“Have you ever wondered what might have been?” a narrator asks in the trailer to the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors?
It’s a question the film dramatizes in a way designed to provoke thought by suggesting how changing just one small detail, say making or missing a train while commuting home from losing a job, could reroute an entire life. In the film, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen Quilley, a suddenly unemployed London PR rep who, in one branch of the story, catches a train that brings her home in time to find her boyfriend cheating on her and, in the other, doesn’t. The film, written and directed by Peter Howitt, dramatizes the outcomes of both scenarios, alternating between the two.
It’s a clever idea, albeit one not exactly exclusive to Howitt’s film. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance, for instance, similarly ponders a fateful attempt to catch a train. Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, a three-part story of branching timelines, would make its festival debut a few months later. But it’s Sliding Doors that’s become the reference point, both for other films and television shows using similar storytelling techniques and as shorthand for a certain type of thought exercise about possible historical and personal turning points. In her 2018 appreciation of the film for The Ringer, Haley Mlotek notes the roots the idea has put down in self-help circles. “Search the film’s title,” she writes, “and you’ll find all kinds of therapists from relationship counselors to life coaches writing blog posts urging their clients to consider their own ‘sliding doors’ moments, as well as various spiritual and religious leaders, who see the hand of God shaping the course of their followers’ lives in every small moment.”
But, some exceptions aside, there’s a problem to Sliding Doors stories: they’re usually not particularly good, at least without some other reason for existing. Roger Ebert summed up the reasons succinctly in his two-star review of the film, writing, “I submit that there is a simple test to determine whether this plot can work: Is either timeline interesting in itself? If not, then no amount of shifting back and forth between them can help. And I fear they are not.” It’s sometimes easier to come up with a compelling set-up than it is to create an equally compelling follow-through. While they might make for diverting change-of-pace installments of Frasier, X-Files, and Bob’s Burgers, to name just a few shows that have drawn inspiration from the film, they don’t really work when pushed much longer than the length of a single episode.
Despite that history, the new NBC series Ordinary Joe has committed to building a whole series around a Sliding Doors moment.
First announced in 2006 as the creation of Matt Reeves (now best known for two Planet of the Apes movies and the forthcoming The Batman, then best known as the co-creator of Felicity) working form a format created by British writer Caleb Ranson, it was revived years later and developed by the writing team of Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner with Reeves remaining on as an executive producer. The series stars James Wolk (Mad Men, Zoo) as Joe Kimbreau, introduced as he prepares to graduate from Syracuse as part of the class of 2011. In the moments after graduation, he’s presented with three choices: in one he heads to the beach with his close friend/on-off girlfriend Jenny (You’s Elizabeth Lail), in the second he asks Amy (Natalie Martinez), a woman he just met but with whom he developed instant chemistry, out on a date; in the third, he goes to dinner with his family.
The choices have profound consequences for the Joe (or Joes) of the present day. Choosing the first, he learns that Jenny is pregnant with their child. They marry, he becomes a nurse, she becomes a paralegal, and they struggle to hold onto their marriage while raising their son Christopher (John Gluck), whose muscular dystrophy demands much of their attention. In the second, Joe marries Amy and successfully pursues his dream of becoming “the next Billy Joel,” learning years later that Jenny gave birth and put their child up for adoption. In the third, he becomes a policeman who, after foiling an assassin’s attempt to kill Congressman Bobby Diaz (Adam Rodriguez), begins dating Amy, here Diaz’s congressional aide, while working on the case with Jenny, who in this timeline has kept her child (and kept him secret from Joe) and become a lawyer.
It’s a lot to keep track of and, despite some stylistic shorthands like a color code that sets one timeline apart from another, not the sort of show that can be watched with one eye on your phone. (“Wait: Is he dating Amy in this world or married to her?”) It’s ultimately not that hard to follow, however. The bigger question: Is it worth it? Five episodes in an answer has emerged: most of the time, and with some heavy caveats for the schmaltz-averse, yeah. The scripts keep the stories compelling on their own terms, dropping intrigue and suspense into each timeline, but also deepen them by making connections that force viewers to reconsider what’s going on in each. (The writers’ room must look a bit like a conspiracy theorist’s thumbtack-and-thread boards.) Diaz, for instance, seems wholly sympathetic in one timeline, and varying degrees of skeezy in the other two, but a revelation about something from his past suggests he’s fundamentally the same person in each.
So, it suggests, are the other characters. Wolk plays Joe as a put-upon romantic in the Nurse Joe storyline but demanding and entitled as a rock star, but they each are still recognizably Joe, albeit variations on Joe whom life has pushed in different directions. In the Halloween episode “Mask On Mask Off,” for instance, we learn that Joe’s best friend Eric (Charlie Barnett) confided he was bisexual during their teen years. In one timeline he’s a single father who begins dating a man, in another happily married (to Amy) but open about his sexuality, but Barnett convincingly portrays him as the same guy in each. (So far Ordinary Joe has gone deeper in considering the implications of the scenario for its male characters than its female characters, but that could change.)
The show’s biggest hurdle isn’t its format but its tone. Sliding Doors provides one model but so does the NBC hit This is Us. That means every episode builds to moments of Big Emotions whether they feel earned or not. “Dad, did I ruin your life?” Christopher asks Joe in one episode. “Sometimes the most beautiful dreams are the ones that we have yet to dream,” his father replies, and though both performers play the moment well it still feels pretty forced. Ordinary Joe can be a bit much and if plot descriptions like “With the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, all three Joes grapple with the emotions that come with the day” make you squirm a bit, this might not be the show for you. That said, when it works it works. Some tugs at the heartstrings are hard to resist.
As a drama, Ordinary Joe has its ups and downs. But as an act of narrative engineering, it’s quite well done. It also serves as proof that the Sliding Doors concept has possibilities that haven’t yet been explored. It proves creators can find ways to entwine parallel narratives, making them less like either/or scenarios than ways to look at the same life from different angles. To loop back and answer the question asked by the Sliding Doors trailer, yes, of course, we’ve all wondered what might have been. But maybe it’s worth considering how little we might change, and how elusive happiness and satisfaction might remain no matter how far our forking paths might diverge.