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'Ordinary Joe' star James Wolk explains show's 3 storylines — and how he relates

"I love stories about the human experience."
Ordinary Joe - Season 1
"Ordinary Joe" follows Joe Kimbreau through three parallel storylines following his college graduation.Parrish Lewis / NBC
/ Source: TODAY

“Ordinary Joe,” a new drama premiering on NBC Monday, follows its title character through three parallel timelines to show how everyday choices can alter the course of life.

The series’ pilot introduces three versions of Joe Kimbreau, whose paths diverge following his college graduation, and as star James Wolk told TODAY, the common theme is that Joe is “driven by his love for his family.”

There’s Cop Joe, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a police officer.

“He harbors a lot of guilt from his father's passing and because of that, he kind of froze in time, like in a snow globe,” Wolk explained. “He just still lives in his house, he never moved out, and we will see for him kind of his blossoming as a person.”

Joe Kimbreau (James Wolk) becomes a police officer in one storyline.Parrish Lewis / NBC

Nurse Joe married his college sweetheart, and they had a child shortly after college.

“He took a job as a nurse, which he is proud of, but never got to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician,” said Wolk. “Him and his wife have had just a little bit of a harder life than the other Joes. And for him, I think it's about reconciling his marriage and kind of finding that love and spark with his wife again.”

Joe is a nurse, married to his college sweetheart, in a separate timeline.Parrish Lewis / NBC

Then, there’s Music Joe, who “has all the riches in the world.”

“He's like uber-famous — he's more famous than I thought he was when I read the script,” said Wolk. “He's an internationally known musician, so he has tons of fame, tons of money, but he's personally and emotionally kind of robbed, and so we'll see why that is and we'll see him go on a path to try and fill that up.”

Joe follows his professional dreams as a musician in another version of the character's life.Parrish Lewis / NBC

Wolk, also known for his work on "Mad Men," "The Crazy Ones" and "Watchmen," said he found the show’s “What if?” theme relatable.

“I think I've always thought, especially when I was graduating from college, like I was overwhelmed with the idea that a choice could take me in such a different direction, and my life could be so different depending on which direction I went in, and so when I read the script I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I really associate with that,’ and then I realized that I wasn't that special and that I think we all associate with that idea, in some regard. We all know we made one choice. And based on that choice, our life drastically went in a different direction than it could have.”

“Ordinary Joe” has already drawn comparisons to “This Is Us,” and Wolk weighed in on why viewers have an appetite for heartfelt stories about family.

“First of all, I love ‘This Is Us.’ I think it's a really amazing show,” he said. “I love stories about the human experience. I love mystery. I love thriller. I love all of that, but I love stories about people just being people. I think for us as humans, it's really amazing to watch the human experience; it's like holding up a mirror to the human condition, and I just think people — especially coming out of the pandemic right now — they want to watch stories that are about the human experience and about love and loss and all of that, because I think we're all yearning to connect again.

"And you feel a connection to those characters on your TV when the writing is good and the acting is real and it's honest. And in the best version of what we want these shows to be, you feel a connection to those characters, and I think that's why people will kind of pursue these shows.”

"Ordinary Joe" explores the question, "What if you could see the roads you didn't take?"Sandy Morris / NBC

Of the three versions of Wolk’s character, he relates most to Nurse Joe.

“Not in the marriage portion because, thankfully, my wife and I don't have issues like that and we're very, very in love, but in the idea that he's a father,” he said. “I had never played a father while being a father, and I played a father when I didn't have kids, and I played a guy who didn't have kids when I was a father, but this is the first time I've been a father and I have a 4-year-old (son Charlie) and a 2-year-old (daughter Lucy Kate).”

“It's been an amazing period of time for me, becoming a father, so it's really beautiful to be able to kind of put that into my art,” he added. “And in Nurse Joe’s storyline, he's desperately in love with his son and he's the apple of his eye. I feel that way about my own children so I definitely identify with that.”

Wolk, a dad of two, said he relates to his character's love for his son.Parrish Lewis / NBC

Wolk said Nurse Joe and son Christopher (John Gluck), who has special needs and uses a wheelchair, are “buddies.”

“Joe loves him and he wants to protect him, but he doesn't want to be overprotective; he wants his son to have a sense of autonomy and a sense of independence and an inner strength,” he said.

Wolk added that the storyline is based on show co-creator Garrett Lerner’s relationship with his own son, who has spinal muscular atrophy.

“It's a really beautiful relationship and I often feel that because Garrett has such an amazing relationship with his son — and Nurse Joe, for me, has the wit of our writer Garrett, he has the strength of our writer Garrett — I feel like that also is just infused into that relationship, you know, he doesn't want to overprotect his son, but he loves his son.”

Ultimately, Wolk said the show’s moral or mantra is, “There’s no right choice.”

“It's just life,” he said. “You make a choice, it takes you in this direction, it takes you in this direction or takes you in the other direction. None of those were necessarily the right or wrong choice. You're just living your life, and we're all doing our best with that, with the cards that we’re dealt and with the choices we make.”