Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Complete First Season Of Pointless And Contrived: Dharma And Greg Season 1 On DVD!

The Good: (Very few) Moments of humor, Moments of character
The Bad: One of the most obvious one-trick ponies out there, Lackluster DVD bonuses, Overdone sitcom plots.
The Basics: When Dharma - daughter of hippie parents - meets Greg - son of yuppie parents - generic mismatch comedy ensues in a bland DVD release.

Often when relationships end, it's a good time to look at life, what you've shared with someone and your general outlook on existence and take stock. After living with someone for over three years, when that relationship dissolved, I looked over my DVD and music collections and it got me thinking. My DVDs were almost entirely devoid of comedy, my music shelf suddenly came to lack all the quasi-Goth music and the raspy drawl of Tom Waits. In the year and a half since that departure, I realized the only works I've looked to replace are U2's Zooropa (still looking for a copy) and Twin Peaks (reviewed here!). Now my permanent DVD collection spans 113 volumes (many of which are boxed set seasons of television series) and of those, only 10 are straight out comedies! Most of those are Kevin Smith's View Askew movies and Family Guy DVDs. In fact, more than comedies that are in the collection, I have dramedies, the series' that straddle the line between comedy and drama. My point with all of this is that sitcoms are incredibly difficult for me find the value in investing in; they might be worth a viewing, but very few are so good or indispensable as to make it into my permanent collection (see the end of the review for some). Far more often, with situational comedies that make it onto DVD, I find myself watching them and wondering "why?!"

Your average sitcom is what syndication is made for. Seriously, most people who will sit down and watch a comedy will tend to be indifferent to the actual episode and more enjoy the general experience of watching characters they like doing stuff. So, for example, According To Jim and The George Lopez show are not being rushed to DVD because they'll never be phenomenal sellers because they are strictly average (at best) television. At worst, they are hokey rip-off of other sitcoms. Sure, average shows get rushed to market. I suspect 'Til Death - Season 1 was brought out to capitalize on the potential cross-market of Everybody Loves Raymond fans who were out buying the last boxed sets of that series. So, I was more than a little surprised when I found Dharma & Greg Season 1 on DVD recently. Of all the sitcoms from the 1990s, it struck me as one of the ones that would fall into the category of surviving on in syndication rather than desperately attempting to get picked up by DVD fans. Especially in its first season, Dharma & Greg was, at best, an average laugh-track sitcom with a basic "Ethnic Mismatch" premise with only a slight twist. And yet, here it sits before me.

As young children, Dharma, a free spirit girl of hippie parents, was visiting New York City and she exchanged glances with Greg, the son of a wealthy businessman and his socialite wife. Now, almost twenty years later, Dharma tracks Greg down and convinces him to uproot his life and begin a relationship with her. They marry on their first date and try to live with their decision in the episodes that follow. What follows is Dharma and her artistic, freedom loving, money shunning parents and friends trying to get to know Greg's uptight, business-oriented, highly capitalist and goal-oriented parents and friends.

The first season finds Dharma and Greg navigating early misunderstandings in their relationship, like Dharma buying Greg a shower and making Thanksgiving dinner for the families. As well, Dharma convinces Greg to start working at a fast food restaurant and she takes Kitty to a porn shop. Their family and friends join the somewhat predictable series' of conflicts arising from the artist vs. businessman divide when Dharma and Greg join a dance competition at Kitty and Edward's club and the women deal with Kitty turning 50 while the men go skiing.

With 23 episodes on three discs, Dharma & Greg- Season 1 is a monument to the ridiculously average. I understand that this is intended as a comedy, but the concept is so ridiculous in its simplicity as to be utterly insulting to a viewer. So, for example, Dharma is only moderately employed, yet looks like she just stepped off a model's runway in virtually every scene she is in! Greg, supposed uptight businessman, drops everything to be with her. So, from the beginning, the whole purpose and concept is somewhat skewed; Dharma is never as poor as reality would have her be and Greg is never as dogmatically pragmatic as everyone characterizes him as.

But, we're supposed to overlook such things as the conceits of comedy. The problem is, when one bases a whole series on the idea that the comedy is based on a mismatch, the mismatch needs to work. Moreover, the characters need to actually make sense. From the beginning, Greg does not make as much sense as a foil/complementary character to Dharma because by the end of the first episode he is already making a giant impulsive life change. But more than that, outside the fabulous sex that Dharma and Greg have off-screen, there's nothing to indicate exactly what would attract Greg to Dharma other than her assertions that fate has led them together. This seems especially ridiculous when one considers that he is supposedly a practical, goal-oriented businessman with laser beam focus to take over the company he is working for.

And outside the basic concept, the episodes fall remarkably along the lines of virtually every other relationship sitcom and buddy comedy. Greg's parents do not like Dharma, which is a common comedic foible and Dharma's parents are open to Greg, which makes him somewhat uncomfortable and causes him to question what his love for Dharma could be, which is a pretty standard plot/character idea in sitcoms as well. Moreover, Greg's friends interact with Dharma in the comedically obvious way and they end up much more as "types" than genuine characters. Indeed, instead of popping with originality, Greg's friends seem like cookie-cutter sidekicks. The first season has almost no scenes that do not contain either Dharma or Greg (subsequent seasons find whole episodes focusing on Greg and Dharma's respective parents doing their own thing or interacting with one another) and the scenes that find Greg with his friends are often far more bland than one might want them to be.

