Monday, September 12, 2005

War (At Home) Is Hell

I don't watch many sitcoms. It isn't that I don't like sitcoms - well at least not entirely - it's just that they don't interest me. If the new Fox series The War At Home is an indicator of the quality of the new crop of situation comedies, then I'm not missing much. I didn't just find it bad, I found it difficult to watch.

Dave and Vicki (Michael Rappaport and Anita Barone) have three kids that they apparently don't like very well. They can't wait for them to go off to college - in fact Dave knows down to the day when each of his kids will be leaving the nest complete with a mental countdown clock. As long as the kids don't have a drug problem or kids of their own when they leave Dave and Vicki figure they've done a good job. Of course that leaves a lot of space in between for a lot of stuff to go on - the sort of stuff that Dave and Vicki did when they were teens.

As for the kids, well they're each a piece of work. The most normal is the youngest Mike (Dean Collins). All he wants is a Playstation 2 with all that "extra" money his parents bring in. He's easy to deal with - just keep telling him no. This sends him over to his friend's house - he's dull but he has a PS2 and a mom who just got breast implants. The middle child is Larry (Kyle Sullivan). Dave is convinced that Larry is gay because he doesn't seem particularly masculine. Larry isn't gay, he's desperate. In fact he's so desperate to get laid that he dresses up as his mother so he can drive her car over to some girl's house with the expectation that he and his friend Kenny will become "well oiled sex machines". Might have worked too if he hadn't forgotten to take his mother's blouse off after they got there. However thanks to Mike, Dave and Vicki find out about the cross-dressing. Caught between the prospect of being grounded for a year and never being able to get his licence and his parents thinking he's a transvestite he goes with transvestite. Actually, from what we've seen of his parents his father would probably offer him checklist of things to do before getting out of the car. Finally there's daughter Hillary (Kaylee DeFer) who describes herself as a "technical virgin" (as she puts it you could throw her into a volcano, but she wouldn't be your first choice). Mike, who besides everything else is a bit of a snitch, reveals that Hillary wants to go on a date with a senior who drives. Hillary says that it's not true, he's a freshman - in college. Dave and Vicki forbid it which leads Hillary to remind her mother that she went out on dates in cars when she was Hillary's age (flashback to a car with two legs sticking out of the sun roof, bouncing rapidly on its springs). In retaliation she introduces her family to her "new" boyfriend Tay - short for Bootay - who is black. Dad doesn't approve but Vicki sees it for what it is, a bait and switch move (and besides she had a few black boyfriends which starts a whole new area of interest/concern for Dave). Actually Vicki is doing Tay's homework which angers his dad because he went from being an "A" student to a "B-".

I thought that this show was horrible. The characters are thoroughly unlikable and while the situations may be familiar to most parents the responses come across as being entirely for comic effect. Although Barone has a couple of moments, Rappaport should stick to drama which he does relatively well. Of the kids Kyle Sullivan, who was a recurring character on Malcolm in the Middle, has the most television experience and it shows. He's the only one who doesn't come across as a sitcom brat. Still if you want to know the truth it isn't the acting that makes this show a dog or even the writing. There are some funny lines, notably Hillary's statement about her "technical virginity" which would presumably result in Dave acting on his "one simple rule for dating my teenaged daughter - she sees your dick and I'll slice it off." The problem comes in production and in the whole concept of the characters. There are a couple of interesting ideas including characters breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience in the style of a reality show "confessional" but it's the sort of stuff that's been done before and better. An annoying problem which resurfaces repeatedly is the overly clumsy use of canned laughter. It's loud and it doesn't seem to vary much in intensity not to mention the fact that it frequently appears at points where the dialog doesn't warrant it.

The problem is that the actors don't create the character and the writers shape the characters in a way that the producers want them to be. Dave in particular comes across as intolerant. He doesn't like the idea that his son might be gay or that his daughter is dating a black kid even as a subterfuge. We've seen other families on TV who have been detached from their kids - the parents in Malcolm In The Middle come to mind - but they've always seemed to have had some redeeming quality that so far I don't find in Dave and Vicki or their brood. The Bundys from Married With Children were probably worse but it was absolutely clear that they were a burlesque of a family. This sense of burlesque doesn't come across in The War At Home. The worst thing may well be that the producers and the executives at Fox who okayed this thought the show was funny and that there'd be an audience for it. There may indeed be an audience for this show but I don't know who it might be.

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