There's just a speck of an idea here: Rivers, an inveterate New Yorker with a grand apartment and a weekend home in Connecticut, decides to move to Los Angeles to be closer to her 43-year-old daughter, Melissa, and 9-year-old grandson, Cooper. She confides that she has not lived in L.A. since the late 1980s, after a disastrous attempt to launch a late-night talk show. It was then that her husband, Edgar, committed suicide, and you get the feeling that Rivers is loath to return. (She's bringing Edgar's ashes with her, as well as the cremains of a dear friend and a smaller urn that, as best Rivers can recall, contains a handful of Vincent Price.)
Deep down, she is just another lonely grandmother, for whom no amount of phone calls can take the place of family togetherness - a love that expresses itself, for the camera's benefit, as constant nagging, grousing and bickering.
While she looks for a place of her own, Rivers stays in a guest room in Melissa's mini-manse, where she needles Melissa about everything - the live-in boyfriend (a former tennis pro named Jason), the look of the living room furniture and whether Grandma should spoil Cooper by buying him a surfboard. All of this is presented as if the cameras aren't around, but it would take an actress such as Meryl Streep to pull off that bit of pretend.
In the nine years since Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne ingeniously offered themselves up to reality TV, an endless parade of B-list celebrities have tried to cash in similarly, some with success (the Kardashians), some with instant flameout (the Hasselhoffs), some with career-killing parody (Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown).
The net effect is viewer fatigue. The all-too-willing Riverses submit to a round of bonding activities that feel more like a producer's idea than their own, such as bikini waxes. ("This should be deja vu [for Melissa]," jokes Joan, in reference to the daughter glimpsing the mother's nethermost region.)
Scene by scene, "Joan & Melissa" strips away the pleasurable and even heartbreaking memory of the documentary film, which made Rivers seem at once tough, vulnerable and human.
Thus began a comeback of sorts - nothing like Betty White's, but retro-rehabilitative all the same. One excellent byproduct of Rivers's upgrade has been "Fashion Police," now seen Friday nights on E!, in which Rivers and three others gleefully savage the week's serving of photos of what celebs are wearing to red-carpet events. "Fashion Police," which is produced by Melissa, uses Joan up to the last, delicious drop. Pushing it with "Joan & Melissa" verges on elder abuse.
The way others have to talk to their parents about giving up driving, someone needs to talk to Joan Rivers about giving it a rest once in a while.
Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? (one hour) debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WE tv.