With the recent news of the Friends cast reuniting for a one-off special (which will probably not live up to anyone’s expectations), I decided to take a look back at the last outing of a Friends character. I’m not talking about the final season of the hit show, instead I’m talking about its failed spin-off Joey, which starred Matt Le Blanc. The sitcom aired a few months following the final episode of Friends, and centred around Joey Tribbiani's move to Los Angeles in pursuit of his acting career. Following a tumbling viewership with every episode that passed, the show was cancelled midway through its second season in 2006. It has been taken as a given amongst the Friends faithful that Joey was a mistake and a pale incarnation of its parent show. Even Matt Le Blanc himself has said the spinoff was doomed from the start. I disagree though: Joey did not deserve to be cancelled and it is far from a terrible sitcom, despite its lukewarm reception.
Let’s make one thing clear: it was no Friends. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Friends was an excellent sitcom but to try and recreate it would have been a mistake. Despite its genuine efforts to escape comparisons (which I’ll explain why this might have been a mistake later on), the fact it wasn’t Friends cost it viewers early on. That is why I think the timing of Joey’s release was all wrong, it was released far too soon after the end of its parent show's 10 season run. Viewers watched the pilot (which was one of its worst episodes - as many sitcom pilots are) and immediately switched off because they couldn’t get over the fact this sitcom was not Friends. Talk about a rebound sitcom.
If they released Joey a year after Friends’ final episode or possibly a little longer I truly believe they could have had an audience more willing to watch it as a sitcom without direct comparisons. Better yet, let’s imagine Joey was released today when the thirst for a new series or a movie for Friends is so strong, and you can imagine that the viewership would have stuck around longer. Of course, releasing today might be more difficult due to Matt Le Blanc’s age (which is a concern I have for the new one-off special), but nevertheless the timing was wrong for its release and if it had been aired slightly later I believe that it would not have failed in the same way.
The production team behind Joey represented a winning formula, but to me they were drowned by comparisons too. Kevin S Bright, the executive producer of Friends who directed over 60 of its episodes, including its finale, was Joey’s executive producer. Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan were both part of the Friends production and story teams, and were the creators of the spin-off. In terms of having a team that knows what works, Joey clearly had it. Even David Schwimmer, who played Ross on Friends, directed two of Joey’s episodes in the first season. Clearly these writers, directors and executive-producers were capable of ensuring the comedy and plot of the show was sound. To me, the audience switched off simply because Joey was not Friends.
The plot of Joey certainly improved after the pilot, with the other characters of Gina, Michael, Alex and Bobbie getting their own stories and character development. By the end of the second series Michael (played by Paulo Costanzo) was no longer just the nerdy nephew of Joey, his DJing in ‘Joey and the Party for Alex’ (S2E16) is evidence of his development into a decent comedic character. Similarly, Gina (played by Drea de Matteo) developed into a character capable of carrying the plot on her own, as she did towards the end of the second series with the exploration of her relationship with Jimmy. Talking of Jimmy, he is played by one of my favourite secondary characters in the original Friends series. Adam Goldberg (best known for playing Mr Numbers in the first season of Fargo), portrayed Chandler’s short-lived new roommate Eddie in the second season of the parent show, and was responsible for one of the funniest scenes: “First you sleep with my ex-girlfriend, then you insult my intelligence by lying about it, then you kill my fish, my buddy!”. Goldberg unfortunately doesn’t return to play Eddie in Joey, instead he plays Gina’s ex and Michael’s father, Jimmy. But the fact they managed to get in an actor as capable as Goldberg shows that Joey did indeed have a strong supporting cast. Maybe not quite as good as Friends, but not terrible by any stretch.
So why did Joey fail then? As I’ve already said, it’s mainly because of the F-word (not that one). A show as universally popular as Friends is always likely to overshadow and dominate any spin-off. This is where I think the showrunners of Joey made a mistake. Comparisons to Friends are unavoidable, so why not simply steer into the skid? Instead of making scant reference to Joey’s former life (bar the odd scene here and there), it would make much more sense for it to still form a core part of Joey’s character. When Joey gets a new part, why not have a phone call from one of the original gang congratulating him? Or, if they could be convinced to do it (which would have been difficult), why not have Chandler and Monica come to visit in a one or two episode cameo?
Joey’s showrunners went halfway there in terms of steering into the skid, with the marketing for the first season suggesting it was a continuation of the original show (which was exemplified by it taking Friends programming slot initially). But, within the plot of the show itself this never really happened. Sure, we got to see what Joey was up to now, but he seemed to exist in a weird vacuum where he’d virtually forgotten entirely about his old life and character development on the original show. This is what put so many viewers off: it was marketed as a Friends spin-off but the show itself seemed to forget the parent show had ever existed. For me, it would have been better to have acknowledged Friends existence through subtle references here and there that showed life in New York didn’t end when the door to Chandler and Monica’s apartment shut in the final episode.
This would have prevented Joey from peeing off fans quite so much for not being Friends, and if it had then been released slightly longer after such a hit show had finished, I believe it could have been successful. But alas it was not to be, and we’ll have to wait and see if the new one-off special makes the same mistakes that Joey did. I’m not holding my breath.