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Fall '99: "Get Real"

How I wish for those days gone by when breaking the fourth wall on a TV show -- acknowledging that there really was an audience out there, and that everyone was in on the joke -- was a clever device used by clever shows that made their audiences feel equally clever.

Those days are gone, as gone as the 25-cent comic book, the nickel candy bar, the Edsel, and Brent Musberger. Today we live in a world where the self-referential has been run into the ground. Today we live in a world populated by Fox's new, nearly unwatchable, Get Real.

Get Real is an hourlong Ally-spawn, an indefinable comedy-drama hybrid about a family that owes a lot to The Wonder Years. And in Get Real, not only do the characters talk to the camera, they talk to the camera about other TV shows, as well as their own. In the two-hour pilot alone, we're forced to hear references to My So-Called Life, Dawson's Creek, Ally McBeal, and 7th Heaven. Get Real doesn't just break down the fourth wall. It pulverizes it, and pelts us senseless with the rubble.

Worse yet, the turn-to-the-camera dialogue isn't limited to little winking references here and there. It's in practically every scene, so permeating the action that sometimes it's hard to tell who's talking to the camera and who's talking to other characters on the show. Dubbed-in voiceovers are jarringly transformed into on-camera dialogue. It's a disaster.

Which pretty much covers Get Real altogether. In an attempt to breed a hybrid of a family series like 7th Heaven and a sassy teen show like 90210 (at least, back when its main characters were people in their 20s playing teenagers and not people in their 30s playing 20-year-olds), Fox has wrought a series with ridiculous dialogue, bad ideas, goofy dream sequences (thanks a lot, Ally) -- everything but the kitchen sink. And the kitchen sink's actually there, too, since through the entire pilot episode the family's kitchen is being remodeled.

Here's the scenario, straight from the fertile mind of creator Clyde Phillips, who previously brought us Suddenly Susan. Mitch (John Tenney) and Mary (Debrah Farentino) have a troubled marriage. When we first meet Mary, she's having a fantasy (complete with orgasms) about having a perfect family and a perfect husband. Son Cameron (Eric Christian Olsen) is a high-school playboy with a parade of girlfriends. We first meet him when his mother enters his bedroom to discover him naked in bed with his latest conquest, the morning after -- and though Mary makes some noises about being upset, nothing much happens as a result. She moves on to other matters. Dad seems not to give a shit.

Now I don't know about where you grew up, but in my neighborhood you'd be in deep trouble if your parents found you with a pretty young thing in your own bed in your own house.

Christina Pickles is Elizabeth, Mitch's mom, who now lives with the family since her husband passed away. If Get Real were on CBS, she'd be the star; but it's on Fox, and she seems much more like part of the furniture than an important part of the cast.

The other kids in this family are Meghan (Anne Hathaway) and Kenny (Jesse Eisenberg), and they're a little less annoying than Cameron. Meghan is yet another mixture of coming-of-age cliches -- she's the misunderstood overachiever who has decided to rebel against her mother by choosing not to go to college. Again, I remember a time when a character like Meghan was a joy to discover. But in these times, Meghans are a dime a dozen, just another spot on the big Wheel of Quirky Character Traits.

Kenny is the best of the bunch, though he's really a cross between the geeks on The Wonder Years and the self-referential and improbably attractive geeks on Dawson's Creek. He gets beat up at school after protecting a friend of his in a ludicrously melodramatic confrontation with a bully. He fantasizes about a beautiful girl who ends up dating his brother. But he also gets the best lines in the show and is by far the most sympathetic character in the show.

But that's a small comfort given how excruciatingly dull Get Real is. That two-hour premiere episode I mentioned? It's actually only an hour -- it just seemed like two while I was watching it. I hate to say that a show that tries to hard to bend genres, break through the fourth wall, and provide quirky characters is formulaic, but that's just what Get Real is. It's a cookie-cutter show -- sure, it's using a wacky, off-center cookie cutter, but it's got the whiff of painting by numbers about it just the same. Sadly, Get Real is about as far from real as TV ever gets.


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