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Fuller House is a Weird Show


If you grew up in the US during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there’s a good chance you remember ABC’s TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Friday) programming block, which aired Friday evenings during prime time. One of the sitcoms in that block was Full House. Now, over 20 years since it went off the air, Netflix has put out a sequel spinoff, starring much of the original cast.

Like the title says: it’s weird.

If you never saw the original show, the premise isn’t hard to get. After the death of his wife, a widower moves in his brother-in-law along with his best friend to help him raise his three daughters. It was a syrupy, saccharine affair in which everyone learned a valuable lesson by the end of the half-hour. The kids got up to all kinds of hijinks and got out of trouble by mugging for the camera. The humor was incredibly corny. Bob Saget, who had a reputation for being a potty-mouthed comedian, portrayed a clean-cut goody-two-shoes father figure. I didn’t know this as a kid, but I suppose playing against type in that way made him funnier, if you knew. On the other hand, you had Dave Coulier, who was never funny, not even to kids who didn’t know any better. Rounding out the dad trio was John Stamos as Uncle Jesse, who was everyone’s favorite guitar-playing, Elvis-obsessed uncle.

The kids… were kids. The whole point of family sitcoms where kids play a major role is to see the kids screw up and learn a lesson. Sometimes the roles are reversed and the adults get caught out making a mistake and they have to admit (to the kids) that they messed up. The running time is padded with catch phrases and exaggerated audience reactions.

So, why bring something like that back, two decades on?

Many reviews take a lot of cheap shots, but this type of show is low-hanging fruit. It’s too easy to snark your way through. Instead, what I find interesting are the ways the show incorporates real-life events and pokes fun at its characters. The original show did that, but Fuller House elevates it almost to an art form. The premise of the sequel series is really a gender swap of the original. Eldest daughter DJ is widowed, left to raise three boys by herself. She invites younger sister Stephanie and best friend Kimmie (who has a tween daughter of her own) to move in and help out. Links to the original show abound: Saget, Coulier, and Stamos all reprise their original roles in the pilot, and show up for a few guest spots. The show even takes place in the same house! While I don’t remember the storylines from the original series that well, I am pretty sure they, like the sequel, revolved around kids trying to get away with things they shouldn’t (and usually getting caught), and the adults facing (humorous) issues in their romantic and professional lives. Through it all, the kids learned about growing up and the adults learned about parenting.

What makes Fuller House different are some subtle elements of its construction. Having three women running the house instead of three men produces an entirely different dynamic. For one thing, the women are very sexualized. It’s not to the extreme a show like Charmed took it (nor did I consider it a bad thing in that series), but it’s a bit edgy for what one would consider a squeaky-clean family show. The focus of most sexual comments is Jodie Sweetin’s character, who is portrayed as a hard-partying multiple-divorcee who just never got her life together. I’m not sure how we’re meant to feel about this given that Sweetin herself was an alcoholic by age 15, has multiple failed marriages to her credit, and spent her 20s high on pretty much every drug out there. She has since gotten clean, but it’s a bit disturbing to see Sweetin play a character that is essentially herself, given her very troubled past. It’s not that I don’t think TV shows should tackle difficult issues–they should!–but here, it’s played for laughs and not really taken seriously. She’s not on drugs in this portrayal, but she is shown to drink a lot and party frequently. It’s difficult to tell if this is a kind of therapy for Sweetin, evidence of a bizarre sense of humor on the part of the writers, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it’s strangely watchable, though I could do without the occasional sex-shaming comments that result from it.

Candace Cameron Bure’s character receives almost the opposite treatment. Bure is Kirk Cameron’s younger sister and, like Cameron, is a born-again Christian who takes her religious beliefs very seriously. In portraying DJ, she is about as innocent and upbeat as Bure herself probably is, but given her single status, she tries to work her way back into the dating world. She quickly bites off more than she can chew and ends up with not one but two suitors, whom she starts to date at the same time. A major plot point revolves around which man she’ll choose, and every time it comes up I wonder why they can’t go for the solution that’s staring them in the face: why can’t she stay with both? It becomes all the more obvious given what seems to be some serious sexual tension between the guys. I’ll grant that this is probably unintentional, but they have an odd chemistry and, rather than being at each other’s throats, become quite friendly with one another through their shared pursuit of DJ’s affections. I’m sure having that storyline settle into a triad relationship between the three of them would be far too controversial for a show like this. Nevertheless, I am again forced to wonder if the writers enjoy torturing their leads, since DJ is teased mercilessly by Stephanie and Kimmie for dating two men at the same time–something I imagine Bure herself would have some serious objections to. Of course, it is again played for laughs. Maybe everything is fine as long as it’s a joke.

Mary Kate and Ashley Olson, who played Michelle in the original show, famously declined to appear here. Their character is mentioned a few times and poked fun at. Will constant ribbing be enough to get one of them to appear next season? That might even be worth it.

I don’t have much to say about the kids and their storylines because they are largely forgettable. Adolescent Jackson is girl-crazy. Max is precocious like all little kids in sitcoms tend to be. Infant Tommy smiles, farts, and puts things in his mouth–you can’t expect much from a baby. Kimmie’s daughter Ramona feels out-of-place here, like she belongs in a better show.

Many jokes have been made about Fuller House being the curiously reanimated corpse of its predecessor. The similarities are so striking you can’t be sure if it’s a product of laziness or a clever bit of self-awareness. Maybe it’s lazy and self-aware. It’s like a trainwreck that you feel bad for watching, but you can’t tear your eyes away because it’s the strangest-looking trainwreck you’ve ever seen, cars flipping end-over-end, exploding into glorious fireballs reaching into the night sky, igniting memories of that show from the ‘80s that, honestly, was pretty bad in the first place, and you only remember fondly now because you’ve come to miss its familiarity, rather than its quality.

If there is a second season, all I can hope is that the show goes totally off the rails with its metacommentary and self-awareness, and minimizes the children as much as possible. I am fully in favor of more experimental future seasons. Failing that, I’ll use it to fall asleep to.