Joanna Gold, the supremely awkward protagonist of the new Showtime comedy “I Love That For You,” often lapses into a dialect you’ve never quite heard before, a straight-out-of-Cleveland, social-media-and-daytime-TV mishmash that embarrasses her even as she’s slinging it. Asked how she is feeling, she comes out with, “I’m hashtag-living, I’m hashtag-I’m-loving-it, boo-doom-poom-poom, yeah, let’s all go down to the Mickey D’s and get some cheesebuggaz.” It’s as if Annie Hall had been locked in a room for the last decade with just the E! channel.
The show, which premieres Friday, doesn’t spell out where Joanna’s temperament comes from, at least not through its first four episodes. What we know is that she had leukemia as a teenager, a condition she happily exploited for sympathy and perks, and that 20 years later she is healthy but less happy — living with her parents, working at Costco with her dad and going on the occasional disastrous date. She’s got a big, attention-seeking personality inside a shell of ditsy, clumsy self-consciousness, but while there are hints that her doting parents have sheltered her over the years, the show doesn’t draw a straight line back to her cancer.
Viewers might, if they know that Vanessa Bayer, the “Saturday Night Live” alum who created the series (with Jeremy Beiler) and plays Joanna, had leukemia as a teenager in Cleveland. And what makes “I Love That for You” a little more interesting than the average autobiographical sitcom — as Joanna breaks out of her shell in a new career as a host on a cable home-shopping network — is how thoroughly the show integrates cancer as text and subtext.
The series is a mix of behind-the-scenes showbiz satire and office comedy, and like many shows in that overpopulated genre, it’s about artifice and selling lies and keeping a sense of yourself while doing so. That turns out to be a double bind for Joanna. When her childhood dream — dating to her days watching TV from her hospital bed — of a job with the Special Value Network comes true, she quickly learns that to sell product, she needs to sell her own story. “They’re going to need to know who you are,” barks the network’s intimidating chief executive, Pat (Jenifer Lewis of “black-ish,” who walks away with the show).
We know that Joanna is cancer girl, and so does she, but she doesn’t want to be cancer girl — until the backbiting and nasty competitiveness of SVN push her over the edge, and she claims her illness in a way that’s just as dishonest as the claims she makes for the junky knickknacks she sells on air.
So the comic-dramatic tension of “I Love That for You,” which includes a lot of the usual — workplace enemies revealing their more sympathetic sides, a potential romance with a mild-mannered hunk (Paul James) — is centered on Joanna’s big lie. The green bar on the SVN producers’ monitors that tracks purchasing jumps up whenever she says the word “cancer,” and Pat’s ruthless pursuit of profit pushes Joanna into increasingly public fabrications.
And while the show is no big deal, it handles the psychological and farcical ramifications of Joanna’s dilemma with a sensitivity that gives the sitcom setups an emotional kick you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Some of this has to do with Bayer’s performance — she nails Joanna’s blend of arrogance and abashment with an ace sketch comic’s facility. But obviously it also has to do with her life. Joanna is going through the bizarro, nightmare version of what Bayer is doing in the daylight: using her experience of childhood illness, which she has connected to her decision to go into comedy, to make art. Except that in Joanna’s case, it’s the art of peddling useless merchandise.
Joining Bayer and Lewis in a comic triangle at the heart of the show is Molly Shannon as Jackie, a veteran host who is growing tired of the hustle. She rebels when Pat wants her to cover up her divorce; as Joanna leans into the lying, Jackie, her idol, starts to push back. Shannon has played a lot of characters like this — currents of humanity under a hard, loud carapace of insecurity — but this one feels more human than most. That’s the general drift of “I Love That for You,” and it might be just enough to make it worth seeing where the season’s remaining four episodes go.