Who hasn’t imagined where life would have taken them if they had followed a different path?
NBC’s “Ordinary Joe,” developed by Oak Park resident Garrett Lerner and his writing partner Russel Friend, explores this premise when Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk) is presented with three choices on the day of his college graduation.
His decision might seem minor, but there are consequences. Taking place 10 years later, each episode weaves together Joe’s alternative worlds based on the choice he had made, leading him to different relationships and careers—as a nurse, police officer and rock star.
Lerner and his wife, Kim, have lived in Oak Park for over 20 years, and it is where they raised their children, Lily, 19, and Zeke, 21.
Zeke, who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, inspired one of the main characters.
In all three iterations of his life, Joe’s 9-year-old son has SMA and is portrayed by John Gluck, 13, who has Collagen VI muscular dystrophy.
The series creator, Matt Reeves, encouraged Lerner and Friend to make the show personal to them. They directed their writers to do the same—to “bleed on the page” and to share their most vulnerable experiences.
“Writing the truth is what makes the stories compelling and real,” Lerner says, noting that from the beginning, he and Friend knew that Joe would have a son in at least one possible life. “It felt like a great way to personalize the story by making Joe a special-needs parent who is closely bonded to his son—just like Zeke and I are in real life,” he says.
Lerner has included characters with SMA before in shows he produced, once on the series “House”and once on “Boston Public.”
“This was the first time I insisted on authentic casting,” he says.
A nationwide search was conducted through organizations like CureSMA (a nonprofit the Lerners are involved with), the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Laughing at My Nightmare.
“We received scores of submissions and John Gluck quickly rose to the top,” Lerner says.
Gluck wasn’t a professional actor, but Lerner describes him as a natural.
“He’s smart, funny, warm and his ability to think on his feet and ad lib when necessary is still shocking, given his young age. And his singing voice is so moving!” (The duets with Gluck and Wolk, who also does his own vocals, are among the show’s highlights.)
Zeke says he appreciates having the son played by someone who has muscular dystrophy.
“I think it will give more opportunity for others who have diseases like SMA to get a platform on TV and film,” he says.
Because of the multiple timelines, Joe’s son has different names depending on who raised him: Chris, Lucas and—Zeke.
“I definitely had to get permission from my son before naming one of the three Zeke,” Lerner says with a smile.
“Ordinary Joe” has been praised for changing the way people with disabilities are depicted on screen and was recently awarded the Seal of Authentic Representation from the Ruderman Family Foundation. For example, the show features real equipment used by disabled people. Gluck, for instance, uses his own mechanized chair.
One storyline, taken directly from Lerner’s life, had Joe planning a romantic weekend getaway with his wife. But she’s concerned about leaving their son. Joe’s mother volunteers to take over his care.
“We realistically portrayed what that means—how to use a lift to transfer a disabled person from their chair to the bed or the bathtub,” he explains. “It’s all very matter-of-fact; just the reality of living life as or with a disabled person.”
The series doesn’t shy away from portraying the routine of caring for someone with SMA and does it without making it a big deal. In one scene, the focus is on Joe and Chris’ conversation about the boy’s day at school. While they’re talking, Joe takes off his son’s shoes and leg braces.
“Just doing everyday tasks like helping his son get ready for bed,” Lerner says, noting that while he was aware he was qualified to write about parenting a disabled person, he knew he would need someone with firsthand knowledge to help the writers present Joe’s son in a positive and accurate way.
Lerner and Friend hired disability advocates and YouTubers, Shane Burcaw, who has SMA, and his wife, Hannah, as consultants.
Lerner says he read Burcaw’s wonderful book Laughing at My Nightmare in 2015 and was so moved and impressed with the writing, he reached out to him. They’ve been friends ever since.
“Shane provides stories from his own life, reads the scripts and makes suggestions so our writers don’t fall back on common tropes that are at best cliché and at worst offensive,” he says.
One of the obstacles the “Ordinary Joe”teamfaced from the outset was how to help audiences differentiate between Joe’s three lives. Changes in costumes, hairstyles and facial hair provide visual cues. Additionally, the talented actors, led by Wolk, subtly shift how they portray their characters, depending on which universe is featured.
Lerner says James Wolk had already shown his versatility as an actor.
“We loved how he radiates warmth and kindness but could turn on a dime and deliver a sinister performance in HBO’s ‘The Watchmen’,” he says. “We knew early on he was our Joe, even before we realized he was also a talented singer!”
The show also clues-in viewers by color-coding each timeline with a light filter: green for Nurse Joe, blue for Cop Joe and orange for Rocker Joe.
Filming during the pandemic presented its own challenges. Only one day after they began shooting the pilot in March 2020, the production was shut down. Eight months later when they resumed, not only did they have to build a new production team, they also had to follow strict COVID protocols, such as quarantining after travel, taking PCR tests three times a week, wearing masks and shields (making communication difficult) and isolating the actors.
“We had to get used to the new reality of Zoom meeting rooms, virtual editing and sound mixing, and no gatherings for premiere or wrap parties,” Lerner recalls.
Despite the difficulties, Lerner says “Ordinary Joe” has been a labor of love for all involved and has been his most personal writing yet. He hopes audiences continue to watch because they love the characters, but also because “they see their own lives reflected and reflect on how delicate our life paths are—how timing, other people's actions and the decisions we all make add up to write our own life stories.”
Has Lerner ever wondered about his own “road not taken?”
“The point of the show is to illustrate every possible path in life is filled with highs and lows. There’s no right or wrong path,” he says. “I don’t believe in regrets. It’s a waste of mental energy. As Joe says at the end of the first episode, ‘It’s only natural to wonder what if but I’ve learned it’s more important to ask what’s next?’”
Season 1 of “Ordinary Joe” is available on On Demand (NBC) and to stream on Hulu and Peacock.For information on SMA: CureSMA.org.