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Fall '02: An Affair to Forget

Before we turn our attention to Family Affair -- an inconsequential trifle that's hardly worthy of your attention or concern -- we should probably address TeeVee's oft-prickly relationship with Tim Curry, actor, singer and object of peculiarly strong affection among a certain segment of Internet user.

A couple of years back, Curry starred in an ABC sitcom, landing the part of a hack actor who's fallen on tough times and moves back into the hotel run by his ex-wife (portrayed by Annie Potts with just a hint of weary resignation in her eyes). I can't really recall the name of the show right now -- My Embarrassing Ex-Husband, Please Avert Your Eyes, Six Pounds of Shit in a Four-Pound Bag -- it's really not important. The point is, the show was terrible, Curry's performance was painful to watch, and we weren't exactly shy about saying so.

Repeatedly. In bold type. And in an especially eye-catching font.

Now, you may or may not know this, but Tim Curry has won himself quite the following in thirty-plus years of entertaining the world. And that following tends to be a) female b) passionately devoted to all things Curry, from his voice work in Fish Police to his turn as Wadsworth in "Clue" and c) absolutely bonkers. They read our pan of Tim Curry's work in that terrible, terrible TV series and did what any loyal, ardent nutbag would do in their place -- they flooded our mailbox with vitriolic letters, calling on us to turn in our TV-criticizing badges.

Well, you know how well we take criticism. The resulting scrum -- she got real ugly real fast. And while we take no great pleasure in making people cry, we did what we had to do. The result? There are a dozen or so Tim Curry fans out there who probably don't have our little Web page bookmarked right now. Oh, and Tim Curry? We used to be indifferent to him -- now, thanks to the efforts of his fervid fandom who bombarded us with letter after letter attesting to Tim Curry's unimpeachable curriculum vitae, we've become sickened by the very thought of him and his continued employment.

So well done, creepy Internet fans.

Which brings us to Family Affair, WB's showcase Thursday night sitcom starring none other than TeeVee's very first nemesis. Long-time readers of the site probably read somewhere that the Singing Frog Network was planning to revive the 1960s family comedy with Curry reprising the Mr. French role immortalized by Sebastian Cabot and thought, "Man, I bet the Vidiots are lined up three-deep to review that show." Maybe you had visions of us rubbing our hands with glee, sharpening our rhetorical knives against our figurative whetstones, and dog-earing the pages of Roget's Thesaurus containing especially pejorative adjectives, all in anticipation of our sweet transvestite, transsexual Transylvanian friend's return to prime-time television and into our crosshairs.

Well, I certainly hate to disappoint folks, especially now that you've developed a taste for blood, but after watching Family Affair and Tim Curry's performance therein, I have to concede that Curry does nothing to embarrass himself or warrant much abuse from me.

This is not to say that Curry's turn as Mr. French meets the bare minimum standard of what we would characterize as "good." Oh, Lord, no. In the first five minutes of the pilot, Curry is rolling his eyes heavenward. By minute seven, he's shooting someone a withering stare. Lips quavering, eyes bulging, veins popping -- all the nuances we've come to appreciate from Tim Curry in works as diverse as "Muppet Treasure Island" and "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" are on full display here. It's as if Curry modulates his performance not so much for the benefit of people watching him from the safety of their living rooms but more for any audience members passing over the sets in low-flying aircraft who might otherwise miss the subtleties of his work unless he amplifies it by a factor of 100. So Curry is a ham, and an unrepentant one at that.

Yet, on Family Affair, it strangely works.

After all, consider the source material. This is a remake of a treacly-sweet, diabetic-coma-inducing sitcom in which unbearably cute moppets match wits with a stuffy, straight-outta-Wodehouse manservant. If that doesn't call out for Curry's special brand of over-acting, God only knows what does. Better to have a hammy, over-the-top butler here than in, say, "Gosford Park."

Besides, Curry at least gives the impression that he looked at the script, realized this was a comedy and figured the audience tuning in might want to entertained. He seems to be having fun with his part. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Gary Cole -- a usually excellent actor who's displayed a flair for comic timing in such past projects as "Office Space" and Harvey Birdman -- who looks like he's serving a prison sentence here. Cole might as well spend his time staring off-camera waiting for the check to clear before he delivers his next line, for all the visible enthusiasm he brings to Family Affair.

So, in one of those black-is-white, up-is-down moments that makes us ask the bartender to pour us a double, we tune in to Family Affair expecting Tim Curry to underwhelm us with his hackery. And, as it turns out, a pretty solid case could be made that his performance is the best thing going for this slop. Certainly, Tim Curry isn't the worst thing about Family Affair, not by a longshot.

No, that honor goes to the children.

Those children would be Buffy and Jody, two little nippers so dripping with cuteness that they were probably manufactured in a lab somewhere. Wide-eyed and sweet-voiced, the children coo when they're happy and make boo-boo-kitty faces when they're sad and generally act like Margaret Keane paintings come to life.

