But the real question is whether that kind of absurdist intensity can sustain itself over the lifetime of a narrative comedy. Luckily, Bayer’s new series for Showtime, “I Love That For You,” understands the virtues (and limitations) of that persona, and smartly doubles down on them for some unexpected dramedic potential.
Loosely based on her own childhood experience with leukemia, “I Love That For You” stars Bayer as Joanna, a sheltered Midwestern girl who survived a leukemia diagnosis in her teenhood. Laid up in the hospital, undergoing grueling cancer treatments, the only thing that kept her going was the Special Value Network, a QVC-like home shopping network that offered her the promise of glitz, glamour, and beauty through the tacky trinkets and smiling hosts (including Molly Shannon’s Jackie Stilton, the famed face of the network) on screen. Now, as an adult, she’s remained in her parent’s protective bubble, with no dating life and no career outside of shilling samples at her dad’s Costco branch. But a miracle opportunity falls her way when she nails an audition for SVN and lands a gig as one of their hosts, selling a pencil on camera so adeptly it’d make Jordan Belfort proud.
The job is a dream come true for Joanna, but when she finally arrives at SVN, it’s clear how out of her element she is. The first and most important thing is that she hardly understands herself, much less how she comes across to others, as her icy new boss Patricia (a stellar Jenifer Lewis) drills into her early. Everyone has their brand: Jackie’s the confident, stunning older housewife, Perry (Johnno Wilson) the perky Southern gay, Beth Ann (Ayden Mayeri) the dolled-up “momfluencer” who takes her tampon out to pee.
But who is Joanna? They’re not just selling products, after all; they’re selling themselves as well. And after her first day goes disastrously, Joanna, in a moment of desperation, lies that her cancer has returned. Suddenly, she has a brand: the brave cancer survivor—one that gives her tremendous power and currency at the network, as long as no one founds out the truth.
It’s a premise rife for the kind of discomfort Bayer revels in as a comedienne, hitting somewhere between TV Land’s “Younger” and the sheltered-freak-finds-purpose-in-performance elements of fellow “SNL” alum Kyle Mooney’s “Brigsby Bear.” Joanna feels like the amalgam of so many of Bayer’s sketch-based psychic vampires, a woman bursting with Midwestern positivity and no small amount of nervous energy. She’s horrifically socially awkward, and many of the show’s best gags revolve around Joanna tripping over her words with space-cadet confidence. (“I’ve been to all kinds of Italy places,” she blusters to a successful old classmate.) Watching Joanna is like watching a bad improviser get picked from the crowd to go on stage with Second City, but Bayer knows exactly how to balance the go-for-it resilience of Joanna with her crippling uncertainty in the moment. It’s a real showcase for her, infusing the straight-woman tics she’s cultivated throughout her career with the pathos of a woman who’s never gotten the chance to belong, and is still catching up to what the outside world actually wants from her.