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'Big Fat' Wears Thin

Plus: Good-bye Mr. Rogers.

by Mark D. Johnson
February 28, 2003

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'Big Fat' Wears Thin_Mark D. Johnson-Plus: Good-bye Mr. Rogers. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, last year’s low-budget surprise smash hit movie, was criticized by some as belonging more to the television world than the movie world in its style, pacing, and humor. With its wild word-of-mouth popularity, CBS was eager to give it a home in its more natural habitat. So eager, in fact, that there wasn’t enough time between taping the pilot (early February) and broadcasting the premiere (last Monday) to provide television critics with an advance copy for review. At least, that was the official story. Such an occurrence generally indicates that the product won’t measure up to critical standards. Guess what: it doesn’t.

“My Big Fat Greek Life” picks up roughly where the movie left off: the newlyweds have just arrived home from their honeymoon, greeted at the airport by the bride’s large Greek extended family, much to the groom’s chagrin. This opening scene was downright embarrassing, playing like an over-the-top third-rate theater production, and it didn’t get much better from there. The remainder of the plot concerned the couple’s decision on whether to accept her parents’ gift of a house across the street. Hmm… meddling parents that live across the street… yes, this is pretty much a Greek version of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which preceded it on Monday, except that the lead character is a woman and it’s not nearly as funny.

I wanted this show to work. It has a decent cast, which is entirely the same as the movie cast, with the exception of Nia’s non-Greek husband, now played by Steven Eckholdt. Nia Vardalos, the movie’s scriptwriter and star, is a fine comic actress, and she hit upon a gold mine with her observations of traditional Greek-American life. (Upon moving to TV, her character’s name changed from “Toula” to “Nia,” because television studios apparently require leading sit-com characters to have the same first name as the role’s actor.) I liked the short clips of Nia as a young girl growing up Greek, but didn't care for much else.

Television spin-offs of movies tend to cheapen the movie, but that’s not always the case. “M*A*S*H,” while very different from its movie version, managed to become a classic on its own merit. I enjoyed Wedding as light entertainment, but the series debut made me appreciate the movie both more and less. More, because the film doesn’t have an annoying laugh track, and less, because the series highlights the movie's lack of originality. There’s still hope: pilots are often awkward, and this one was hastily produced. Yet somehow, I don’t see “Life” ever rising above its outdated sit-com tone. The ratings for the premiere were impressive, but if “Big Fat” continues to serve only as a venue for Greek jokes, it’s likely to fade fast. Fans of “Raymond,” also a traditional comedy, might be looking for more of the same, but “Big Fat” moves to its regular, more competitive, time slot this Sunday, at 8:00/7c, following “60 Minutes.”

Many people bemoan the current onslaught of unscripted television shows that have pushed several scripted shows off the schedule, but if this is the kind of writing that networks want to put out, then the rise of Reality TV can’t be so bad. There’s still a place for traditional sit-coms on TV, but they’ll need to be a lot smarter than “Big Fat” to outwit, outplay, and outlast the competition. But then, the general public can be remarkably undiscerning, so who knows? The show just might last until the couple’s Big Fat Greek Funeral.

Good-bye, Mr. Rogers

A modest television legend died this week – Fred Rogers – of stomach cancer at the age of 74. I enjoyed visiting his quiet “Neighborhood” and his “Land of Make-Believe” when I was young (just a year younger than the show itself). It was a very different show from that of children’s programming today, and even very different from “Sesame Street,” which started out around the same time. For some reason, it never seemed unusual that Mr. Rogers was a middle-aged bachelor on the show, who changed in and out of sweaters and tennis shoes every day for years and years. And there was a curious amount of background music by a jazz piano trio (perhaps the root of my love of jazz today?). The cheap sets and puppets of the “Land of Make-Believe” were fascinating enough for me. And I couldn’t get enough of that trolley! The kindness of Mr. Rogers was genuine, and his passion for educating and entertaining young children never faded. Good-bye, old friend, and thank you.

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