The world of home-shopping networks is one that seems ripe for comedy; the scenes in “Hacks,” for instance, in which Deborah Vance goes on television to hawk garments and jewelry are some of that show’s most cleverly observed. The challenge, as with all things in fiction, is getting the details right.
That’s the first place that “I Love That for You,” Showtime’s new comedy set at a fictional TV channel, falls short. Starring and co-created by “Saturday Night Live” standout Vanessa Bayer, “I Love That for You” weaponizes its central presence’s askew vision of life as a series of petty humiliations, most easily borne by making oneself the butt of the joke. But everything Bayer’s character faces at work seems less surreal than unreal; the show lacks the grain and texture of actual office life or a recognizable media environment.
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What the show seems to want to be is a character study. And this is where it is at its best. Bayer plays Joanna Gold, who goes from hawking samples at Costco to on-air personality after one lucky audition. Joanna, who was a cancer patient in childhood, has lived a cosseted life, in which her strangeness flourished in the absence of friends. She felt a special bond with a home-shopping superstar (Molly Shannon), an idol around whom she built her ambitions. Joanna is a sweet-natured dissembler, someone who believes in her inborn specialness but is willing to be manipulative when that specialness isn’t recognized.
That’s a character. (And, in fairness to Bayer, it’s a personal one for her, as she is herself a survivor of childhood leukemia.) But it’s not quite a concept. And whenever we move out of the space in Joanna’s head — whenever she shares a scene with more than one person, and it becomes less about her weirdness than a group dynamic — the series suffers. No one else on the show feels thought-through: Shannon, so able on “The Other Two” and “The White Lotus,” defaults to a sort of generic warmth as the show tries to figure out exactly who her character is. The rest of Joanna’s coworkers are tormentors, banal ones, with several actors making the strange choice to somewhat underplay their roles, allowing scenes to sag while Bayer vamps.
And while the simultaneous glamour and intimacy of home shopping lends itself to a peculiarly American kind of Cinderella story (as in the treatment of the network as a dream factory in the underrated 2015 film “Joy”), the show failed to convince me that Joanna would ever be hired, let alone with no connections or experience. But then, “I Love That for You” doesn’t conceive of her as working, exactly: Joanna was brought on just to be the recipient of abuse from everyone around her. The humiliations she faces tend to arise from colleagues flatly stating that she’s doing a bad job, or undermining her in stunningly obvious ways. It’s as if every conversation has had the nuance leached from it, all the better to watch Bayer suffer; physical comedy is added to the brief when a box on which Bayer sits spontaneously collapses at the end of a meeting.
It’s that kind of show. Which is baffling given the talent involved — Bayer and co-creator Jeremy Beiler, Jessi Klein, and Michael Showalter are all among the executive producers, and Jenifer Lewis (who is not allowed to make much of an impression as the network’s CEO) as well as Shannon have been on career runs of late. For “I Love That for You” to succeed, we must first believe in Joanna’s story and then root for her within it. Nothing about this show feels real on its own terms, because it’s never clear what those terms even are. And the rooting interest here seems to be that some very talented people will either turn this show around — finding within it a story that’s more than a collection of small indignities — or go on to find work that matches their abilities.
“I Love That for You” will launch on Showtime’s streaming app on Friday, April 29 and will premiere on Showtime on Sunday, May 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT.
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