'Fuller House': TV Review
Netflix's 'Full House' reboot is mawkish, hammy, regressive — and everything fans will want.
Nostalgia's taint has deluded viewers of a certain generation into believing that, with its hammy child performances, overplayed catchphrases and perfunctory hugs, Full House was a good TV show, rather than a show that pandered to the absolute basest of family-friendly instincts. "They don't make shows like this anymore," fans often claim. But how does Netflix's rebooted Fuller House look in a world in which shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, The Middle, Black-ish and Modern Family all deliver family values, cute kids and life lessons along with quality and diversity of perspective?
To me, it looks even more egregious, but people likely to disagree really ought not to bother reading reviews anyway. What? You're reading a review to see if Fuller House recaptures the magic of the original? It absolutely does, if you remember that Voldemort practiced magic, too.
Think of Fuller House as a perverse play on Gus Van Sant's Psycho, only with Full House creator Jeff Franklin Xeroxing his own sitcom. Where high aspirations left Van Sant doomed to the perception of failure, Franklin and company are likely to succeed, because Fuller House is a mawkish, grating, broadly played chip off the Full House block.
It's doubtful that there will be a more painful 2016 TV episode than the Fuller House pilot, which takes an inexcusable 35 minutes to establish a plot that is just an inversion of the original Full House premise. Candace Cameron's D.J. is a newly widowed mother of a 13-year-old son (Michael Campion's Jackson), a 7-year-old son (Elias Harger's Max) and a baby (Dashiell and Fox Messitt as Tommy). Worried about how to cope, she enlists the help of prodigal sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and best bud Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber), a newly divorced mother of a 13-year-old girl (Soni Nicole Bringas' Ramona).
It's such a clean flip of the Full House formula that it's amazing the amount of bending over backwards it takes to justify the plot, even if that's secondary to slavish celebration of the original. One after another, Fuller House cast members appear onscreen and are greeted by extensive howling, wailing, teeth-gnashing cheers from what sounds like a rabid audience. It doesn't feel entirely inappropriate that John Stamos, Bob Saget, David Coulier and Lori Loughlin would get to bask in episode-halting applause, but when Scott Weinger and Blake and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit get nearly equal treatment, there's a sense that either the creators or the audience are messing with us, or messing with any kind of narrative momentum.
Also, it's one thing for a studio audience to engage in this sort of worship, but the Fuller House editors are determined to let us experience this rapture in paint-drying real time. It's when the main characters make reference to the absent Michelle (holdouts Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) and then turn and stare at the camera for no less than 13 seconds that you recognize how secondary storytelling is to fan service when it comes to Fuller House.
The Fuller House premiere is almost non-stop references to the original series, filling-in-the-gaps exposition and then a climactic homage to the Full House pilot that includes both clips from that series and reenactment. It has no desire to live as its own thing and it's a trend that continues in the early episodes. The second episode doesn't include any Full House clips, but it mentions and restages an allegedly classic scene. The third episode doesn't use clips or restage, but it features a retelling of the plot of an old episode and several nods and references. As part of a weaning process, those next episodes only include cameos by Stamos and Coulier, delivered with the exact level of subtlety that brought the Harlem Globetrotters to Gilligan's Island. At some point, D.J. needs a babysitter and Joey and Mr. Woodchuck fly in from Las Vegas and you realize how little effort has been put into making this anything less than ridiculous.
I've seen six Fuller House episodes and, to their credit, the last three are endeavoring to cut at least the most literal cords to Full House, to be their own show. There are still references to Full House and in-jokes about the stars' outside projects, including multiple reminders that Dancing With the Stars veteran Cameron Bure is a terrific dancer, but the former castmembers aren't contriving reasons to drop in and the direct mimeographing of plotlines has either stopped or become soft enough that this sporadic viewer of Full House was no longer jarred by their obviousness.
