Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the gate: Vanessa Bayer deserves the world. The Saturday Night Live veteran made a name for herself on that show by playing any number of put-upon women who elicited endless laughs precisely because their situations could only be survived through laughter. Her teenage girls were unspeakably awkward, her wives one indignity away from burning it all down. Her most recognizable characters made you cringe in all the right ways. Which is all to say that her Joanna, the lead character in Showtime’s I Love That For You, feels like an SNL bit tailor-made for Bayer—and that’s both the show’s strength and, potentially, its biggest shortcoming.
We first meet Joanna as a teenage girl in between chemo treatments. (What a way to kick off a half-hour comedy, right?) Only, there’s no dour demeanor here. She’s already learned to leverage her leukemia diagnosis to get what she wants—in this case, a cookie cake from an on-call nurse celebrating her birthday who begrudgingly abdicates, letting wily Joanna have her way.
By the time we cut to her adult self, the young girl has grown into a woman who seems quite self-possessed as she gives a spirited demo of Costco’s pita chips. In fact, it almost feels like she could be delivering a late night QVC segment. She’s that committed. She’s flustered, though, when an old high school acquaintance runs into her. Joanna is clearly embarrassed about the fact that she’s stuck wearing a red vest while working alongside her dad while this old schoolmate brags about traveling to Italy. Their interaction (“Do you work here?” “Uh, I mean, sometimes I do.”) already gives Bayer enough awkwardness to play with as Joanna’s social inadequacy kicks into high gear. She’s the kind of woman who uses the word hashtag as a qualifier without any sense of irony. (“Physically I’m hashtag living hashtag lovin’ it,” she sputters at one point.) Those linguistic tics tilt her from being adorkable into something slightly more off-kilter. Funnier, yes, but sadder, too.
Or just outright sad, as in pathetic. That’s how she comes off to most people at her new job. For, following the laws of half-hour comedies, the lonely Costco worker miraculously lands her dream gig as a new host on the Special Value Network (SVN) where the likes of Jackie (the always hysterical Molly Shannon, in full Molly Shannon-as-QVC-host mode) have made an empire for Patricia (the also always hysterical Jennifer Lewis, in her best Jennifer Lewis-as-network head mode). The rest of the SVN crowd clearly doesn’t think much of this Cleveland transplant, who only manages to salvage her job after a disastrous trial run selling a sleepy mist by telling a wee white lie: “I have cancer!” she spouts in a moment of panic. “That’s right, I had cancer when I was a kid, and she back.”
That moment, which closes out the pilot episode of I Love That For You hints at the central narrative engine that will drive the bulk of this Bayer and Jeremy Beiler-created series. Only, to judge from the first two episodes, the cancer subplot may well be the weakest (and hopefully, most disposable) aspect of the show. After all, the concept of a workplace comedy set at a QVC-like company whose employees include a catty momfluencer (Ayden Mayeri), a good ol’ Southern boy (Johnno Wilson), a gentle dashing PA (Paul James) and a personal associate (Matt Rogers)—not an assistant!—is enough to fuel plenty of fun storylines without the need for the “will Joanna be caught in her lie and what will happen when she does and will she learn something about herself along the way?” setup the premise all but demands.
In fact, the times when I Love That For You sweetly (and tartly) turns into a cross-generational story not unlike Hacks, with Shannon’s Jackie showing young Joanna the ropes, it reveals the kind of show one hopes the Showtime comedy can become. The petty squabbles between these niche-celebrities, all of whom find themselves stuck in neatly-packaged boxes they need to inhabit in order to sell inane products are ripe for a comedy worthy of these talented comedic performers. We’d love that for them. And us, in turn.