From Monty Python to The Office, British television has long held a reputation as a purveyor of high-quality comedy. It is strange to note, then, that the Brits have seldom succeeded in pulling off that most basic staple of American TV comedy: the humble sitcom. Decades after its original airing, the excellent but short-lived Fawlty Towers is still spoken about in hushed, reverent tones as being some kind of high water mark, and the handful of British sitcoms that have found popularity in America (Are You Being Served?, As Time Goes By, Cold Feet) are met domestically with eye-rolling embarrassment. The wonderful Father Ted, an Irish production, stands as the noble exception to the rule, with Blackadder, Red Dwarf, and The League of Gentlemen all providing laughs a-plenty without really qualifying as Three-Wall, Three-Camera sitcoms.
My Family, then, represents a concerted attempt on the part of the BBC to fill the gap and create a Britcom squarely in the American tradition. Much is being made, for example, of the presence behind the scenes of Seinfeld executive producer Fred Barron, as well as the as-yet-untried-in-Britain-but-pretty-standard-in-America "table-writing" process of script generation, which involves a team of wisecracking writers tossing jokes around a table. It would be nice to be able to report that all the effort and outside-the-box thinking have paid off, but on the strength of the first episodes of Season One, the results are patchy at best.
The show’s premise is incredibly simple: it revolves around the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged married couple and their three children. The couple, Ben and Susan Harper, are played by Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker, both of whom have fairly impressive acting pedigrees (the latter is, perhaps unfairly, best known as Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The three children are Michael (bookish, nerdy, endearing, aged 12), Janey (sassy, blossoming into womanhood, endearing, aged 16), and Nick (slack-jawed, clueless, Hugh-Grantishly endearing, pushing 20). All the actors acquit themselves well, and the show’s strongest moments consist mostly of valiant attempts (especially on the parts of Lindsay and Wanamaker) to fight against the current and transcend the ho-hum script.
The trouble with My Family, at least in its early stages, is that the material the actors are given to work with is just very, very weak. Lord knows what this much-hailed team of writers were doing as they all sat around their big, tea-and-crumpet-laden table, but they certainly weren’t coming up with funny situations or dialog. Watch My Family with the volume turned down, and it certainly looks like a sitcom, but turn up the volume and you are subjected to exchanges like the following:
These are not funny lines. They are structured like jokes, they are delivered like jokes, and they are shot with the familiar camerawork of jokes, but they are simply not jokes. Their unfunny-ness hits home twice as hard when every other line is followed with a disproportionately vast eruption of prerecorded laughter. Lab-coated humorologists could spend hours picking apart My Family, analyzing the scripts and exploring exactly why they fail to generate mirth. What they would conclude, I think, is that the writers simply have tin ears for comedy. (The above exchange, picked more or less at random, is fairly representative of the show’s tone and caliber).
Even at its funniest moments, My Family falls far short of the gold standard it visibly strains to emulate. On the laugh-o-meter, these first episodes might find themselves alongside a below-par episode of Home Improvement. In fact, that is the show My Family most resembles—safe, mediocre, and square as robot crap. Even Tim Allen and crew, though, find ways to be subversive in ways that My Family has yet to discover. This does not mean that it won’t hit its stride later in the season (watch an early episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons sometime for a quick reminder that great comedy needs time), but for now it is stuck right in the middle of the road, with all the flatness and deadness that come with the territory.
– Ben Stephens