I was a fan of Vanessa Bayer on “Saturday Night Live.” She was bubbly, with a big toothy smile, but just behind her eyes were fountains of crazy, desperate, and nerdy. She has also been funny in her distinctive way in a number of guest appearances since she left “SNL” in 2017 — on “What We Do in the Shadows,” “I Think You Should Leave,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” in particular.
Now Bayer is back on TV in “I Love That for You,” which is loosely based on her childhood experience with leukemia. Bayer, who co-created the Showtime series, plays a Cleveland woman named Joanna Gold who works giving out free samples at Costco and lives with her parents. She’s lost, and socially awkward, and her favorite memories are watching the Special Value Network — a version of QVC — and delighting in host Jackie Stilton (Molly Shannon) when she was a sick child.
Joanna winds up getting an onscreen job at SVN, alongside her hero Jackie. But as she develops her sales persona — each host has his or her own brand identity — she lets a lie slip out that her cancer has returned. Suddenly, she becomes one of the most popular hosts, as the audience responds to her diagnosis, triggering resentment among her coworkers (although not Jackie, who, with Shannon at her warmest, becomes an ally). Joanna tries to leave her lie behind, but her ruthless boss, played by a scene-stealing Jenifer Lewis, pushes her further into it, since it sells. So Joanna is on top of the world, but it’s based on an ugly lie.
As a vehicle, “I Love That for You” is a little unsteady in the first four (of eight) episodes. It’s a lot — a workplace sitcom, a satire of home shopping, a coming-of-age comedy, a pathos-filled portrait of lost soul, a rom-com (as Joanna develops a crush on coworker), and more. But it works for me, especially since the cast is so good. Shannon is, as usual, a pleasure, just as she has been of late in “The Other Two” and “The White Lotus.” Lewis gets some of the better lines and deploys them perfectly. She’s mean and self-serving, and so is Ayden Mayeri’s SVN host Beth Anne, whose narcissism is outrageous and a hoot.
And Bayer is both funny and, at moments, poignant. She turns Joanna’s awkwardness into a small tour de force, as she makes every “um” and “ah” and every facial tic count. Joanna is making mistakes, and one big mistake in particular, but Bayer makes sure she’s sympathetic throughout.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.