TV For TV Lovers: A Look at HI HONEY, I’M HOME!

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s entry looks at the two-season sitcom Hi Honey, I’m Home!, which aired for 13 episodes over the summers of 1991 and 1992. The first season was broadcast as part of ABC’s TGIF line-up and re-aired two days later on Nick at Nite, which exclusively carried the seven-episode second season the following summer. Press at the time cited the ABC-Nick deal as helping to create the “instant rerun,” but this was just PR — as we’ve seen before, episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, for instance, were broadcast on FOX several days after the originals aired on Showtime. This deal, however, was somewhat unique in that 13 episodes — all of which were produced at the now-defunct Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL (my old stomping grounds) — were guaranteed for telecast by Nick (I believe the first cable channel to produce a show for a broadcast network), regardless of the show’s fate on ABC, thus giving the series a “safety net” and the opportunity for a future — independent of a broadcast network’s bottom line. Unfortunately, while some critics found the premise initially amusing, this show was never destined for greatness — at best we can call it “cute,” which is hardly a compliment. After having seen all 13 episodes, I’ll tell you what, I think, holds it back from success, and then I’ll share my selections for the best episodes.

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The premise of Hi Honey, I’m Home! involves a TV-lovin’ teen, Mike Duff (Peter Benson), who discovers that his new next-door neighbors are the Nielsens (get it?), characters from a 1950s sitcom that have been relocated to New Jersey after their reruns have been pulled from syndication. The Nielsens consist of the daffy, perky homemaker Honey (Charlotte Booker), her stoic but bumbling husband Lloyd (Stephen C. Bradbury), and their two kids, the seemingly perfect Babs (Julie Benz) and the All-American Chucky (Danny Gura). They are a stark contrast to Mike’s own family, which consists of a frazzled feminist single-mother, Elaine (Susan Cella), and his delinquent younger brother Skunk (Eric Kushnick), both of whom were re-cast after the pilot, which included Dee Hoty and A.J. McLean, respectively. Only Mike knows of the Nielsens’ secret, and he helps the family adjust to life in the “real world” of the early ’90s, even though he and the Nielsens would both prefer living in black-and-white (which the Nielsens can turn on and off with their Turnerizer remote). Every episode includes a guest appearance by a favorite classic TV character, such as Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney, Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster, Ken Osmond as Eddie Haskell, etc., all of whom socialize with the Nielsens.

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This is TV for aficionados — and let’s note that the series was co-created by Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book — sounds right up my figurative alley, right?  Well, yes, this is a premise that gets an inherent emotional investment from me (and I’m sure many other TV lovers like me — like YOU), and with the advent of stations such as Nick at Nite (whose brand was beautifully reinforced by this series), the early ’90s was indeed a perfect time for a premise that both derived significant pleasures from one’s knowledge and love of TV classics, and also created the opportunity to work some of our favorite sitcom stars into the weekly narratives. (Let’s face it, it’s always a pleasure to see Eva Gabor as Lisa Douglas!) Also, the show boasts a laudably creative idea, perfectly representing this period in sitcom history, in which the mechanics of television were being called into question. We’ve seen this playful self-awareness on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which deconstructed the meaning of the fourth wall, and then on Married… With Children, which was designed as a specific rebellion against a television genre, and we’ll see it all ahead with shows like the subversively written Seinfeld and the subversively designed The Larry Sanders Show. But there’s a big difference; all those shows work as individual entities with individual merits, while Hi Honey, I’m Home! doesn’t.

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The primary problem with this series is that it’s relatively high-concept and finds the entirety of its humor from the premise instead of the characters. This means that all the show’s comedy is reliant on the series’ structural decision to satirize commonly held notions of 1950s sitcoms against the realities of the ’90s (or ’90s sitcoms, depending on who’s writing the teleplay). In this regard, if one had no idea about the nature of vintage television, there’d be absolutely nothing to enjoy here. Now, that’s not entirely a problem — this is targeted to an audience with an anticipated level of TV literacy, meaning that a knowledge — and love — of the medium is a requirement for viewing. However, the show doesn’t rely on this nostalgia as an added layer of enjoyment (like icing on a cake); it relies on this goodwill to shape its entire identity (you know, instead of using the characters). In basing its whole existence around the warm memories we viewers have for programs like Leave It To Beaver and The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, the series isn’t supplying anything of actual merit itself, and this is fundamentally problematic, for I ask that every situation comedy find an ample amount of humor in character-driven situations. Because the show isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, character-driven, one of the cardinal situation comedy sins is committed. Story/premise should seldom, if ever, trump character!

