It reminded me of the short stories I read in the collection ‘The House That Nino Built’ by Giovannino Guareschi. Based in Italy of the 50s it tracked the story of a middle class family wherein the father is unambiguously patriarchal and patronizing of his wife and daughters. Politically incorrect and definitely ‘out-of-sync’ with modern values the stories still were humorous and gave us insights into discordant personalities living together.
And yet the series ran for 8 seasons and was positioned to take on Frasier during prime time. Guess they did exaggerate the storyline a bit to appeal to their target audience.
Jim (Jim Belushi) is a typical middle class and middle-aged family man based in Chicago. He doesn’t hesitate to flaunt his ‘blue’ collar credentials and revels in acknowledging that he ‘married-up’ by partnering Cheryl (Courtney Thorne Smith) who is a sensitive and caring modern lady. Cheryl’s younger brother, Andy, works with Jim in their construction business and his best friend. Cheryl draws support from her younger sister, Dana, who is an upwardly mobile woman battling it out in Corporate America. Jim and Cheryl have 2 cute daughters (Ruby and Gracie) to begin with and then a son (Kyle).Finally a set of twins joins the large-hearted family towards the end series of the show.
The show started off slowly but picked pace by Season 3. It did really well till Season 5 and then trundled along for a quite a while till it concluded after 8 seasons. The shows primary premise was a battle of sexes between Jim and Cheryl. They plot a lot against each other in a variety of situations wherein typically Andy backs Jim while Dana takes care of Cheryl. Eventually Dana starts dating a doctor Ryan Gibson and eventually marries him. The series started losing steam when the key characters move on and the kids grow up. The last two seasons seemed like fillers as Dana stepped away and quite a few stories now focussed on the kids rather than the original premise of the show.
The show was stereotypical in positioning Jim as a typical patriarch who was fixated by his own ideas and took advantage of Cheryl and the kids. He was lazy and took short cuts to play the situation. Often Cheryl would catch him and string him along to deliver a reprimand. No matter how loony the affairs became the typical end would have Jim and Cheryl kiss and makeup.
What worked for me –
The family held its appeal for the viewers and the characters shaped up well in the initial seasons. Jim and his lazy schemes in conning his toddling daughters are really cute. Cheryl’s character starts slowly but eventually she appears as an effective counter to Jim. Dana is amusing in bantering Jim and Andy too entertains with his queer neurotic personality.
The battle of sexes was nicely couched as a battle of wits and accordingly even the storylines were not always politically correct they still engaged your attention. And the story conclusions again appealed to you to view it as a situation wherein a nearly dysfunctional family it able to put it all together when it matters. In some ways it reminds you a lot about ‘Everybody Loves Raymond‘ though the ‘couple’s dynamics’ in that series was quite different.
The casting was great – Jim typifies the personality of a ‘blue-collar’ middle class guy. He ticks the typical checklist – sports, beer, steaks, ‘blues music’ etc as the key interests in life. Andy seems a miscast initially as he is a Stanford educated architect but he becomes and effective foil for Jim and is able to play a subordinate role as he is a neurotic personality. In fact he becomes the ‘fall guy’ for everyone eventually even the kids. Cheryl is the ‘better-half’ of the couple and it shows in all that she does. Dana becomes a great act to bait Jim. It was the interplay of these core characters that helped the series do well for quite a few seasons.
What didn’t work for me –
The plotting was average – there was little that was new under the Sun. We could see the story, its plot-line and eventual twisted ending from miles. Eventually they even gave up the pretence of trying to be doing anything different. Old tales and themes were tread and retread multiple times over. Episodes around major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween), a steady stream of dates for Dana and Andy, Jim’s anti-social behaviour, Cheryl’s ‘do-gooder’ stories, use of guest stars for specific episodes was ‘reassuringly familiar’. Very rarely did you get a surprise punch.
The last two seasons were weak – the situation defused the original premise. Dana got married and left. Jim and Andy antics had become repetitive. Cheryl’s appearances too became disjointed. Jim was battling along all on his own and now adding storyline to suit his daughters growing up. This wasn’t riveting stuff and it reflected in the dwindling audience.
The sign off episode was pathetic – it was really a forced fix. Sure you got to see all the key cast members again. Some of the popular guest stars from past seasons too were weaved into the episode. But the story premise was lame and we barely got any laughs out of it. We could have done so much better if the episode had been a Jim v/s Cheryl face off with Andy and Dana pitching in for their leads. Just like old times. Sadly it wasn’t to be and the series finally ended when the core audience had kind of walked away from the show.