For seven years, Vanessa Bayer was one of “Saturday Night Live”’s freshest, most fascinating faces: her exuberant eyes and toothy grin wide enough to hold horrible secrets, playing characters so bubbly and effervescent they always seem on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s a winning persona for sketch comedy, whether feeding Totino’s Pizza Rolls to her “hungry guys” on “SNL” or confidently captioning her IG brunch photo “slopping down pig shit with these fat f**ks” to seem self-deprecating on “I Think You Should Leave.”
But the real question is whether that kind of absurdist intensity can sustain itself over the lifetime of a narrative comedy. Luckily, Bayer’s new series for Showtime, “I Love That For You,” understands the virtues (and limitations) of that persona, and smartly doubles down on them for some unexpected dramedic potential.
Loosely based on her own childhood experience with leukemia, “I Love That For You” stars Bayer as Joanna, a sheltered Midwestern girl who survived a leukemia diagnosis in her teenhood. Laid up in the hospital, undergoing grueling cancer treatments, the only thing that kept her going was the Special Value Network, a QVC-like home shopping network that offered her the promise of glitz, glamour, and beauty through the tacky trinkets and smiling hosts (including Molly Shannon’s Jackie Stilton, the famed face of the network) on screen. Now, as an adult, she’s remained in her parent’s protective bubble, with no dating life and no career outside of shilling samples at her dad’s Costco branch. But a miracle opportunity falls her way when she nails an audition for SVN and lands a gig as one of their hosts, selling a pencil on camera so adeptly it’d make Jordan Belfort proud.
The job is a dream come true for Joanna, but when she finally arrives at SVN, it’s clear how out of her element she is. The first and most important thing is that she hardly understands herself, much less how she comes across to others, as her icy new boss Patricia (a stellar Jenifer Lewis) drills into her early. Everyone has their brand: Jackie’s the confident, stunning older housewife, Perry (Johnno Wilson) the perky Southern gay, Beth Ann (Ayden Mayeri) the dolled-up “momfluencer” who takes her tampon out to pee.
But who is Joanna? They’re not just selling products, after all; they’re selling themselves as well. And after her first day goes disastrously, Joanna, in a moment of desperation, lies that her cancer has returned. Suddenly, she has a brand: the brave cancer survivor—one that gives her tremendous power and currency at the network, as long as no one founds out the truth.
It’s a premise rife for the kind of discomfort Bayer revels in as a comedienne, hitting somewhere between TV Land’s “Younger” and the sheltered-freak-finds-purpose-in-performance elements of fellow “SNL” alum Kyle Mooney’s “Brigsby Bear.” Joanna feels like the amalgam of so many of Bayer’s sketch-based psychic vampires, a woman bursting with Midwestern positivity and no small amount of nervous energy. She’s horrifically socially awkward, and many of the show’s best gags revolve around Joanna tripping over her words with space-cadet confidence. (“I’ve been to all kinds of Italy places,” she blusters to a successful old classmate.) Watching Joanna is like watching a bad improviser get picked from the crowd to go on stage with Second City, but Bayer knows exactly how to balance the go-for-it resilience of Joanna with her crippling uncertainty in the moment. It’s a real showcase for her, infusing the straight-woman tics she’s cultivated throughout her career with the pathos of a woman who’s never gotten the chance to belong, and is still catching up to what the outside world actually wants from her.
The rest of the cast is phenomenal too, gamely bouncing off Bayer’s endearing spaciness while making room for their own quirks to shine. Shannon, as always, is brilliant, juggling Jackie’s jaded egotism with the knowledge that her currency as a home-shopping star is running out in the wake of a messy divorce; she brightens up when she’s around the gushing Joanna, riding the dopamine hit of being around such a superfan. Lewis spits invective with the best of them, strutting from hallway to hallway with vulgar brio (“This isn’t a f**kin’ Sunglass Hut!” she barks at Joanna early on), but also knows when and how to leverage her employees’ gifts for her own gain. She’s flanked by catty office twink/assistant Darcy (“Haute Dog” host Matt Rogers), who cultivates the gossipy office culture behind a tilted head and exuberant windowpane suits.
The first episode, while strong, suffers a bit from the sheer amount of groundwork the show has to lay down, from setting up the cast to leading Joanna eventually into the ass-covering situation that will define the rest of the season. We spend a whole lot of time establishing Joanna’s romantic and personal failings, including an early cameo from Jason Schwartzman as a jaded date who’s put off by her insistence that they’re a lot more serious than they are. There’s also a budding romantic subplot with a pragmatic, reserved PA (Paul James) that’s gonna need a lot more juice to us to buy in.
But it’s in episode two that the gears really start turning, especially with a guilt-ridden Joanna trying (and failing) to find the right moment to fess up to her lie. After all, “I Love That For You” suggests that, to some extent, everyone is lying about themselves. It’s the essence of salesmanship, especially in a context where they’re gleefully selling plastic crap on the spot to rubes desperate for some retail therapy. Joanna’s just picked the grabbiest, most sympathy-fueling gimmick for herself; who knows how long she’ll be able to ride that train.
At the end of the day, behind the gags about on-demand home shopping and thrown-off quips (“Look at her,” Beth Ann gossips about Joanna, “She thinks she’s Muriel Streep”) that’s what “I Love That For You” seeks to explore: the extent to which we all fake it till we make it, whether in love, employment, or our own personal self-regard. Sure, Joanna’s fib is a bit more extreme than everyone else’s, but how different is it from the selves we all shape to be more interesting, more attractive, more ... marketable to other people? As she puts it during one sales pitch for artificial flowers: If pretending it’s real brings you happiness, “Does it matter if it’s faux?”
The first two episodes were screened for review.