Average Joe Starts Strong but Loses Momentum | TV/Streaming

Deon Cole, standup comedian and actor who reigned as the king of deadpan on “Black-ish,” stars as the titular Joe Washington, a plumber in Pittsburgh who loves his wife Angela (Tammy Townsend) and teenage daughter Jennifer (Ashley Olivia Fisher) . The trio is grieving the death of Joe’s father, and at his celebration of life, the remaining cast shows up to provide varying degrees of support: Cathy and Leon Montgomery (Cynthia McWilliams and Malcolm Barrett, respectively), a married couple and close friends of the Washingtons, cannot let go of their dysfunction long enough to have normal interactions with anyone, and Benjamin “Touch” Tuchawuski (Michael Trucco) is a white cop and, oddly enough, best friend to both families. While going through his father’s possessions, Joe is tapped on the head with a tire iron by two men. When he comes to, the men inform a shocked Joe that his father led a double life as a drug mule for a Russian crime family, and has stolen $10 million, plus a Lamborghini, from Nicolai Dzugashvili (Pasha Lychnikoff), head of said lethal organization. The Russians dispense some standard issue threats about harming Angela and Jennifer if everything isn’t returned; Joe, along with Leon (who happened across the scene), kills them in self-defense, but when Touch turns up, the three men vow to find the money together and tell no one else. Unfortunately, neither Joe nor Leon is slick enough to keep this from their wives, and soon this motley crew has more opinions than experience about how to proceed.

It has long been said that more than dramatic actors, comedians have better access to their demons because they regularly mine them for laughs. Cole’s performance is a good example of this. He manages his performance carefully, letting shock, fear, and pain emanate from Joe’s body for the first few episodes, eyes wide, voice raspy. But as time goes on, the ruthlessness of the situation causes Joe to change, and not in ways that his loved ones appreciate. Joe’s speech becomes more confident, more imperious—it helps that Cole has a terrific speaking voice, a sort of vocal blend of steel and leather—and there are shades of Skylar White in Angela’s censure of the changes in her beloved husband’s behavior.

Others in the cast shine consistently, too: Barrett and McWilliams have crackling chemistry as wannabe gangsters who, underneath all the bravado and chicanery, do truly love and protect each other. Trucco is also quite believable as a cop wrestling with personal tragedy, who nevertheless vows to help his friends, police protocol be damned. (Whether a cop would do any of what Touch does for anyone but a fellow cop is debatable.)

What lets these actors’ efforts down is the writing. As the series transitions into its back half, the writing moves away from “Fargo” to a few runs above Brett Ratner. Part of the appeal of the first five episodes is the darkly comedic banter among the cast. But once the stakes get bigger—a loved one sacrificing themself to save others, someone is kidnapped, someone is hospitalized—it’s as though the creators decided the comedy would have to start the narrative too. But the strength of series like “Ozark” and “Better Call Saul” is that despite the gravity of the subject matter, the writing evenly balanced dread and humor. “Average Joe” is built on a situation so ridiculous that tapping its comedy seems like the best way to engage viewers while providing plenty of crime drama thrills.