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Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?

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In last year's feature documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Melissa Rivers says that for as long as she can remember, her mother "referred to her career as 'The Career'. And it occurred to me one day that I had a sibling." In the course of that movie, Joan, who turned 76 during the shoot, could be seen flogging The Career until her arm was ready to fall off: She flew off to Scotland to do her one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival, submitted to the indignity of being the star and target of a Comedy Central roast, did her stand-up act at any venue that would have her, and appeared along with Melissa as one of the contestants on Celebrity Apprentice 3. (She won.)

Now 77, Rivers moves like Yoda and rasps out her jokes in a voice that would earn the sound effects team on a mummy movie a bonus. Forty-five years' worth of plastic surgery procedures have turned her face into a Zsa Zsa Gabor Halloween mask, which is topped off with a hairdo reminiscent of middle period David Bowie. She has a big house in Connecticut and a New York apartment, and she casts herself as a devoted New Yorker who hates to be taken away from her beloved city. Yet when she isn't talking about how much she wishes she could just stay at home and enjoy her friends and her memories, she's complaining, bitterly, about how the demand for her services has fallen off. And she still manages to keep herself on the road. In the movie, she and members of her entourage refer to how badly her finances have been managed over the years, hoping to convey the impression that she only does it because she needs the money, but the scary-eyed desperation with which she grabs at any offer to do anything that'll keep her in the public eye tells a different story. She's an attention junkie, pure and simple. (Approval doesn't seem to have anything to do with it; she never seems to notice when she gets some praise, though every slight goes into the vault, to fester there for as long as she's still drawing breath.)

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Joan & Melissa, a new reality series starring the mother and daughter, airing on WE, begins with a big announcement: The devoted New Yorker is renting out her apartment, shuttering her big house, and moving to California to live with Melissa, Melissa's nine-year-old son Cooper, and Melissa's household of help and hangers-on. (The place is always sufficiently well-populated to start a small cult.) We see Joan calling Melissa on the phone to give her the news, and we also see Melissa at home receiving the news, which means that when Melissa was supposedly still in the dark about her mom's plans, she already had a camera crew shooting in her house. Does she just have them there on a regular basis, recording her life as a matter of daily routine? It's not altogether implausible. Thanks to her mother, she may not know any other way of life. (After Joan's husband and Melissa's father, Edgar, committed suicide in 1987, Joan persuaded Melissa that the two of them should play themselves in a TV movie about how they dealt with the loss. Both Edgar and Melissa's godfather, Vincent Price, make unbilled cameo appearances here when Joan, making ready to depart for the West Coast, is gathering up her precious collection of dead people's ashes.)

Joan & Melissa is the kind of reality show where you can't just watch the action without your mind slipping anchor to wonder about how much of what you're seeing is the result of pre-planning and exactly how it's been shaped in advance. This has nothing to do with whether or not the show is "authentic" in its realness; it's just that situations that would be hokey in an ABC Family sitcom (such as Melissa postponing telling Joan that she lives with her boyfriend, Jason, even after Joan has arrived and moved into the guest room, or Joan trying to keep it a secret from Melissa that she's bought Cooper a surfboard) come across as both hokey and weird when they're presented, not altogether convincingly, as real life.

And it turns out that Botox and questionable material are a very bad combination: Wearing a frozen death mask as her actual face, Joan has no way of signaling us when what she's saying is supposed to be funny, as opposed to when she's just being obnoxious. It's not as if you can always tell just from what comes out of her mouth. Still, I did laugh when Cooper's young, blonde nanny took off her top at the beach and Joan said, "I think it's a good way for Cooper to learn to count." I'd say that Joan, who also had a memorably sweet moment with Cooper in A Piece of Work,  is at her most likable when she's being grandmotherly, as it brings out her well-submerged human side, except that I'm afraid that she'd try to work Cooper into her Vegas act.

When Joan tells her friends that she's moving to California, her next door neighbor Joe calls the decision "the biggest mistake that she's ever embarked on." Leaving aside the question of whether Joe has ever seen Rabbit Test, he could theoretically be wrong, in the unlikely event that the move turns out to be something besides a chance to stage wacky mother-and-daughter mishaps for the camera. A lot of people who saw A Piece of Work found something inspiring in Joan's refusal to let her dimming celebrity go gentle into that good night, but even in the new economy, 77 is as good a time as any to cut back a little on your work schedule. There's even a sequence here where Joan has three consecutive doctors refuse to work on her arms, suggesting that she may have finally had all the cosmetic surgery than anyone with a revokable license is going to give her, at least on camera. The message comes through loud and clear: Something's gotta give. Joan has earned the right to semi-retire to the bosom of her family to make memories with her grandson and maybe the only way to get her to even consider anything like retirement is to get someone to agree to broadcast it nationwide. But where it was kind of fascinating watching Joan struggle to sustain The Career way past its natural lifespan, watching her retirement feels a lot like work.

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Stray observations:

  • Besides the crack about the topless nanny, the biggest laugh I got out of the premiere came when Jason expressed his concerns to Melissa about how long Mommy was going to be staying: "I don't [unintelligible] living under duress and feel eyes piercing into my soul." Melissa: "Well, you're gonna feel that whether it's three days or two weeks."
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