Anyone who saw the riveting documentary about Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work , might be disappointed by the 77-year-old comedian’s new reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? (WeTV, Tuesdays at 10 p.m., ET). Where the movie showed an unvarnished, sympathetic portrait of workaholic Joan, the reality show is baldly contrived. Joan moves in with her daughter Melissa in Malibu, under the guise of wanting to spend more time with Melissa and her grandson, Cooper. Melissa also lives with her boyfriend, Jason, and a dear friend.
The broad outlines of the situation are believable, but the details are insultingly fake. For instance, Melissa’s “nanny” looks like a Swedish porn star and when the family heads to the beach, she takes her top off and asks Joan to put some suntan lotion on her. Puhhhlease. The nanny is clearly a plant put there so Joan can make quips like, “I cannot believe Melissa hired this bimbo. Does she want a nanny for Cooper or a wet nurse for Jason?” And then, “You hire an ugly nanny or a gay guy…I had nannies with harelips, I had nannies that the zoo tried to buy.”
Despite their false set up, those jokes can be biting and pretty hilarious. Furthermore, the relationship at the core of the show-the one between Joan and Melissa, natch-still feels real, and often not in a way that’s remotely funny. Though Joan is at times quite generous and loyal (she’s had the same assistant for decades, and her New York maid cries when she finds out that Joan is moving to Cali), she is an overbearing mess of a mother to Melissa. “I know you have boundaries,” Joan tells Melissa, “I just choose not to acknowledge some of your boundaries.” Through the onslaught of invasive questions (Joan badgers Melissa ceaselessly about her relationship with Jason), Melissa remains levelheaded and reasonable, and somehow does not kill her mother.
If, as the members of Slate ‘s Culture Gabfest argued, A Piece of Work makes you appreciate Joan Rivers and show business strivers, Joan & Melissa makes you appreciate the work that goes into staying sane when you’re a show business daughter.
Photograph of Joan and Melissa Rivers by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.