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Saturday, 31 of October of 2020

Melissa & Joey – “Pilot”

“I was Charles freaking in Charge.”

Melissa and Joey shake hands, sealing the deal that he will become their live-in nanny.

“Let’s agree to never do anything worthwhile ever again. I’ll have ‘Ferg-face’ and you’ll have ‘Whoa’ — forever and ever.”

There’s a line we commonly use here when we review a brand new series: pilots are hard. And it’s true. So much context to establish, characters to force a connection with, so many ways that first impression of a storyworld can go wrong and turn an audience off. Building something special within the ever-withering allotted time for a show on ad-supported television can be a vexing, horrifying, story-crushing experience. It’s a cutthroat world and we don’t envy any of them the task.

But I have never watched a show where the people involved obviously hated their jobs so much.

Backstory for those of you who don’t watch Gilmore Girl re-runs every day (I’ve seen the entire season about three times in the past two years) and aren’t particularly in the know of all things ABC Family: a while back Joseph “Whoa” Lawrence and Melissa “Explains It All” Joan-Hart starred in an ABC original movie called My Fake Fiance that shattered all kinds of ratings records for the network. Mind you, this is a network just recently burgeoning with original series (Secret Life of the American Teenager, Make It or Break It, etc) and, just a few years ago, was the home mostly to just Full House reruns. I’m just saying the bar probably wasn’t all that high. Viewers ate the movie up and remarked at the chemistry shared between the two leads. So ABC Family decided to capitalize on the stalling careers of the beached sit-com talent. The press release even used the word “manny” to make sure everyone knew how hip and smart they were.

What they came up with was a derivative plot driven by cliche sit-com tropes (you could have made bingo cards) and lies. So many lies.

I know that this is fiction. One might be fooled into thinking this is a documentary, given that the characters and actors share names (by the way, intended viewers, that’s how dumb they think you are — they want to make sure you don’t get confused) but, I assure you, this is fiction. So I shouldn’t be fooled by lies. Except the first thing piece of sound I hear during the opening establishing shot is “Melissa and Joey is recorded before a live studio audience.” That can’t be true. Perhaps a robo-audience, one that can laugh exactly the same during ill-timed points of a joke (live audiences generally let the actor choke out that punchline before praising it with their chuckles) but surely not a room full of people unassociated with the project. Or maybe they did record it in front of a live studio audience and no one even cracked a smile so, instead, we are treated to a raucous laugh track to cover up the crickets.

I’m telling you it’s not funny. So amazingly not funny. They fill the gaps of not-funniness with some of the most played-out techniques of sit-com’s illustrious history. The simultaneous phone call (where two people have different conversations with other people but the lines synch up as if they are saying the same thing), racial stereotyping (the Asian assistant remarks about how she is not good at basketball basically due to craniometry), and out-of-place physical comedy (Melissa trips over a bag of trash) are just some of the elements. They cram everything into this 20 minute window (I know, right — it’s down to 20 minutes these days) and, instead of being laugh-a-minute, no joke in this thing has a chance to breathe. It’s like the writers planted a bunch of comedy and picked it before it was ripe. Some of the joke were updated, however. There was a See-You-Next-Tuesday reference afterall (imagine that kind of joke coming up in Cheers). But the jokes aren’t funny. Though maybe that shouldn’t matter. And maybe the characters are supposed to be a bit broad and superficial (although Lennox is eerily reminiscent of another orphaned girl looking for a home with a name that starts with “L” and ends with “X”). And so what if the plot is totally a roughly-updated version of Who’s the Boss or (and they even name-check it) Charles in Charge. We’re not here for that. We’re here for the chemistry between Joey and Melissa, right? That’s why this thing was slapped together in the first place!

Zero. None. Melissa Joan-Hart dipped into the Sabrina the Teenage Witch well all the way through, so much so that I think her character might have been more likable with a disgusting-looking cat puppet to talk to, and gave her (supposedly) frazzled, worn-out, emotionally-strained character no depth. Her lamentations about raising her sister’s children come off more whiny and shallow than dramatic. What made it worse was that Joey Lawrence — was actually pretty good. He worked with what he had and came off likable and charismatic. Or maybe he was compared to the abyss that was Melissa which swallowed brief moments of goodness into the darkness of overacted sit-com delivery.

At the end of the episode, you felt like all the pieces were there for a sit-com like this to happen but none of them fit together nor was there enough time to let anything develop naturally. There has been talk for years about how television can be bad developmentally for humans since problems seem to resolve in 30 minutes (usually a defense ignoring elliptical editing) but I almost saw how people might be upset by this. It all went by so fast and, yet, not fast enough.

It was painful, this show. There were moments for the audience to connect with, such as the occasional reminders that these children were abandoned by selfish parents and made to live with their too-busy-for-them aunt and a weird dude with no hair (but not in a funny way like Stan Sitwell on Arrested Development. But these moments were short-lived, typically ruined by more half-hearted delivery. It’s like everyone hated being there and contributed to this weird sense of failure before it even began. Or maybe that was me projecting because I didn’t want to be there and I predict disaster.

A thing like this is why I fast-forward through the endless self-promotion ABC Family sticks in between shots of Lorelai. I just don’t want to know.

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