It thus becomes possible to finally look at Fuller House as its own thing, and the point that's instantly noticeable is that there's an intellectual flaw behind the plot inversion that nobody thought to care about. Full House was, no matter its quality, about upsetting gender expectations. It premiered in 1987, the same year as Three Men and a Baby and My Two Dads. There was something in the water. The idea of unmarried men thrust into paternal roles, specifically raising young women, was the next step beyond the '60s, '70s and early-'80s comedies in which professional women or single women raised children hilariously, as TV looked to reflect society and get distance from the Leave It To Beaver nuclear family sitcom model. It wasn't revolutionary, but it was progressive and zeitgeist-y.
Fuller House, then, is almost inherently regressive and follows no particular demographic or societal trend in dedicating episode after episode to teaching female characters who have or had careers and outside lives to re-concentrate on domesticity and motherhood. The forced male nurturing of Full House was about inclusiveness and stepping forward, but this is stepping back, even if you embrace the girl-power heart to this unholy Tanner-Gibbler trinity.
There's also something either unseemly or unsettling about copying and calling back so consciously to Full House, while also sexualizing the main female characters of Fuller House. This hasn't suddenly become an adult franchise, but it's apparently impossible not to make repeated references to Sweetin's chest and it will surely be up to Full House fans to decide if knowing that Kimmy is a demon in the sack is something that they're prepared for. [Eventually, if Fuller House lasts long enough, Kimmy is going to hook up with Jesse, Danny or Joey and that will be the end of the show. You've been warned. Brace yourself. That's where childhood ends.]
Cameron Bure and Sweetin grew up in the multicamera sitcom format, and they're both absolute pros when it comes to hitting punchlines, which stands as absolutely the most positive thing I will say about Fuller House. Kimmy Gibbler was always an acquired taste that I never acquired, so let's just say that Kimmy's character and Barber's performance have not been adjusted or modulated in their new capacity as series lead, so if her particular brand of strained wackiness amused you and if repetition of the word "Gibbler" never ceased to be funny for you, it'll still in play here.
Much of the success of Full House hinged on those mugging kids, who somehow got the same roars of approval every time they repeated their hackneyed catchphrases, even as they grew. So although my critical instinct would be to say that little Elias Harger, screaming every allegedly cute line of dialogue and very nearly addressing the camera, was irksomely precocious and distracting, he was probably doing exactly what the creators wanted and darned if he doesn't say "Holy Chalupas!" in each and every episode hoping to get his own "How rude!" or "You got it, dude." Campion and Bringas aren't quite as loud as Harger, but they also are playing to the back row. It's never a good idea to criticize baby actors, but it's an indisputable truth that Full House was blessed by how expressive Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were; Fuller House has not been similarly blessed when it comes to the Messitt twins.
Hugs were a unit of currency on Full House, and Fuller House tries for that as well, with the fifth episode coming closest to earning its sentimentality. But little else in Fuller House actually needs to be earned, at least not in the present tense. The hard work was done 20-plus years ago. The appetite for this show from the studio audience is such that the laziest of puns, misused slang or winks-and-nods is guaranteed full marks and with the writers knowing they can leave a child talking to a pen of puppies for three scenes and it isn't even necessary to write words to get a consistent response. Probably moreso than with any of the other recent television reboots, every reaction to Fuller House from both the studio audience and probably the home audience will be nigh on Pavlovian, and it's a study in how little needs to be done to produce drool.
In one episode, a friend from Stephanie's wild-and-crazy DJ days (not to be confused with her sister's D.J. days) shows up at the house, looks around and wonders, "This is a cult, isn't it?" Stephanie quickly replies, "It's not a cult. It's a family."
If you side with Stephanie, you're in the cult anyway and this review is irrelevant and you'll probably love Fuller House.
If you side with the friend, Netflix's reassembly of the Full House cult is everything you may have feared — but it wasn't made for you (or me), anyway.
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Andrea Barber, Michael Campion, Elias Harger, Soni Nicole Bringas
Creator: Jeff Franklin
Premiere date: Friday, Feb. 26 (Netflix).