Vanessa Bayer knows how to steal a scene, whether as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, in network sitcoms, or showing up in sketches for I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. What happens, though, when she takes a page out of her own life story and stars in an alternate universe where she lies to keep her dream job, then finds herself in potentially embarrassing situations over and over again because of it? That’s the quick-pitch for Bayer’s first role as a leading lady in Showtime’s newest comedy series, which also stars another former SNL standout, Molly Shannon.
I LOVE THAT FOR YOU: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A TV screen within the screen, broadcasting a home shopping channel, as Molly Shannon’s voice sells a herringbone bracelet, depicted on her forearm.
The Gist: Turns out it’s a flashback, as if the grainy TV screen didn’t give it away, and a young girl is watching the shopping channel from her hospital bed in Cleveland, circa 1997. She’s beaming while watching TV, yet scheming otherwise, using her leukemia diagnosis to guilt one of the nurses into handing over the rest of her birthday cake, or for her mother to buy her that bracelet from the TV. The title card flashes, and we cut to 2022. The young girl has grown into Joanna Gold (Bayer), who’s not quite living the dream just yet, as she still lives with her parents, and even works with one of them. After an embarrassing run-in with a former high-school classmate, she decides it’s time to finally go for it and auditions for SVN (the Special Value Network). Gold is faking it til she makes it through life, until she somehow lands her dream job, and finds out her idol, Jackie (Shannon), is tasked with training her on the job.
What could possibly go wrong?
Gold only seems comfortable in front of the camera when it matters, until her first stumble, which prompts her to lean into a big lie which just might haunt her.
Especially since all of her bosses and co-workers seem like they’re out to get her, and each other. From Patricia (Jenifer Lewis), SVN’s CEO, to her top assistant Darcy (Matt Rogers) and Beth Ann (Ayden Mayeri), a rival SVN host. But not everyone seems as rough around the edges. Perhaps Gold will find the help she needs from Jordan (Paul James), the likable stage manager, or from Beena (Punam Patel), the control-room producer.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of?: If anything, it feels like what would happen if a sketch from I Think You Should Leave got stretched out into a full season.
Our Take: In real life, Bayer hails from the Cleveland suburbs and survived her own leukemia diagnosis at age 15, but she’s swapped SNL for SVN.
So she obviously has the life experience to draw upon for portraying Gold’s inner thinking, upon making it to the big city and trying to fake it til she makes it. And her comedy chops here easily remind you of how she shined behind the Weekend Update desk with in-over-their-head characters such as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy or flailing meteorologist Dawn Lazarus. That kind of work earned Bayer an Emmy nomination in her final season in 2017.
Pairing Bayer with Shannon feels like it should be a dream team combo in the making.
But there’s something not quite fiery enough about the competitive nature of all of the SVN hosts and executives, even if Jenifer Lewis’s boss Patricia reminds me of Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty in only the best ways. Otherwise, the comparisons to Ugly Betty only fall short for this Showtime collective. At least so far.
The first season hangs on two threads: one pulling on Joanna’s big lie, and how she’ll squirm her way out of it or not, and secondly, how her debut on the shopping channel is juxtaposed with Jackie’s 30th anniversary on-air and how Jackie’s crumbling personal life may impact her professional one. Is that going to be enough to heighten the plot lines and keep us interested?
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Joanna’s trying to maintain her smile after making another sales pitch to SVN viewers, but you can tell she’s gritting through her grin and doesn’t quite believe what she’s selling. She’s still faking it to make it.
Sleeper Star: As the woman usually stuck in the control room, feeding intel to the hosts live on-air, Beena (Patel) brings an extra dose of energy and zip to every scene she’s in.
Most Pilot-y Line: “What are you selling?” the boss, Patricia, asks her employees multiple times.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The pilot, directed by Michael Showalter, has an even slower burn than say, Search Party, which he co-created. But Showalter and the other executive producers, including Jessi Klein, Jeremy Beiler, and Bayer, have solid comedy pedigrees, so you’d hope to have some faith that they’ll take us somewhere special eventually. Perhaps by the end of the season, we’ll be hooked?
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.