Dharma & Greg
Season One (1997-1998) (Twentieth Century Fox-2006)
Watching the terrific Dharma and Greg reminds us of the time in which it was first broadcast, the late nineties; an era not so far away, yet compared to what was to come, now seems like a million years ago, a tranquil oasis of nice and peaceful.
If we miss the Clinton years now, watch this DVD and miss him a lot more. Little did we know what horror lie ahead, both in real life and on the tube. With a national scandal no more ridiculous and stupid than Monica Lewinsky, and with Must-See TV hits and misses coming at us from all angles, sitcoms seemed more appropriate and welcome then. If you listen closely, you can even hear internet jokes, being that the technology was new and just barely familiar, making it hip to mention, appreciated by those few already in the know.
The series itself worked because it played a pinball game full-tilt on cultural stereotypes, without apology. That it was infused with sharp and smart writing is what tallied up the extra bonus points. You’ve got all your bases covered here, from the overworked yuppie to the earth-mother hippie chick. It’s a winning mixture of high-fives and deep, cleansing breaths.
As well, you have the WASPy captain of industry who is ineffectual at home (during one of the many family spats, he pleads, “Can we move this along? I’m starting to sober up.”); the aging revolutionary (ponytail included) whose former hideouts are now all Starbucks (when his daughter finally gets a checking account, he protests, “you’re on the grid now!”); the pent-up, frat-boy-turned-lawyer who finds himself crying at an AT&T commercial (“excuse me for having a pulse!” he defends himself); and the high-class snob/matron whose unhappiness is just begging to be the butt of all jokes (regarding the last episode of Seinfeld, she says, “Everybody’s at home watching that show about the Jewish fellow.”)
The only new wrinkle here is Dharma’s best friend, a weird grrrrrl who lives and dresses far outside the mainstream, with rules that only apply to her own universe (she picks up men at Star Trek conventions, not because she is a Trekkie, but because she is into middle-aged virgins).
She doesn’t seem to go very deep, and, of course, that’s what makes her appear deeper than anyone else in the cast. Most everyone finds her scary. Almost ten years later, even this character is more or less stereotyped, but at the time it was a good, new call.
The premise of the series starts to dance on the wrong foot, but catches itself soon enough. Its intro is all cutesy-sitcom, playing on the idea of kismet and karma: a couple who are completely not right for each other and are polar opposites in temperament, taste and social stature, meet and marry within hours, to the horror of two sets of socially diametric parents. Okay, but the conflicts and the laughs kick in on their own sweet schedule, and we are spared the tiresome will-they-or-won’t-they cha-cha that sitcom writers seem to love, even though a longer courtship would have been more believable.
With that said, the show still knows what it’s doing. With a premise that could have been downloaded from any fish-out-of-water story, we are told for the billionth time that love conquers all, and that everything else (disapproval, snobbery, political opinion, lifestyle) is just mild distraction. There is the blatantly unreal: a U.S. attorney, with an eye on a run for Congress, marries an unpredictable, essentially strange woman whom he doesn’t know. And this is in an age when a public figure’s slightest indiscretions are X-rayed. This is followed by the even more blatantly unreal: a heat-seeking missile named Dharma Finkelstein, who makes herself at home in an abandoned battery factory and calls her parents by their first names, is so tolerant of man and beast that she’ll even be patient with and affectionate toward a dry, workaholic yuppie with practically no personality.
As the DVD box claims, “it’s New Age versus old school;” sitcom formula at its most conventional, but watch how they bend it and shape it to their advantage.
This exercise in perfect casting helps the stereotypes to sound off in distinct pitches all their own. The mothers, for example, are extremes of hot and cold. The earth mother chants phrases that would irritate anywhere else, but are downright hilarious here: “Dharma, I’m seeing feelings but I’m not hearing them;” or “when we compete, we don’t complete,” or most excellently, “we should never have had this conversation with Mars in retrograde.”
On the yang side, the WASPY society matron, handled with graceful expertise by Susan Sullivan, is practically a reincarnation of Margaret Dumont from the old Marx Brothers’ flicks, the easy foil. When asked where the potato masher is, she retorts, “I told you, I gave her the day off.” Or when Dharma complains that her high-class shoes pinch, the mother-in-law replies, “They’re supposed to pinch, they’re Italian.”
Another surprise is Joel Murray (yes, Bill Murray’s younger brother) as Pete, the best friend of the groom, the sexist who is most unfamiliar with sexual politics. Like Frasier and Niles’ father, Pete is the regular guy we can most relate to; he both accentuates and leverages the exaggeration of the other characters. When asked for advice on how to deal with a woman’s period, he replies, “I don’t know. I’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than 28 days.”
Of course, a sitcom wouldn’t be a sitcom without its glaring oversights. Greg marries Dharma for the woman that she is, and then essentially wants her to change into a totally different person, as part of a vision for his political gain. This seems especially real when he makes a run for the U.S. Congress in a time when sex scandal and peccadilloes are on the radar.
Conversely, Dharma, for all of her tree-hugging alternative lifestyle, seems to be easily impressed by wealth and creature comfort, and cleans up nicely when she’s forced to dress and act like a Congressman’s spouse. They don’t play the “My Fair Lady” card too often, but when they do, it’s loads of fun, and it’s very possible that we could actually use a little bit of Dharma’s influence on Congress (her name means “the ultimate truth of all things.”).
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 18, 2006.