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But let’s, for the sake of argument, try to pretend that this isn’t a problem; let’s allow the series to derive its entertainment value from outside works — after all, we love these works too. There’s a natural sense of happiness and well-being that comes from the mere mention of such shows and people, and the use of stories, or even jokes, associated with these works yields similar joys. That should be enough, right? Maybe… but there are also issues within the show’s relationship to the classics it loves. While always reverent, the writing subordinates truth in favor of trope — thus betraying the very TV Lover to whom the show must cater. You see, the series clearly aims to lampoon the style associated with ’50s domestic sitcoms, but it goes so figuratively overboard in its attempts at parody that I can easily claim that no show in the 1950s had a sense of humor as hyperbolically bland or mode of playing so campily inhuman like the fictional Hi Honey, I’m Home! Yet, what’s even more troubling is that this exaggerated high-performative style of both playing and scripting carries over into the 1990s characters, as well — particularly the mother, Elaine, who is so stereotypically defined as a tough, but neurotic working single mom with a sense of community activism (for the sake of conflict against the naive Honey and misogynistic Lloyd) that she ends up too broadly crafted and seemingly as parodical as the Nielsens — which means that she can’t serve as a genuine contrast. Because I don’t think this lack of stylistic distinction was the show’s intention, it can conclusively be described as ill-modulated. (Interestingly, the unaired pilot was played less broadly…)

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Now I don’t want to “dog” the show too much — it truly means no harm! But I’d be remiss for not reiterating that aside from tonal foolishness,  it would have been more compelling to see all the characters, but particularly the ’50s foursome that the show obviously adores, regarded with more nuance, for a love and knowledge of that time in television history would otherwise reveal more complexity than the tropes suggest. (This is something subliminally projected by the 1997 film Pleasantville, which is an inversion of the Hi Honey, I’m Home! premise — kids from the ’90s visit a ’50s sitcom; it’s the better idea.) For instance, there’s one episode here in which the Nielsens learn about sex for the first time, which is a comedic concept and makes “sorta” sense if we establish that the only facts these beings know are the words they were given to say in each fictional episode — an interesting choice. But on the other hand, such a constrained depiction of these characters’ awareness ends up inevitably deriding the shows of the past for their “limitations” and “naive” idealism, without recognizing the subtlety, simplicity, and integrity that made these works special. Also, such adherence to false pastiche seems at odds with the way our beloved TV stars are treated, for they seem to be more dimensional than ever, with a credibility denied to the regulars. But this conflict between fidelity and parody also hints at another problem for the series: logic. (Yes, logic is important, even in a fantasy!)

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Unlike classic shows with similar fantastical premises, such as Bewitched or I Dream Of Jeannie, this series doesn’t just have to answer to its own universe; it has to answer to both ’90s notions of sitcom believability and the entire TV world with which its chosen to engage, which therefore makes breaches in logic not as easy to forgive (as they were on Bewitched, for example, which only had to answer to its own set of rules). There are two main concerns I have with regard to the series’ logic. The first is… if the sarcastic Elaine knows her son is a TV lover and watches a series called Hi Honey, I’m Home!, why does she not recognize her next-door neighbors as TV characters? The Nielsens are broader than broad and clearly stuck in a prior era — a smart woman of the ’90s should put two and two together, and we hold it against her character that she doesn’t. (Maybe if Hi Honey, I’m Home! was plainly regarded as a flop, like Honestly, Celeste! or The Brothers, this might have been more believable — and interesting.) The other dilemma is: if the Nielsens are ’50s characters who are friends with all the other shows with which they’ve been syndicated, including those from the ’60s and ’70s, then why are they so unaware of the changes in culture? In other words, how can these beings locked in a certain era associate with characters from other eras, and still be ignorant to all but their own? This requires double-think, and although the benefits of having all these classic characters around is ultimately justified, it’s detrimental to what little sense the series projects.

