Joey needs friends. And "Joey," the new NBC sitcom making an intrusive premiere tonight at 8 on Channel 4, needs whatever bland magic made "Friends" a tolerable hit for a decade or so on the network. NBC executives were about as happy to see "Friends" go last season as they would be to hear that Katie Couric and Jay Leno had succumbed to fatal bites from a tsetse fly.
But fortunately for the NBC brass, Matt LeBlanc was interested in keeping his character and his income going, so Joey Tribbiani gets his own spinoff, landing as the new series opens, and after a brief delay, in Los Angeles. There his gorgeous sister, played by Drea de Matteo, welcomes him with open arms and surgically expanded breasts -- the idee fixe of the show's writers, unfortunately. When all else fails, throw in a "big fake boobs" (as Joey refers to them) joke.
Nearly all else does fail, including LeBlanc's overworked and overtaxed boyish charm. It's less boyish and less charming than it was as part of a winning ensemble, and the surroundings are drearily formulaic -- everything seems arbitrarily inserted. Joey is still a lovable dummy, but over the summer the ratio of lovable to dumb appears to have changed for the worse. At times the script makes him out to be such an idiot that he's not only unsympathetic but also a nagging nuisance.
De Matteo is so flagrantly wasted in her part, and called upon to be so shrill and abrasive, that viewers who haven't seen her stunning, heart-rending performance in "The Sopranos," as the doomed fiancee of "made man" Christopher, might be tricked into thinking she's a bad, or at least overly obvious, actress. She's a great actress, and since the show at this point is beneath even LeBlanc, it's certainly leagues and leagues beneath de Matteo.
The premiere has Joey trying to find a job as an actor in the tough, competitive atmosphere of Los Angeles, taking up residence in the typically unrealistic gigantic apartment and fighting a tug of war with his sister over the rights to her 21-year-old son, whom Joey wants as a roommate because he makes good spaghetti. The whole thing has weird sexual undertones. And de Matteo looks far, far too young to be the mother of a 21-year-old, though it's explained at the very last minute that she was a mother at 16.
Even so, she appears to be an unlikely passenger in a clunkety, clankety vehicle made from spare parts lying around the sitcom junkyard, which occupies several city blocks in L.A., or so one would think. Joey barely mentions or thinks of the friends he left back home until near the ending, when he laments, "They all changed, so I'm giving 'change' a shot" because "hoping things stay the same doesn't work." Hoping "Joey" stays the same not only wouldn't work, it would be sheer folly and masochistic besides.
Those big brains at NBC certainly were working overtime when they came up with the title "Medical Investigation." What, did they have a nationwide show-naming contest or something? "Medical Investigation" sounds like just what it is: a generic (and inferior) alternative to the brand-name "CSI" shows on CBS.
Some people think generic drugs are the same as the brand-name variety, but it doesn't turn out that way in television series. "Medical Investigation" -- getting a sneak preview at 10 tonight on Channel 4 but later moving to the Friday Death Zone, 9 p.m. -- proves that you can go just so far with somebody else's idea before it snaps back in your face.
Actually, the show is unlikely to be moving to Fridays so much as crawling, and taking short gasps of air as it does. "Medical Investigation" is dull, duller, dullest -- 3-D TV at last!
Neal McDonough, who looks as if he might be the father of the cartoon character Beavis on the old "Beavis and Butt-head" show, plays an insanely intense NIH superdetective who is rushed by chopper to the sites of strange disease outbreaks and then starts barking orders at his underlings to run out and get samples of food or run out and trap an investigating reporter in a meat locker. Yes, the series premiere makes a journalist, trying to do his job, into a bad guy, portraying him as a jerk and making a lark of his being kidnapped as part of a coverup.
What's being covered up? Why, just the fact that one by one various New Yorkers are turning blue -- literally -- and collapsing in heaps on the streets. It's the blues, or rather the walking blues -- until it kills you, and then you are not only blue all over but also dead all over. Before you can sing "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," NIH investigators are pouring into the city to save it from those Blue Meanies.
Eight million lives are at stake, or so McDonough keeps screaming to his able cohort Kelli Williams or anyone else who's handy, and yet when the first all-blue patient (Michael Nouri) is brought in, he isn't isolated, and doctors and nurses attending him take no precautions against becoming infected.
What could it be -- New Yorkers watching too many old Smurf cartoons? The crack squad of NIH detectives fan out and then zero in, finally locating a diner where the first 12 patients all had breakfast -- the blue-plate special, perchance.
One thing in the show's favor is an impressive visual gimmick. As the supersleuth stares out at the empty diner and declares, "The answer is here," we see what he imagines -- the morning activity at the diner in overlapping images and slow-motion surrealism. It's very "wow"-inducing. But so are the visual effects on the canny "CSI" shows, and these are sprinkled throughout the program, not wadded into one lump in about the third quarter.
"Medical Investigation," tediously frantic as it is, arrives on a note of controversy. The producers go to outrageous lengths to laud the NIH, including having one staff member actually bark at a balking local doctor that "your tax dollars pay" for the agency's heroic work. One problem: Spokesmen for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say it is, in fact, largely their heroic work that is being dramatized.
Having seen the show, though, a viewer might think that instead of wanting to be associated with it, any organization -- even including NBC -- would put on its booties and run as quickly as possible in the opposite direction. The Center for Control of Noxious TV Shows will have this thing shut down in no time.