BET+’s new darkly comic thriller Average Joe may or may not be better than Netflix’s Ozark — I never loved Ozark, but maybe you did and so be it — but the gap between the two shows isn’t as great as the inevitable gap in coverage would seem to suggest.
Average Joe and Ozark are both highly derivative pieces of violent, ethically twisty pulp made somewhat distinctive by their regional specificity, irritatingly washed-out cinematography and sitcom-honed leading men repressing their natural timing to play a tamped-down everyman.
The Bottom Line
Has the potential to become BET+’s ‘Ozark.’
Though it doesn’t yet realize aspirations that could generously be described as Jim Thompson-meets-August Wilson — that’s a show I would very much watch — Average Joe has the feeling of a potential breakout for BET+, though it’s impossible to know what a “breakout for BET+” would mean in this landscape.
It’s an easily digestible genre offering that wouldn’t be completely out of place on an FX or Netflix, plus the ensemble is really solid, especially Malcolm Barrett and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams. I’m not saying Average Joe is destined to be an Emmy player like Ozark — Ozark probably shouldn’t have been an Emmy player like Ozark. But viewers who liked Ozark would probably like Average Joe, and this is probably the first time that audience is even hearing that the show exists.
Deon Cole, so fantastic over the years on Black-ish, plays Joe Washington, a Pittsburgh-area plumber who recently lost his father. Joe thinks he knew his dad — struggling small business owner, demanding parent, dedicated Steelers fan — until he learns that his father was a mule for a Russian crime syndicate and that he absconded with millions of dollars and a Lamborghini belonging to a terrifying kingpin (Pasha Lychnikoff).
This puts Joe and his family — wife Angela (Tammy Townsend) and daughter Jennifer (Ashley Olivia Fisher) — in the crosshairs of some dangerous individuals, but it offers hope: Angela has medical bills, Jennifer a private university tuition and Joe dreams of breaking free from his obnoxious boss. Ten million dollars (and a Lamborghini) could really come in handy.
Of course, 10 million dollars could also be helpful to Joe’s circle of friends, including Leon (Barrett), on the verge of losing his hardware store and possibly his wife Cathy (McWilliams); and local police officer Benjamin “Touch” Tuchawuski (Michael Trucco), a drug addict. None of their lives are going quite the way they hoped, but are they desperate enough to put those lives in jeopardy for 10 million bucks? Is there strength in numbers when it comes to ripping off the Russian mob or does “more people” just mean more human weakness to deal with?
There are elements of that Treasure of the Sierra Madre/A Simple Plan vein of hard-boiled wish-fulfillment narrative to Average Joe, where ordinary people exposed to extraordinary wealth inevitably fall victim to avarice and whatnot. But there’s a key distinction here — nobody actually has the 10 million dollars or the Lamborghini.
Yes, they could follow a series of potential clues, starting with an unmarked key left by Joe’s father, or they could just return to their unremarkable lives. But once they start digging, an immediate body count begins to pile up. And once they’re in, there’s no turning back, even if there’s no money. Yet.
Although Average Joe is less overtly comedic than a show like NBC’s Good Girls, another regionally specific examination of ordinary people pushed into a life of crime by an economic downturn, creator Robb Cullen (Lucky) and subsequent writers have a good sense of the absurdity of the situation and its extremes. The characters haven’t reached a point of desperation, but they’re desperation-curious and when they get caught in quicksand, the show begins to race along.
I think there’s a version of Average Joe in which the symbolic side of that quicksand — the oppression of the health care system, the encroachment of the opioid epidemic, the challenges of upward mobility from blue collar circumstances — could be treated more directly and in more depth. It’s all there in a general sense and not every show needs to be as declarative in its messaging as I’m a Virgo. Plus, Average Joe isn’t wholly without its critiques, notably Leon’s resentment about big chain hardware stores and several jokes about a white cop being part of this friend circle.
It’s a murky world and if you aren’t aware of its murkiness, Average Joe has been shot with a bleached color scheme and underlit interiors that reflect somebody’s mental image of Pittsburgh more than an effort to really, as the cliché goes, make Pittsburgh a character. It may just be that making a generic version of the Russian mob into the show’s primary adversary is a cop-out, a plot device instead of a thematic device that might give the show additional potency.
In lieu of thematic potency, there’s a visceral potency that comes from the heightened circumstances. It’s just a familiar visceral potency from too many similar crime dramas as the series goes through beats like obligatory torture scenes and even more obligatory body disposal drama, but both at least are delivered with effective dark humor.
More refinement could have helped in other familiar genre elements, whether it’s the sullen teen whose refusal to act with any common sense drives too much of the story — “Dana Brody Syndrome,” for Homeland fans — or the sort of pop culture-obsessed henchmen who haven’t felt fresh since the 1990s and definitely don’t feel fresh here. It’s not enough to just have Russian goons who like The Bachelor. You have to make them like The Bachelor in interesting ways.
Still, almost from the beginning, the show is very busy — usually in a compelling way — and it charges along from one twist and cliffhanger to the next, relying on the very fine ensemble to sell the emotional stakes.
It’s all led by Cole, who keeps you guessing for a while on how “average” his character is — if there’s a Long Kiss Goodnight or whatever type of surprise coming, it’s… still coming — providing a good blend of resourcefulness and evolving confusion. For an episode or two, it feels like Cole is leaning toward a comedic interpretation of the character that isn’t reflected in the dialogue. But he gets less funny and more drained by the circumstances at hand.
That makes for a nice contrast with Barrett, who becomes funnier as Leon becomes more desperate and less prepared to cope. Barrett also benefits from his pairing with McWilliams, in what may be my favorite interpretation of the increasingly common TV archetype of the true-crime obsessive who’s able to parlay their amateur fascination into real-world skills.
McWilliams makes Cathy hilariously resourceful, without letting viewers forget that her enthusiasm to charge headlong into a world she mostly knows from basic cable could have unpleasant consequences. If Average Joe somehow breaks out, expect McWilliams to be its primary beneficiary.
Consider this review to be my contribution to placing the show on a general radar.
BET+ has had shows with big titles (First Wives Club) and even an Emmy nominee (The Ms. Pat Show), but Average Joe might be the kind of series suited to drawing even more buzz. Through four episodes, it’s generally entertaining and even occasionally gripping. The elements are there for the show to grow into something even better.