But Debra and Marie Loved Each Other: A Look at IN-LAWS (NBC)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing some thoughts on the short-lived multi-camera sitcom In-Laws (2002-2003, NBC), which starred Elon Gold as an aspiring chef whose new wife (Bonnie Somerville, then coming off a stint as Mona on Friends) convinces him to move in with her parents, a daffy real estate agent (Jean Smart) and a domineering, overprotective businessman (Dennis Farina) who does NOT enjoy sharing his house — or his daughter — with another man. The series was created by Mark Reisman (Wings, Jenny, Frasier, The Exes), produced by Kelsey Grammer’s company, and scheduled on Frasier night — Tuesdays — as the new 8:00 anchor, a lead-in for the aging Just Shoot Me!

But as early press derided the show as an attempt to cash in on the successful 2000 remake of Meet The Parents (which spawned a similarly premised reality show), the network wanted to hedge its bets, and after scheduling two back-to-back episodes of In-Laws on the first Tuesday of the season, NBC did the same the following week (temporarily bumping Just Shoot Me!), before deciding whether its performance justified making it the 8:00 anchor. Naturally, with middling reviews and middling numbers, the show was quietly bumped back to 8:30, with Just Shoot Me! finally premiering as the lead-in. Unfortunately, neither show fared well in its new slot, and as the latter was shelved several times before fading off into the August sunset, In-Laws made it to January, with 14 of its 15 episodes aired.

Several years ago, all 15 episodes were put up on YouTube by a Jean Smart fan. I collected them and, having watched them all for this post, I’m here to say that In-Laws was no better than its treatment suggested… Although, the frequent gripe of calling the show a shameless copycat of Meet The Parents doesn’t get to the heart of why it’s unsatisfying. Oh, sure the subject matter is familiar, but it’s not as if Meet The Parents pioneered it — we’ve seen in-law drama on sitcoms ranging from December Bride to Bridget Loves Bernie, from The Mothers-In-Law to Everybody Loves Raymond  — and that’s because it’s an easily relatable structural conflict, for everyone understands the clashes that arise when two families are joined by marriage. Also, in its defense, In-Laws was written by funny folks — in addition to Reisman, staffers included Christopher Vane, Jeff Astrof, and Mike Sikowitz — and every episode displays an inherent understanding of what’s comedic and how the genre narratively fulfills its objectives.

No, the issue, as always, is the characterizations — whose problems are exacerbated by the structural design, which posits the Farina character, the father, as the lead, and writes his contentious dynamic with son-in-law Gold as the series’ core relationship. Almost every story is about their rivalry, with most of the animus coming from one side — the father — and this is unfortunate. Why? Well, not only is this clichéd (like reviews of the time suggested), but it’s also one-dimensional, for Farina hates Gold with the cartoonish disgust of overprotective fathers everywhere, and while his character is allowed some specific quirks (like his love for Dean Martin and a blatant attempt at coining a catchphrase: “private convo time”), there’s nothing unique motivating the rivalry. Unlike in the structurally reminiscent All In The Family, there’s nothing boldly understandable — such as Archie and Mike’s generation gap or their pronounced political differences — fueling In-Laws’ central conflict. (Gold is obviously Jewish while the rest of the family isn’t; but the show is too afraid to really use that until the final produced entry, left unbroadcast, in which Patti LuPone plays his mother, and the show pits her against Farina in an Archie/Maude-esque feud that’s political and bold… but too little, too late…)

I suppose there didn’t have to be something specific — there’s always natural tension in this kind of relationship, especially when in-laws are forced to share a roof (and there’s money involved), so we already understand, sort of, why this dynamic exists and can relate to it automatically. But, in this case, it’s gotta feel real, and it doesn’t... Let’s look at Debra and Marie’s relationship on Everybody Loves Raymond for comparison. In the best seasons of that show (which we just finished covering on Sitcom Tuesdays), the matriarchs’ feud was anything but subtle — and the episodic conflicts between the two were just as explicit and ferocious as those on In-Laws. But there never was hate for the sake of hate; there were legitimate disagreements about intrusiveness and honesty — and more impotently, there was a foundation of, something resembling love, which grounded their combativeness in something more nuanced and believable — a unifying connection that made their fights far less unpleasant than the one-note contempt that underscores the Farina/Gold stuff on In-Laws.

To that lack of nuance though, another part of the problem is the structure. While In-Laws focuses on the men and chooses to make its apolitical Archie Bunker the dramatic focus (if not the anchor — that’s still Gold as the foreign entity entering the established world), Everybody Loves Raymond wasn’t ABOUT Debra/Marie; they were merely engaged as gladiators in the central conflict, which involved Ray being caught between their competing interests… And this is, I think, the ultimate problem with In-Laws, for the Bonnie Somerville character is the one in the middle of the drama, and yet the show refuses to play to this in story. More devastatingly, it also doesn’t bother to give her much of a personality, meaning that not only are we not dramatically interested in her, but there’s also nothing making her funny… This is something we’ve seen before on these in-laws shows — the young newlywed couple tends to often be blah and without definition — but, here, Gold is defined by his bumbling neuroses, so the problem really exists with Somerville… the very character who needs to be grounding the otherwise contrived, overused, and hyperbolic relationship between the two men in her life.

Needless to say, the show should have pivoted more to the couple, letting their relationship be the emotional core, focusing specifically on giving her exploitable comic flaws and a point-of-view. Additionally, the Farina and Gold animosity needed to be toned down, contextualized by specifics (and I do think the show was trying to accomplish this in the latter half of its short run). This would have opened up space for other conflicts, hopefully some that better used Smart, who is undoubtedly the most naturally funny cast member and the one who, despite being the most dramatically extraneous, has the most interesting comedic perspective. To that point, a couple of recurring characters (a neighbor, a sibling, etc.) who could have given the cast — but especially Smart — more opportunities to reveal character, would have alleviated some of the pressure on the central drama, which needed time to develop (as all shows’ do)…

Nevertheless, in 15 weeks, there aren’t any great episodes. The unbroadcast LuPone entry is interesting because it supposes reasons for familial tension, but it’s not Gold combating Farina, so it doesn’t indicate a long-term fix. Meanwhile, I suppose the Halloween show is the most memorable, thanks to a bold Victory In Premise about a neighborhood decoration war… But, that’s all story; not character, and if I were going to pick one to represent the series, I need one that reflects the dynamic between the two men. On those terms, I’d choose the third installment, “The Mattress Kings,” a typical newlyweds story about the quest for the perfect bed (we’ve seen it on Barefoot In The Park and many of its derivatives — Love On A Rooftop, Bridget Loves Bernie, etc.) that turns into a contest between the two men, who both want to control which mattress is selected. It’s a generic conflict, but the teleplay, by Reisman, has laughs, and as the first written after the pilot, it reinforces the premise — but with less exposition. Directed by Pamela Fryman, it was originally broadcast during the second week of the season on October 1, 2002 in the earlier 8:00 slot that Just Shoot Me! would soon assume.



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Monday for this month’s Musical Theatre rarity!