Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”

Original Airdate: May 12th, 2013 on Nick at Nite

When I was growing up, the cable channel Nickelodeon was my only window to the world of wacky 60s sitcoms like Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island thanks to its late night broadcasts under the branding of Nick at Nite. Roughly 10 years after Nick at Nite debuted, Viacom decided it was doing well enough to make a 24-hour channel dedicated to old-time TV favorites—that would be TV Land. Nowadays, you won’t see Bewitched or Gilligan’s on Nick at Nite. The timestamp on their offerings has been creeping steadily forward. Today, their offerings feature 90s stalwarts like Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends, as well as George Lopez, which was on the air as recently as 2007. It’s enough to make a person feel old. Much like VH1, their partner in Viacom format creep, Nick at Nite has also been developing original scripted program as of late, filling a need that no one expressed. The only hint offered in See Dad Run that Nick at Nite used to be a home for classic sitcoms is star Scott Baio (Charles In Charge) and the increasingly antiquated laugh-track festooned multi-camera family sitcom style.

Strengths

  • Fleeting moments of wit. This may sound like damning with faint praise—because it is—but really, this is a not insignificant accomplishment given some of the flaccid attempts at comedy I’ve seen in my reporting here. It turns out that most sitcoms are dreadfully unfunny, which will come as no surprise to adherents of Sturgeon’s law. The possibility also exists that I’m just a terrible snob. But I got a few laughs out of this. It was about as funny as an average episode of Friends. On the other hand, I often hear Friends spoken of in hushed tones as if it were some master class in comedy, so I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The show centers around the life and family of washed-up sitcom star David Hobbs (Baio,) and this episode has him dealing with his overbearing mother, Maggie (Michele Lee, Knots Landing.) The show does better when it veers towards over-the-top. Maggie has no boundaries, and she regales the children with tales of her sexual exploits with Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Maggie’s intrusion occurs on the occasion of Mother’s Day, and David had intended to give his wife Amy (Alanna Ubach, Meet The Fockers) a scrapbook of family memories. Of course, Maggie takes this over as well, going so far as to insert a talking pop-up of herself into the scrapbook. On paper this is so-so; on the screen, timing, visuals and audio make it funny. The Hobbs’ also do a little half-hearted behavioral modification inspired by The Dog Whisperer, which doesn’t really go anywhere, but we do get to see Lee sprayed with a spritz bottle. It’s not Oscar Wilde, but there are certainly more joyless sitcoms out there.
  • Reasonably interesting integration of its central theme. As mentioned, David is a washed-up sitcom star, which probably convinced someone that Scott Baio was the right choice. (Scott Baio is never the right choice.) I was fully expecting this to be an entirely cursory background element to another generic family story, but it ties in nicely with the theme of the episode. You see, Maggie is an insufferable stage mom straight out of central casting, and David was a child star before he made his name in the sitcom world. Like many stage moms and dads, Maggie was/is trying to live vicariously through her child. She also values praise and validation from others above all else, which has made her constantly vie to be the center of attention in everything she does. Amy notes that David is exactly the same way, and while Maggie is about a thousand times more obnoxious, it’s clear that Amy’s assessment of David is accurate. The whole show is about him desperately clinging to scraps of faded glory—the two cast members who aren’t part of the family are David’s obsessive former production assistant and live-in servant (?) Kevin (Ramy Youssef) and former head writer Marcus (Mark Curry, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.) So it works on a meta level—the whole world of the show enables David as the slowly dying star at the center of his private solar system of delusion. Maggie is what you get when you take this to the extremes.

Weaknesses

  • Cliche. 22 minutes of somebody’s obnoxious mother-in-law? What is this, the Catskills? Now, I understand why this is a cliche. You’re cranking out a story about a family every week and inevitably we’re going to meet the grandparents, uncles, cousins and exes, and they’re going to be wacky, and there’s going to be guest stars. Sometimes this can work really well! Edith’s cousin Maude was such a hit on All In The Family that she got her own spinoff. The episode of Big Love where we meet Margie’s mom is one of my favorites. Ron Swanson’s ex-wives were reliably hilarious on Parks & Recreation. For this to work and not to come off as lazy, the family member needs to be a fully realized, memorable character who meshes well with the existing cast. Maggie does reflect David’s self-absorption, but that’s all she does. Let’s talk a little bit more about who she is and why she doesn’t work here.
  • Unsatisfying treatment of toxic family dynamics in service of maintaining the status quo. Maggie’s the worst. She doesn’t get a single moment of redemption. She only talks about herself. When someone tries to talk to her about something other than herself, she pretends to be asleep. She cheats when she plays backgammon with David’s son Joe (Jackson Brundage, One Tree Hill.) She criticizes David’s oldest daughter Emily (Ryan Newman, Zeke & Luther) for her fashion choices. She’s disrespectful towards Amy and is generally an impossible asshole. When David tells her to stop during Amy’s Mother’s Day breakfast, Maggie breaks out into a song about how nobody loves her. The thing is, in the world of most sitcoms nothing ever changes. This squanders so much of the potential of serialized storytelling. Not everything has to have a grand arc, but any arc of any kind would be nice. So what ends up happening here is that David reassures Maggie that of course everyone loves her and will always pay attention to her and never forget about her, and she’s temporarily mollified and returns to the breakfast table. Never mind the fact that it’s pathological for someone to rely on the attention of others to feel validated. Never mind the fact that her behavior’s unacceptable and she has no boundaries regardless of where it’s coming from emotionally, or the fact that it’s unlikely to stop just because she’s been given some quick reassurances. This could have been so true to life. So many people have toxic family members they feel suffocated by, and they aren’t just wacky guest-stars—they’re ever-present. Actually dealing with her behavior could make for a great story instead of just slapping a band-aid on things because, hey look, we’re out of time. This was the show’s chance to leave the realm of ephemera behind and actually make something meaningful and valuable. By now, should I really be surprised that they blew past it like it was a shit-spattered highway rest stop?

Motivation: Family, the last refuge of the mediocre sitcom.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. Eminently forgettable, but at least there’s a chuckle or two.

NEXT TIME: I crack the creme brulee of ridiculous high-concept sitcoms of yesteryear by reviewing Mister Ed! Keep coming back, folks—we’ve got a long way to go.

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Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”