Former ‘SNL’ stars Vanessa Bayer, Molly Shannon shine in ‘I Love that For You’

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Vanessa Bayer mines comedy from the fraught topic of cancer in her new Showtime series “I Love That For You.”

While the former “SNL” star is hardly the first comedian to use tragedy as a launching pad for laughter, it’s always a hit-or-miss proposition – and this show hits more often than not, albeit a bit unevenly.

Airing Sundays at 8:30 p.m., “I Love That For You” follows Joanna Gold (Bayer, who also created the show based on her own experience with childhood leukemia), an Ohio woman who dealt with childhood cancer. The adult Joanna, who’s now in her 30s, is in robust health, but she’s been coddled by her parents and still lives with them while working at Costco. She’s embarrassed about the job, particularly when he runs into a more glamorous former classmate, and uses her wide smile like armor — spooking potential love interests when she comes on too strong. She talks to one date (played by Jason Schwartzman) about consulting him before moving on to a new job, which surprises him since, as he points, out, they’ve only been out twice (three times if you count running into each other in Walgreens).

“SNL” alums Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer are hosts on a home shopping network in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Vanessa Bayer smiles in a bar.
Bayer as Joanna in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Molly Shannon smiles in front of bracelets.
Jackie (Molly Shannon) hawks bracelets on her home shopping network on “I Love That For You.”
Tony Rivetti Jr./SHOWTIME

Ever since she was a kid, Joanna has dreamed of being a host on shopping channel SVN (Special Value Network), and when she lands a gig there working alongside her idol, longtime SVN host Jackie (Fellow “SNL” alum Molly Shannon, who could be Bayer’s long-lost sister), it launches a whole new phase of her life. 

For her part, Jackie is fresh off a divorce, ready to mentor Joanna and is full of the kind of manic positive energy that is Shannon’s signature. It works nicely with Bayer’s air of aggressive friendliness that has an undertone of people-pleasing desperation.

Joanna talks with awkward phrasing that makes her come across as nervously wanting to be liked, such as when she has her first conversation with Jackie and tells her that she’s excited to, “see your face and body, and meet you in person!”

Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer talk in a bar.
Shannon and Bayer play hosts of a home shopping network in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Vanessa Bayer smiles awkwardly.
Joanna (Vanessa Bayer) smiles awkwardly in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Molly Shannon smiles.
Proud mentor: Jackie (Molly Shannon) watches Joanna (Vanessa Bayer) begin her stint as a home shopping host.
Tony Rivetti Jr./SHOWTIME

At work, SVN hosts are encouraged to use personal anecdotes to sell their products, talking about their kids, book club, or husband. Joanna struggles in front of the camera, since she doesn’t have much of a personal life from which to pull colorful anecdotes.

Things become complicated when, flustered, Joanna announces that her cancer has returned (it hasn’t). The fib gives her a clear identity to her onscreen persona, and enables her to feel more successful at SVN. But, like all lies, there’s an inherent underlying danger, since it’s only a matter of time until she gets found out. 

Vanessa Bayer stands under balloons.
Joanna (Vanessa Bayer) with SVP boss Patricia (Jenifer Lewis) in “I love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Vanessa Bayer smiles maniacally.
Joanna (Vanessa Bayer) in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME
Molly Shannon smiles and sits in a chair.
Shannon as Jackie in “I Love That For You.”
Nicole Wilder/SHOWTIME

“I Love that For You” is charming, but it also seems to flounder on what it wants to be. It’s part workplace comedy, part melancholic dramedy about a sad-sack 30something who struggles with getting her life out of a rut and part pitch-black comedy (faking cancer is dark) about a woman who tells a ludicrous lie and watches as it spins out of control.

All of these subgenres have different tones, and they don’t always mesh together. The result sometimes feels like the series is throwing strands of plotlines at the wall to see what sticks.

What saves “I Love That For You” is winsome performances from Bayer and Shannon. While it’s not always clear on the type of story it’s trying to tell, it is entertaining. 

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