‘Ordinary Joe’ Is Anything but Ordinary

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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When we think about key moments in our lives, such as weddings and graduations, most of us have a tendency to wonder how things might have turned out differently. We’ll wonder what might have happened if we’d chosen a different career path, pursued a certain relationship, or moved to our dream location, for example.

A new series on NBC, “Ordinary Joe,” explores this “what if” concept by telling stories in three separate timelines about the same character. At his college graduation, Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk) has three choices regarding what to do after the ceremony. He can either go to the beach with his best friend Jenny (Elizabeth Lail), hang out with a fellow graduate he meets that day named Amy (Natalie Martinez), or have dinner with his family. This seemingly inconsequential decision will change Joe’s life permanently.

The show examines what would happen to Joe in each of these scenarios. In one storyline, he marries Amy and becomes a famous rock star. In another, he doesn’t marry anyone and becomes a New York City police officer, following in his late father’s footsteps. And in the timeline where he goes to the beach with Jenny, he marries her and becomes a nurse. Together, they have a son named Christopher (John Gluck), who happens to have spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

It’s this aspect that drew me to “Ordinary Joe” in the first place. When I heard a few months ago that there was a network show in development that featured a character with SMA, I was intrigued. There were even casting calls circling around SMA Facebook groups. The fact that the producers were casting a disabled actor was a good sign that they cared about authentic representation. I’d have auditioned, but my raggedy beard would have made it difficult for me to pass as an elementary-aged kid.

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Actor John Gluck landed the role, and so far he’s given a marvelous performance as Christopher Kimbreau. In real life, Gluck has a form of congenital muscular dystrophy that shares commonalities with SMA. Seeing him play a character who’s well-rounded, funny, and empathetic is encouraging. Though much of the show centers on Joe’s careers and romantic relationships in the different timelines, the father-son element is key as well.

Equally important to the show’s disability representation in front of the camera are the voices present in the writers’ room. The pilot script for “Ordinary Joe” was written years ago by filmmaker Matt Reeves. Once the show was finally greenlighted, Reeves had other commitments. That’s when creators Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner took over. In an interview with Collider, Friend and Lerner said that Reeves encouraged them to inject their personal experiences into the story.

Lerner has a son with SMA, and he explores this aspect of his life through Joe and Christopher. There’s one scene in particular that shows the nuances of being a caregiver and parent. In Episode 3, nurse Joe tries to plan a weekend getaway with Jenny. In order for this to be a possibility, he has to teach his mom how to handle Christopher’s care. He shows her the ropes of operating a Hoyer lift and repositioning Christopher in bed, and answers her questions along the way.

This simple scene is incredibly powerful for the SMA community. Just knowing that thousands of nondisabled viewers got a glimpse of something that we experience daily is comforting. A little awareness goes a long way.

Furthermore, author and YouTuber Shane Burcaw joined the staff of “Ordinary Joe” this summer as a consultant. In an episode of the YouTube channel he shares with his wife, Hannah, Burcaw discussed working with the show’s writers and reviewing scripts.

“Ordinary Joe” is a major step forward in the realm of media representation for the SMA community. The show’s unique storytelling approach and grounded characters make it well worth watching. Hopefully, it will open doors for more stories told by disabled creators.

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Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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