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Average Joe Starts Strong but Loses Momentum

Anyone familiar with the last few decades or so of crime thrillers will recognize various influences on BET+’s new series “Average Joe”: Blue lighting from “Ozark,” overhead shots of crisscrossing highways a la “True Detective,” dialogue and staging inspired by the Coen brothers, and a bit of Vince Gilligan in that this is a story about ordinary people getting caught up in something much bigger than themselves, and how that impacts their personalities and destinies. (There’s even a hint of the Bluths of “Arrested Development,” namely the oft-quoted concept that “there’s always money in the banana stand.”) What makes “Average Joe” stand out is its lively and funny dialogue, delivered with sharp ease by its talented cast. But it’s the writing that ultimately diminishes these contributions into something more, well, average.

Deon Cole, standup comedian and actor who reigned as the king of deadpan on “Black-ish,” stars as the titular Joe Washington, a plumber in Pittsburgh who loves his wife Angela (Tammy Townsend) and teenage daughter Jennifer (Ashley Olivia Fisher). The trio is grieving the death of Joe’s father, and at his celebration of life, the remaining cast shows up to provide varying degrees of support: Cathy and Leon Montgomery (Cynthia McWilliams and Malcolm Barrett, respectively), a married couple and close friends of the Washingtons, cannot let go of their dysfunction long enough to have normal interactions with anyone, and Benjamin “Touch” Tuchawuski (Michael Trucco) is a white cop and, oddly enough, best friend to both families. While going through his father’s possessions, Joe is tapped on the head with a tire iron by two men. When he comes to, the men inform a shocked Joe that his father led a double life as a drug mule for a Russian crime family, and has stolen $10 million, plus a Lamborghini, from Nicolai Dzugashvili (Pasha Lychnikoff), head of said lethal organization. The Russians dispense some standard issue threats about harming Angela and Jennifer if everything isn’t returned; Joe, along with Leon (who happened across the scene), kills them in self-defense, but when Touch turns up, the three men vow to find the money together and tell no one else. Unfortunately, neither Joe nor Leon is slick enough to keep this from their wives, and soon this motley crew has more opinions than experience about how to proceed.

It has long been said that more than dramatic actors, comedians have better access to their demons because they regularly mine them for laughs. Cole’s performance is a good example of this. He manages his performance carefully, letting shock, fear, and pain emanate from Joe’s body for the first few episodes, eyes wide, voice raspy. But as time goes on, the ruthlessness of the situation causes Joe to change, and not in ways that his loved ones appreciate. Joe’s speech becomes more confident, more imperious—it helps that Cole has a terrific speaking voice, a sort of vocal blend of steel and leather—and there are shades of Skylar White in Angela’s censure of the changes in her beloved husband’s behavior. 

Others in the cast shine consistently, too: Barrett and McWilliams have crackling chemistry as wannabe gangsters who, underneath all the bravado and chicanery, do truly love and protect each other. Trucco is also quite believable as a cop wrestling with personal tragedy, who nonetheless vows to help his friends, police protocol be damned. (Whether a cop would do any of what Touch does for anyone but a fellow cop is debatable.)

What lets these actors’ efforts down is the writing. As the series transitions into its back half, the writing moves away from “Fargo” to a few rungs above Brett Ratner. Part of the appeal of the first five episodes is the darkly comedic banter among the cast. But once the stakes get bigger—a loved one sacrificing themself to save others, someone is kidnapped, someone is hospitalized—it’s as though the creators decided the comedy would have to depart the narrative too. But the strength of series like “Ozark” and “Better Call Saul” is that despite the gravity of the subject matter, the writing evenly balanced dread and humor. “Average Joe” is built on a situation so ridiculous that tapping its comedy seems like the best way to engage viewers while providing plenty of crime drama thrills. 

There is plenty to commend in the first five episodes of “Average Joe.” Wondering what normal, everyday folks with blue-collar jobs and mortgages would do when faced with the prospect of a life-changing payday is an intriguing premise. Certainly, the crimes at the heart of “Average Joe” offer a new context for the existing conflicts in the characters’ lives. Angela is fighting a deleterious chronic pain disorder, the medical bills for which are nigh unaffordable; Touch’s struggle with substance abuse intensifies once he decides to help his friends, who remain unaware of his pain; Leon and Cathy’s dissatisfaction is rooted in their inability to conceive children. But the writing and direction don’t give these stories enough room to breathe. (The verbiage for Touch’s substance abuse, in particular, is extremely judgmental and cruel.) During the title credits of the pilot, the words “Inspired by a true story” appear onscreen. Though there is no information anywhere on the Internet about which aspect of creator Robb Cullen’s life (if his is the story being referred to) inspired “Average Joe,” one hopes that the real story ended more peacefully, and more interestingly, than this one.

Entire season was screened for review. Three episodes are available on BET+, with new ones released on Thursdays.

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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