves, the writer/director of DC's upcoming feature film The Batman. Reeves' pilot script got a put-pilot commitment at ABC more than a decade ago, but it didn't make it at the time. He decided to revisit it this year under his 6th & Idaho banner, which has an overall deal with 20th Century FOX Television, and asked House veterans Russel Friend and Garett Lerner to write a new script. Its concept, which has been described as "Sliding Doors-esque," has some parallels with This is Us, which may have been what led to NBC's decision to buy it in late 2018. Itt finally joined the network's roster of high-concept dramas pilots this year, alongside La Brea, Echo and Debris.
Fans of Felicity, which Reeves co-created with J.J. Abrams back in 1998, will be excited to learn that Ordinary Joe echoes an unconventional plot device employed in that series' final season. Originally given 17 episodes to wrap up its storyline, the network ended up giving the series an additional five episode order late in the season. With plans already in place for an episode 17 series finale that would see Felicity graduate from college and finally choose her man, the writers and producers came up with an inventive idea for the additional five episodes. They introduced a time travel plot where Felicity discovers what would have happened if instead of choosing Ben, she'd chosen Noel. As it happens, that's pretty much what happens to our Joe here... but in an even more complicated way.
WRITTEN BY: Russel Friend & Garrett Lerner
DRAFT DATE: 1/7/2019 - 3rd Network Draft
PAGE COUNT: 61 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: JOE KIMBROUGH (22) is a graduating senior from Syracuse University who aspires to be a musician. On the day of his graduation, his uncle, a cop just like Joe's deceased father and grandfather, offers him his late dad's police badge as a gift. His uncle hopes that Joe will also be joining the force. Unsure of his choice, Joe runs late to his graduation. At the commencement, Joe meets AMY KIM (22), an aspiring politician who's also questioning her path. They both make a deal to not let anyone ruin their dreams. Just as graduation ends, Joe runs into his best friend JENNY (22), the class valedictorian whom he seems to have a crush on. Jenny asks him to join her at her graduation party at the beach, hinting that they need to talk. Joe refuses so that he can have dinner with his family instead. His friend ERIC (22) overhears and asks Joe to rethink his decision. In the meantime, Amy walks by with her family and Joe catches a glimpse at her. Eric encourages Joe to ask her out. As Joe takes a step forward, the story suddenly fast-forwards 10 years, where we see Joe living three different lives.
In one, he's a famous musician and is married to Amy, but they're having trouble starting a family of their own; in another, he's a successful cop struggling with loneliness; and in the third, he's a nurse, married to Jenny. Together they have a disabled child, but their marriage is slowly falling apart. As each of the three Joes prepare for their 10 year college reunion, their parallel lives overlap in mysterious ways, emphasizing the importance of one's life decisions and how significant each choice can be.
COMMENTS: Ordinary Joe is another example of network television being a bit more original and daring this year. Each episode of this character-driven drama will follow the three versions of its main character in three separate stories, which will be linked thematically. That makes for a pilot script that can be a little difficult to read as it jumps between "Music Joe", "Cop Joe" and "Nurse Joe" (that's how they're referred). It should be easier to follow on screen, as the looks of the characters, briefly described in the script, and the settings will be different. (The producers may want to consider some colored filters to make it even easier.)
In any case, it's a facinating concept, even if we've seen in one-off episodes of other shows. To make it work for an entire series will be something else entirely. This is one case where ordering a pilot makes a lot sense, because only the final product will tell us whether it can work or not. On paper, it's promising. And James Wolk (Zoo, Watchmen) should make a great Joe. It's also very much in the vein of This is Us, and could be a good companion or off-season replacement for the hit show.
The introduction, set on the day of Joe's graduation from Syracuse University, is so promising that I can't help but hope it isn't the last we see of Joe's college years. Perhaps they'll be integrated into future episodes via flashbacks, but Ordinary Joe appears to mostly be about what comes next (or what could have happened next). As for how we're seeing these three alternate timelines, that's not explained. It doesn't seem like Joe is actually time-traveling, he doesn't make a wish, he doesn't appear to be dreaming. We also don't know one is real and the others are imagined, or whether there's a fourth timeline or perhaps even more to come. This in and of itself is a great underlying mystery that the writers can use to create more surprises along the way. There are already a few in the pilot. One revelation in particular has an impact not just in the timeline it happens in, but in the others as well. It's like a parallel dance where one life informs the other and resonates through the third.
It's a clever show with resonant themes, as it's about the choices we make in our lives and how little things can lead to big consequences. It's also about regrets, which haunt Joe in each of his timelines. I think what it wants to say ultimately is that whatever choices we make, each path will have its imperfections.
The show's supporting characters, particularly Jenny and Amy and their roles in Joe's twisty love triangle, are full of promise. I felt invested in their lives and I'd love to know what happens next. That said, the show asks its viewers to put a lot of trust in it, and I'm not sure today's TV audiences have the stamina to invest in a long-running series where the endgame is unclear. For this reason, it feels like it might work best as a limited series, or a series comprised of 2-3 short seasons. But is that really what NBC is looking for?
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Ordinary Joe is a promising character-driven drama, but there's alot riding on the pilot and its ability to execute the script's multiple timelines in a coherent and compelling way. Even it does succeed, I'm not sure a multi-season network run makes the most sense this project. It may be better suited for a streaming platform like NBC's Peacock, or Disney's Hulu.
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
[ ] PASS
[ ] RECOMMEND
BEST FIT: Paired with This Is Us in midseason