Their every line is like a dagger in me.

Look, this is not meant as a knock on the youngsters who portray Buffy and Jody, even if they're so unremarkable that midway through the third episode of the show, I couldn't determine whether the producers had found a new kid to play Jody or if they had just given the old one a different haircut or if they had the folks at Digital Domain whip them up one of those CGI children. More tellingly, I couldn't be bothered to care. At any rate, I'm sure the tykes that play the two urchins are delightful people and won't be knocking off liquor stores a decade from now with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen driving the getaway car. What's more, while I'm perfectly willing to spend half-a-dozen paragraphs defaming Tim Curry and his cadre of demented fans, I draw the line at picking over the faults and missteps of child thespians. Suffice it to say, the producers have decided to make the children do blisteringly stupid things like throw an entire can of soup into a microwave oven -- can included, mind you -- and we're expected to guffaw at the heart-warming cuteness of it all instead of demand that the sociopathic monsters get bundled off to the nearest reformatory school before they can kill again.

Exempted from this general rebuke of Family Affair's younger set is Caitlin Wachs, who does a credible job playing the part of the teen-aged Cissy. In a dramatic departure from the original series, in which several lamps in Uncle Bill's swinging bachelor pad and had more substantial roles than Cissy, the remake treats Cissy as a central figure in the storylines. And, lest we have any doubt that this is The WB -- the network that adolescent girls built -- Wachs plays Cissy with a whole Clarissa-Sabrina-Buffy grrl power vibe. She will probably be one of Family Affair's bright spots, though confirming that statement would require me to watch more episodes than required by the bare minimum of professional duty. And that ain't happening, son.

If you're familiar with the Family Affair m.o. -- and apparently, fans of the show are so legion that The WB decided this remake had more potential for success over Flipper or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or even My Mother the Freakin' Car -- then you'll have little problem following along with the millennial edition. The theme song is the same. The premise is the same -- swinging architect and bon vivant raises his dead brother's kids with the help of his toffee-nosed domestic. The plots are the same -- last week's episode where Mr. French losses Buffy's doll was lifted more or less directly from the original series. And if most the cast of the original Family Affair hadn't shuffled off their mortal coil under particularly gruesome circumstances, you'd probably see the older actors popping up in cameos from time to time. About the only thing that's different in this version of Family Affair is that Gary Cole's Uncle Bill is a lot more open about his sexual conquests. In the premiere episode, for example, he's seen telling his date, an executive at a lingerie manufacturer (snicker), about the architecture of brassieres. Later, after his date has understandably fled at the sight of the children who are currently jumping up and down on the bed, a rueful Uncle Bill is heard to say, "Testing the bed springs, huh? I was hoping to do that myself tonight."

We make mention of this only so that when the Parents Television Council puts out a press release hailing Family Affair as wholesome entertainment for the entire family while decrying CSI for tearing apart at the fabric of home life or denouncing Buffy for exposing the youth of America to the Black Arts, you can know that the organization is full of crap.

But even if Family Affair was as wholesome and squeaky clean as a Davy and Goliath rerun, that wouldn't make the show any more pleasant for me to watch. Then again, when cobbling together this twaddle, it's unlikely The WB was thinking, "Man, this is the show that's finally going to capture us the embittered 30-year-old male demographic!" Family Affair really isn't assembled with me in mind. And if you're a frequent visitor to this particularly misanthropic Web site, it's not meant for the likes of you, either.

In fact, if you're reading this review right now and you're favorably inclined toward Family Affair, it means you arrived here for one of two reasons -- 1) you searched on Google for articles about Family Affair in order to have your taste in insipid programming validated by a third-party or 2) you're a Tim Curry fan looking for sites to include on the links page for your slavish fan site. In either case, you've probably stopped caring what I had to say long ago and are busily composing the lengthy e-mail to inform me of what an asshole I am. (Not to dissuade you, but that revelation is hardly a news flash around these parts, so you might want to consider more productive uses of your time.)

Still, for the benefit of the one or two readers who've stumbled across this review honestly in the dark as to whether 30 minutes a week of Family Affair is 30 minutes too many, we ask you to respond to the following questions with a simple yes or no.

1. The day they canceled the original Family Affair was like another Kennedy assassination to me.

2. I believe that history will judge Tim Curry as the finest actor to ever share the screen with Susan Sarandon, Sylvester Stallone and Miss Piggy.

3. The sight of simpering children doing consciously cute things leaves me all weak-kneed with joy.

If you've answered yes to all three of the questions above, congratulations -- you and Family Affair will have a long, fruitful life together. If you answered no, you may want to consider alternative forms of entertainment.

The Tim Curry fans who are angrily e-mailing us now will be happy to provide you with selections from his canon forthwith.


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