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'Ordinary Joe' review: Smart idea, cloying execution

Elizabeth Lail as Jenny Banks, James Wolk

 Elizabeth Lail as Jenny Banks, James Wolk as Joe Kimbreau in NBC's "Ordinary Joe." Credit: NBC/Parrish Lewis

SERIES "Ordinary Joe"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC/4

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk, "Mad Men," "Watchmen") has just graduated from Syracuse University, and has some life choices to make. They are almost instantly presented to him. At the ceremony, he literally bumps into fellow graduate Amy Kindelán (Natalie Rodriguez, "The Fugitive") and it's love-at-first-sight. Should he ask her out? That's a problem because he has a longtime girlfriend, Jenny Banks (Elizabeth Lail, "Once Upon a Time"), who wants him to go away with her to the Jersey shore for the weekend. Meanwhile, his family and his uncle Frank (David Warshofsky) want Joe to go to dinner with them. Uncle Frank wants Joe to become an NYPD officer, just like Joe's dad, who was killed on 9/11.

Choices, choices: In this series, Joe makes all three, and viewers get to see how those unfold in parallel timelines in New York. In one, he's a nurse at a major New York hospital, also a father and married to Jenny; in another, he's a rock star, married to Amy, both childless; in the third, he's a cop, and unmarried.

And yes, there are some Long Island references as bonus points: Joe's ambition is to become "the Next Billy Joel," and in one of the stories, we see him performing at Jones Beach or what we're told is. (Prominent big screen director Matt Reeves, one of "Joe's" executive producers, is from Rockville Centre.) NBC made the pilot available for review.

MY SAY "Ordinary Joe" just might be the only series in the history of prime-time (roughly) based on the wildly famous Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken.'' Anyone who's been to a high school graduation ceremony knows it well. Think here of poor befuddled ordinary Joe Kimbreau standing at that wildly famous fork in the road upon his college graduation, then finally pulling the trigger, so to speak: "I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."

But how would he know it's made all the difference? In "Ordinary Joe," he's taken three roads simultaneously, in fact, or the show has. Joe (or the show) effectively has the opportunity to road-test which road actually has made a difference.

And what does "all the difference" mean in this context anyway? Is that difference good, bad or (umm) indifferent? "Joe" gets around to this too, too, suggesting at least in the pilot that choice is but an illusion. Each road will somehow end up at the same place anyway, or end up where it should. Character matters more than the road.

Much like "This Is Us," to which "Joe" will be endlessly compared, the series (or pilot) is more conceit than series, more thought experiment than story. Like "Us," Joe wants you to embrace its pieties, have a good cry, and go to bed untroubled by the road you too might have taken because — don't worry, be happy — one is essentially the same as the next. It's just the potholes that are in different places.

Unashamedly sentimental, "Joe" is engineered for this age of pandemics and political discord — an antidote to the fury and worry. There's a genuine sweetness here, an abiding kindness too. But "Joe" is also written by committee and to an extent acted by committee too. No matter the road, these lives feel unlived in a city that looks unrecognizable. It's prime-time popcorn in the service of a clever idea.

Too bad. "Joe" has promise and heart but — at least just yet — not nearly enough of everything else.

BOTTOM LINE Smart idea, cloying execution.

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