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Ordinary Joe review: It's not extraordinary, but James Wolk is always worth watching

·4 min read

Way back in 2010, James Wolk made his series lead debut in a show called Lone Star. The promising Fox drama followed Robert Allen, a Texas con man living a double life — but the show was yanked from the schedule after two episodes, so we never got to see how Robert's worlds inevitably collided. Tonight, 11 years to the day after Lone Star's premiere, Wolk is back in Ordinary Joe (10 p.m. on NBC), another drama about one man with three very different lives. No con artists this time, just a pleasant (yet terribly titled) exercise in "What if?" storytelling elevated by a leading man who has yet to disappoint.

We meet Wolk's Joe Kimbreau at Syracuse University. It's graduation day (good thing the 36-year-old actor never really ages), and he's just had a meet-cute with fellow graduate Amy Kindelán (Natalie Martinez). Later, Joe contemplates his three options for a post-ceremony celebration: Should he ask Amy out on a spontaneous date? Or spend the weekend at the beach with his longtime friend-with-potential-benefits, Jenny Banks (You's Elizabeth Lail)? Or maybe he should just have dinner with his mom (Mad About You's Anne Ramsay) and his Uncle Frank (David Warshofsky)? As Joe stands in the corner of the quad with three literal footpaths diverging in front of him, the show makes the inevitable "Ten Years Later" flash-forward jump, and we see how each of these choices would have played out over the course of Joe's life.

The Joe who chose Amy is a world-famous rock star, cranking out Billy Joel-esque anthems to packed stadiums. In scenario number two, Jenny and Joe are harried marrieds — he's a nurse and she's a paralegal — raising Christopher (the wonderfully charismatic John Gluck), a spirited kid with spinal muscular atrophy. And the Joe who went to dinner with his family, he's now a cop in the NYPD — just like his late father, who was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. There are some constants: Joe's best friend Eric (Russian Doll's Charlie Barnett) is always by his side (and in the Jenny timeline, he's married to Amy); Jenny is always Christopher's mom (though in the cop timeline he's called Lucas); and all the stories are haunted by the grim specter of 9/11. (Side note: This is the second NBC drama, after 2019's short-lived The Village, that uses 9/11 as character development. May we retire that trope now, please?)

As a viewer, it's unclear — at least in the two episodes made available for review — whether Joe is just imagining these different lives while standing in the breezy Syracuse quad, or somehow living them all through some kind of parallel universe situation. Will he ever make a choice, or will the series just play out as three different soap opera sagas for as long as Ordinary Joe stays on the air? No matter what choice Joe makes, his life will not be perfect — which certainly makes the options more interesting as we begin to learn more about him and his various timelines. Successful musician Joe and his wife Amy are unable to have a baby. Nurse Joe hates working overnights, and the stress is taking a toll on his marriage with Jenny. Cop Joe is afraid to settle down, after watching his mother lose her husband back in 2001.

But if Ordinary Joe is truly a series built on hypotheticals, it's going to have a hard time getting viewers invested for the long term. NBC is marketing the show squarely at the This Is Us crowd ("Joe's life is always messy, exciting, tough, unpredictable… and beautiful") and they could have more luck than usual thanks to Wolk, who's an amiable, immensely appealing leading man. Though he can't quite pull off the rock star persona — even with the "sexy" scruff and meticulously tousled hair — the actor brings a satisfying emotional depth to each of Joe's stories. It's a bit frustrating, not knowing whether Ordinary Joe is headed to a specific destination, or if the writers plan to keep us on a triple train to nowhere. For James Wolk, I'm willing to wait a little longer to find out. B

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