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Life is full of endless possibilities. Each of our paths could go one way or another with every decision we make. Television, too, has no limit on the stories it can tell. So NBC decided to give you three for the price of one this fall.
New drama "Ordinary Joe" (Mondays, 10 EDT/PDT, ★★★ out of four) is a high-concept series that imagines the three different lives one man (James Wolk) might lead. In one, he is a single cop; in another, a childless rock star married to political strategist Amy (Natalie Martinez); and in a third, he's a nurse with a son, married to paralegal Jenny (Elizabeth Lail, "You"), but their relationship is on the rocks.
With a lesser star and lesser scripts, "Joe" would be a train wreck of convoluted storytelling and plot clichés. But the ambition of "Joe" is admirable: It's the kind of show you want to root for, creatively and commercially, in part because Wolk is just so darn likable. Future episodes may collapse under the weight of their own timeline shenanigans, but at least in the first two made available for review, "Joe" feels like it could be something special.
The writers illustrate each of Joe's lives by frequently jumping between them. On the same night in the three different versions, for instance, Joe is a cop saving a congressman from an assassination attempt, or he's the nurse saving the same congressman at the hospital, or he's a rock star who knows the congressman, and so the congressman was never in danger because his rally was pushed back to accommodate Joe's concert.
It can be a lot for the casual viewer to keep straight, and as the story progresses, the technique complicates things further. In each timeline our sort-of ordinary Joe is going through his own trials and tribulations, whether it's grief, divorce, or infertility. And the people in Joe's life take on different roles, too. Each of his love interests appears in all three timelines, as do his mother (Anne Ramsay), uncle (David Warshofsky) and best friend (Charlie Barnett). All of their lives are irrevocably affected by Joe's. Permeating through all three storylines is a mystery about who tried to kill that congressman, Bobby Diaz (Adam Rodriguez).
It's a testament to the sheer magnetism and talent of Wolk, best known for CBS' wild sci-fi series "Zoo" and a stint on "Mad Men," that the series works at all. The scripts may zig and zag frequently between timelines, but Wolk is confident enough in each of his personas (styled slightly differently with hair, clothes and glasses) that it is often instantly identifiable which Joe he is playing. His co-stars are not quite as adept at the frequent changes, but it matters less. It's also helpful that the writing is sound: It's clear creators Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend are doing everything they can to keep the audience in the loop. Two episodes in, it's successful enough to be coherent and engaging.
"Joe" is instantly evocative of Gwyneth Paltrow's 1998 film "Sliding Doors," in which her protagonist lives out two different lives based on whether she made a subway train before the doors closed one day. "Joe" is even more ambitious, offering three alternate realities over the course of many episodes (well, if it doesn't get canceled) instead of a tight two-hour film. "Doors" has a "be careful what you wish for" message embedded in its plot, but "Joe" doesn't appear to be moralizing in any particular way. The show is a thought experiment come to life, and so far it's interesting enough to keep thinking about.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Ordinary Joe' review: NBC show could been a disaster, but it works