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TELEVISION REVIEW

The artificial comes naturally to Rivers

Joan Rivers moves in with her daughter, Melissa, on their new, contrived but funny, reality show, “Joan Knows Best?’’ Joan Rivers moves in with her daughter, Melissa, on their new, contrived but funny, reality show, “Joan Knows Best?’’ (We Tv)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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Last week, when Hollywood got its zillion-dollar feelings hurt by Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, and Angelina Jolie’s expression screamed “Off with his head’’ from its home on Brad Pitt’s shoulder, I thought of Joan Rivers. One of the original Hollywood offenders, she has created a remarkable little safe house where she and other unguarded comics such as Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler can both insult self-serious stars and mingle with them. Is there a room in that woman-run house for Gervais?

Tonight, though, Rivers turns her pioneeringly fearless humor — this week she said about Tommy Lee Jones, “He makes Hitler look warm and fuzzy’’ — away from celebrity foolishness to family and cultural matters. WEtv’s “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?’’ which premieres tonight at 9, is a reality series that drops Joan the New Yorker into the guest room in the LA home of her daughter, Melissa. Sparks and one-liners ensue, of course, as Joan secretly remodels Melissa’s living room in her own more baroque tastes, corrupts Melissa’s young son, Cooper, and gets Melissa’s shapely young nanny fired.

Joan’s choice nickname for the nanny: “The Hunchfront of Notre Dame.’’

If you’re a committed Riversian, and I am, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?’’ is an enjoyably lighthearted hour of prime Joan shtick. Naturally, the show is made up of contrived reality situations that are as obviously fake and illogical as Joan’s physiognomy. Just the idea of Joan moving in with Melissa while she looks for a home is forced, since Joan could more easily put up at a five-star hotel. But still, the setup enables Joan to be Joan as she turns everything from raising children, going to the beach, turning old, and dying into one big joke.

“Joan & Melissa’’ begins with Joan’s decision to move west in order to spend more time with Cooper. As she closes up her East Coast life, we meet her people, the assistants on the peripheries of every celebreality show who keep their star’s schedule and ego working properly. Then we’re off to LA, where Joan is in for a surprise — yet another reality device. Turns out Melissa is living with her boyfriend, Jason, and hasn’t told Joan. When Joan finds men’s clothing in the guest room closet, she says, “Either a guy is living here or she’s having a gender identity crisis.’’ Joan has also brought her indoor-peeing dog, Lola, to the house against Melissa’s wishes.

About her need for Lola, Joan says, “She’s the Gayle to my Oprah.’’

The battle between mother and daughter heats up repeatedly, but generally not in an overly melodramatic reality style. While Melissa harbors her secret about Jason, and begs her mother not to get more plastic surgery (this time on her arms), Joan drops little bombs during every conversation — typical mother-daughter passive-aggression such as, “Nice shirt, hideous color.’’ Joan also pushes Melissa to be filmed naked for “Hollywood Moms Gone Wild!’’ and tries to convince Melissa that the gorgeous nanny, Dominica, is too sexy to have around Jason. “Nannies should be ugly or gay,’’ she advises Melissa, before taking Dominica shopping at a uniform store.

Was Dominica, who takes off her bikini top at the beach, brought into Melissa’s home specifically for the filming of the show? I’d bet money on it. But that’s old news. Like so many unscripted productions, “Joan & Melissa’’ is more like a loose sitcom than anything real. And if you’re a Rivers fan, you’re pretty used to seeing a little artificial something here and there.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

JOAN & MELISSA: Joan Knows Best?

On: WE

Time: Tonight, 9-10