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Fall '01: "Maybe It's Me"

I am not a 15-year-old girl. I have never been a 15-year-old girl. And while there was once a time back in the Reagan administration when I spent an extremely large percentage of my brain power contemplating 15-year-old girls, that experience really hasn't prepared me to understand Maybe It's Me, a WB sitcom about a 15-year-old girl and a show that, I suspect, would be best appreciated by one.

Maybe It's Me is a single-camera sitcom about a bright kid trapped in a peculiar family, with oddball parents and annoying younger and older siblings. From that description, you might accurately assess that were it not for Malcolm in the Middle, Maybe It's Me would never have existed. That may well be true, but Maybe It's Me isn't just a non-union, north-of-the-border knockoff of the Malcolm format.

Unlike NBC's misguided Tucker, which aped Malcolm without any skill, there's a lot of skill behind Maybe It's Me. Even a 31-year-old man can see that. Reagan Dale Neis is extremely likeable as Molly Stage, a geek who's begun to transform into a cool kid, mostly because -- as we're painfully and repeatedly reminded -- she lost weight over the summer. But despite the presence of a gorgeous girlfriend (Vicki Davis) for Molly to hang out with, this isn't "Clueless," either. When Molly decides to drop cheerleading and rejoin her nerdy pals on the chess team, it's clear that Maybe It's Me is more about being true to yourself than about being popular.

Neis is surrounded by a bunch of familiar faces, none of them more welcome than Fred Willard. Last seen butchering dog show play-by-play commentary in "Best in Show," Willard is the latest in a long line of aging edgy comic actors to transform into goofy dad figures. Did he get tips from Eugene Levy (the goofy dad in "American Pie") and Joe Flaherty (the goofy dad in Freaks and Geeks) before stepping into the role of Jerry Stage? In any event, Willard is almost as entertaining to watch as the befuddled, soccer-obsessed patriarch of the Stage family as he was in "Best in Show." Willard's paired with Julia Sweeney, who as Mary Stage, has come a long way from the unabashed hell of "It's Pat." In a bit of bizarre casting, the Stages have a live-in grandma, played by Ellen Albertini Dow, the rappin' granny from Adam Sandler's "The Wedding Singer."

While the adults in Maybe It's Me might be in the same league as those on Malcolm (not as good as Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston, but in the ballpark), the news isn't as good on the sibling front: Molly's got younger twin sisters who aren't particularly interesting, and an older brother (Andrew Walker) who's a one-note bad boy. Most promising is brother Grant (Patrick Levis). Fresh from paying Donny Osmond in a TV movie, Levis is primed for his role as a Jesus freak who plays terrible Christian rock songs at the dinner table. Some religious groups will doubtless be offended by the simplistic way that Grant's religious fervor is depicted... and if the producers don't broaden the character soon, they'll be right to complain. But if handled properly, Grant could be the most worthy of all the show's supporting characters.

Even a talented cast can't succeed when it gets lousy material. But while parts of Maybe It's Me made me feel I had landed on an alien planet -- one populated entirely by adolescent girls -- many parts of it are downright funny.

Molly's embarrassment at her family's quirks are obviously at the heart of the show, which explains why it was called Maybe I'm Adopted until adopted people decided that the phrase seemed vaguely insulting and mounted a successful campaign to get the show's producers to change it. The result is, if I'm reading the otherwise cryptic runes of teenage girlhood correctly, a lot of jokes about how embarrassing it is to be a teenager.

But after watching Maybe It's Me for a while, I got a strange feeling -- the feeling that maybe it's not me, after all. Maybe it's the show.

I suspect that while Maybe It's Me may be one of the better Family Sitcoms out there, it will never break free of that mold and be in the same league as Malcolm. As male-dominated as it is, women I know still get a kick out of Malcolm. And while I spent most of my time empathizing with the geeks in Freaks and Geeks, I could also identify with what that show's female characters were going through.

Really good shows like those break through the barriers. They make you feel welcome, make you feel as if you understand the characters and can identify with them. They feel... more real, somehow.

Maybe It's Me doesn't make that leap. It's a funny show with a good cast and a lot of potential. It's the class of the Family Sitcom genre fronted in the past by such dubious headliners as Full House, Sabrina and Family Matters. Teenage girls will like it. Young women will like it. But I just couldn't quite connect with it.

So maybe it is me.


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