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But I hate being so hard on Hi Honey, I’m Home! It’s designed for me and it loves what I love. These above notions of quality hamper my ability to enjoy the show in full, but it’s joyful and easy to watch, and had I been around to see the original run (or attend a taping), it would inspire in me a lot of warm thoughts, I’m sure. Thus, unlike last year’s Lamentable ’80s series, in which I only shared one episode of each show because I couldn’t pick any favorites, I actually am going to select favorites this time — and note that they all come from the second season, as the outings produced later in the series’ brief run are less cartoony and stereotypical than their predecessors, with more attempts to give the characters needed susbtance.

 

01) Episode 7: “That Kind Of Girl” (Aired: 06/06/92)

The Nielsens learn about sex.

Written by Tom Leopold | Directed by Doug Rogers

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The first episode of the second season, this is the only outing to not feature a cameo appearance by a special guest star. Instead, the show incorporates footage of Shelley Fabares as Mary Stone from The Donna Reed Show into a telephone conversation with Babs Nielsen. This is among the show’s most comedic, and the premise is perhaps one of the show’s most fascinating.

02) Episode 10: “Elaine Takes A Wife” (Aired: 06/21/92)

Mike and Honey take a class on how to be more assertive.

Written by Irene Mecchi | Directed by Doug Rogers

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Let’s just be honest — the only reason that this installment makes this brief list is that it features the guest appearance of Georgia Engel as Georgette Baxter, who’s teaching a class on how to “Say Yes To No.” There’s an easy but delicious joke about the whereabouts of the rest of the WJM gang — Lou got spun off, Murray’s on a boat, and Sue Ann’s living in Miami. Funny.

03) Episode 11: “Date From Heck” (Aired: 06/28/92)

Honey tries to fix up Elaine with a date.

Written by Rick Mitz & Penny Stallings | Directed by Doug Rogers

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As with the above, I’m really highlighting this installment here for the incorporation of a guest appearance by Rose Marie as Sally Rogers, who shares a rapport with Booker’s Honey that makes the most sense of all the other guests (although it’s never explained how the Nielsens remained so young and their friends didn’t). Also, the story is classic vintage sitcom, and works.

04) Episode 13: “The Many Loves Of Mike Duff” (Aired: 07/12/92)

Mike gets two dates for the upcoming dance.

Written by Ned Rice | Directed by Doug Rogers

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This is the last episode of Hi Honey, I’m Home! and features the best usage of a guest star in the entire run — evidence that the show was getting ever-so-slightly better — in Dwayne Hickman as Dobie Gillis (whose show I hope to cover on this blog before I throw in my remote). The story makes use of the ongoing crush Mike has on Babs, and fits the Gillis mode.

 

Other episodes that merit mention include the first season’s “Hi Mom, I’m Not Home,” which engages in the year’s most appropriate story and even includes both a reference to Lucy Ricardo and a parody of her show, and “Honey’s First Job,” which is one of the better episodes for Booker’s Honey and features a great cameo by Eva Gabor as Lisa Douglas.

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NOTE TO ALL READERS: I have updated the “Coming Attractions” page and added a poll —  I want to find out which shows YOU want to see covered on Sitcom Tuesdays within the next 18 months. Sometime after Murphy Brown and Seinfeld (both of which are already written and will finish this June) but before July/August 2018, I will be discussing The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, and Friends. Those are definite. However, I want to know what other shows you want to see in this time period. Your choices are Wings, Dream On, Herman’s Head, Mad About You, The John Larroquette Show, Ellen, and Cybill. You can only vote once, but may choose as many of these shows as you wish. I’d be very grateful to get an idea of what (of those listed) you would like to see; I consider every new series a major commitment and knowing what my readers want is an important determining factor (of several) in how I choose to allocate my time. So head on over to the poll — and let me know! I’ll post the results in a few weeks. 

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more Married… With Children!

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