QVC makes for perfect hotel room viewing: It’s the sort of nothing programming that’s ideal for nights spent in nowhere places. I always start out a cynic, skeptical of whatever acrylic-blend atrocity the host of the hour is shilling. Within five minutes, though, I’m sold on the merits of a flatteringly blousy top that’s casual enough to wear to the grocery store but can easily be dressed up with a simple pair of black pumps.
On Showtime’s new series, I Love That For You, Vanessa Bayer’s Joanna Gold falls in love with home shopping programming not in a hotel, but in another, more frightening non-place: her hospital room. The show, which was co-created by the Saturday Night Live alum, is partially inspired by her experiences as a childhood cancer survivor. It begins streaming on Showtime on Friday, and is, somehow, Bayer’s first leading sitcom role. And though its stacked cast and great premise delight, the show’s uneven tone can produce lows that are about as disappointing as a 100% polyester leopard print sheet set.
Bayer plays Joanna, an awkward millennial in a severe state of arrested development who gets a fairly implausible big break by landing her dream job as a home shopping channel host. But faced with swift termination after a sales-tanking attempt to hawk pillow mist, she decides to announce that her illness has returned. “I have cancer,” she bellows in the middle of a team meeting, “I had it when I was a kid, and… she back.” The story wins her colleagues sympathy and saves her job, but the problem is that it’s not true—her cancer is still in remission.
Fans of Bayer’s SNL run know that she’s pretty much incapable of being unfunny. Her Bar Mitzvah Boy, a highlight of Weekend Update over the course of her SNL years, showcased her prodigious character building skills. Though the gulf between Joanna and Bayer herself might be smaller, Bayer infuses her latest creation with just as much cringing cleverness. The series opens with a flashback to Joanna’s days in the hospital as a teen cancer patient. The medical staff are celebrating a birthday at the nurses station, and young Joanna walks up, rolling her IV. Invoking her illness—“I can’t remember the last time I got to eat a cookie cake. There are so few pleasures I get to enjoy in this world”—she’s able to extract the entire cake from the reluctant staffers, and returns to her hospital room to eat it joylessly. Only tuning into her favorite host on the fictional SVN shopping channel seems to cheer her.
She’s a great TV character, someone who’s suffered mightily with an illness that placed her apart from the rest of the world. It’s taught her that can sometimes play on guilt to get what she wants, but only by reinforcing the identity she never wanted to have—that of the sick girl. On the page, adult Joanna could be a bit of a woman-child comedy cliche, prone to discomfiting outbursts and immature acts of self sabotage. But played by Bayer, who deploys her signature, wide-eyed mega-watt grin with the usual great success, the character becomes a sort of savant of awkwardness.
The problems with the show lie, well, almost everywhere else. This shouldn’t be the case, as the cast features fellow SNL-star Molly Shannon as Jackie, Joanna’s TV idol turned colleague and mentor, and the “Mother of Black Hollywood” herself, Jennifer Lewis, as SVN boss Patricia, who runs the organization with a perfectly-manicured iron fist. Both women are legends for good reason, and the storyline that emerges over early episodes, as the longtime friendship between their characters becomes undone, should make for great TV. But the characters aren’t fully fleshed out nor are their plot lines, which become increasingly grave over the four episodes that were released to the press. They feel generic.
Shannon’s Jackie, a jovial midwestern TV star with a dedicated fanbase of Boomer moms, fairly begs for comparison to the actress’s role on The Other Two, where she plays… a jovial midwestern TV star with a dedicated fanbase of Boomer moms. On that series, Shannon’s character is filled with hilarious specificities, like her tendency to FaceTime her children while taping her show, or her fondness for leading the studio audience in chants like, “The grind never stops, but it can stop if you want it to—and that’s what’s cool about the grind.” Shannon is luminous no matter what, but I Love That For You just doesn’t give her enough to do.
Jennifer Lewis’s Patricia fares better, stealing scene after scene with her bawdy, bitchy bluster. She’s one of the few characters allowed the detailed moments that make for the most effective humor, generally at the expense of her usually unseen, but oft-mentioned high-flying friends. Mark Cuban’s in her DMs, offering “$500,000 for 20% of your pussy;” she elects to pass on a chance to join Richard Branson and another famous pal (one of the rare ones to actually appear on the series in a kind of fun, kind of cringe-y surprise cameo) on a trip to space that would have come complete with “Virgin-branded diapers.”
As Joanna settles into her double life and TV career, fending off the suspicions of a rival host (a very funny but so far peripheral Ayden Mayeri), and pursues her workplace crush (Paul James), the show weathers some inelegant tonal shifts. It’s inevitable that a show about cancer would be dark, but when things turn mawkish, not even Bayer’s performance can carry it. So far, I Love That For You is a series that’s great at inculcating goodwill, but proves less than able to fully deliver on its potential— at least in its early episodes— especially considering that the show’s talented creative team includes showrunner Jessi Klein and producer Michael Showalter. I really want to like it, just like I want to like that flattering, flutter-sleeve dress when one of the hosts on HSN shows off the detail in the stitching or just how adorable it looks with a sweater thrown over it. Though, who knows how the real thing lives up to the TV promise.