"Typical" is a good way to describe the plots of Dharma & Greg, with "one-trick pony" describing the characters and the basic sense of comedy to the series. In general, the characters embody types much more than a collection of experiences and a realistic sense of personality. The result is episode after episode with essentially the same jokes, involving the culture clash between the art and business worlds. And it's not terribly funny and certainly not as audacious as it could have been.

Still, it helps to know the principle characters and in the first season of Dharma & Greg, the essential characters include:

Dharma Montgomery - She is a wacky, new age nymph with a belief in fate and the essential goodness of the world and a disdain for the culture of money. She is drawn to Greg by a sense of inevitability and grand design that leads her to pursue him romantically, soon she is with him in every meaningful way and looking to spend her life with him, despite the fact that he has many of the trappings of wealth,

Greg Montgomery - A businessman working in the uncreative world of law, he allows himself be led away by Dharma who intrigues him. Getting used to her attitudes of life, liberty and lack of commitment to a future with plans, Greg finds himself uncomfortable and growing through much of the season,

Kitty Montgomery - Greg's wealthy, often-drinking mother, she is generally unhappy in her stable, uncommunicative relationship with husband, Edward. She loved Greg, but is concerned at his attraction for Dharma which she sees as a distraction from his career and society tracks,

Edward Montgomery - Kitty's husband, Greg's father. He is a successful businessman but is often dominated at home by Kitty. He seems to prefer a stiff drink to her company and he enjoys all his wealth my buy him. He loves Greg, though he would not tell him unless prompted by Dharma,

Abby - Dharma's flaky hippie mother. That's pretty much all she's characterized as,

Larry - Dharma's flaky hippie father, he is a slightly overweight, pot-loving bohemian who lives as if the countercultural revolution never ended. He's spacey and easily confused, though he generally accepts Greg into his life,

Jane - Dharma's annoying girl friend, she is supportive of Dharma, though she often reduces the attraction to a matter of simple sexuality and she pretty much hates men. Frequently at odds with Pete,

Pete - Greg's laid-back friend who arrives just in time to make the punchline observation and/or to be verbally beaten on by Jane.

Dharma & Greg quickly establishes the characters and the actors who portray them establish them with little spark or zeal that is not in the bland scripts. This is generic ABC laugh-track comedy and it is baffling to me who the target market of buyers might be. Even the talent that does exist in the cast is sublimated for bland stupidity or dull characterization. So, for example, when Mitch Ryan appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Kyle Riker in "The Icarus Factor" (reviewed here!) he took a brief role and made it emotionally relevant and interesting, even as he infused it with a sense of chemistry and loss. But as Edward Montgopmery, he is devoid of any traits that make us want to care about him. Instead, viewers sit, wait for his perfectly timed, understated insult of his wife and her wants and needs in a situation and are unimpressed when he delivers the bare minimum to get a reaction.

Thomas Gibson plays Greg and he highlights the cast of Hollywood-good-looking, fairly bland white men with his completely average portrayal of the often monolithic Greg. Gibson's performance does not make the viewer question the character's motives or wonder about his backstory. Instead, he is very much a character who appears on the surface and what the character appears as on the script page is exactly the flat, underdeveloped performance Gibson delivers.

It is Jenna Elfman as Dharma who is charged with selling the series, though. She is a perky-eyed hollywood beautiful blonde who plays Dharma as perky and pretty much the 1990s interpretation of the 1960's sexually liberated woman. The problem with the series and Elfman's performance is that once that type is established, the show does not do anything extraordinary with it. Okay, Elfman plays a character who is kind and loving and forgiving and happens to be the societal archetype of beauty. Next week (next episode, next disc) it's more of the same and the series quickly gets a repetitive quality to it that never genuinely stretches Elfman past her original starting performance.

On DVD, Dharma & Greg- Season 1 suffers as a minimal bonus release. It's hard enough mustering up the enthusiasm to play these episodes, it's surprising Jenna Elfman and other cast members would take the time to do commentary tracks. Then again, what has Elfman been up to lately? In addition to commentary tracks, the "vanity cards" from the end of the episodes are available for viewing so they may be read clearly. There is also one fairly basic featurette from the series creator. On DVD, Dharma & Greg does not have all of its original incidental music, though what has been changed specifically is not noted nor did such apparent changes make any significant (or noticeable) difference in the program. All in all, it's a pretty mediocre release.

Who will like this release? I'm not sure. I suppose anyone who has the obsessive need to watch the same one-trick pony over and over and over and over again. Otherwise, this boxed set does not retain its value and need not plague anyone's shelf as part of their permanent collection.

For vastly better comedies on DVD, I'd like to recommend viewers check out any of the following:
Arrested Development
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Clerks The Animated Series


For other television and movie reviews, be sure to visit my Index Page for organized listings!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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