Nia, the heroine of the new CBS series My Big Fat Greek Life, is gabbing at an airport luggage carousel. She just came back from her honeymoon; she's Greek and she married -- gasp! -- a non-Greek guy. Her crazy family freaked out, of course, but now everything is OK. "Yeah," she says to the hapless guy she's cornered while waiting for her luggage, "it would make a good movie."
That story did indeed make a movie, although it was perhaps more popular than it was good. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a big fat fairy tale, and the way it got made was just Disney dreamy. Actress and producer Rita Wilson happened to watch Greek-American comedian Nia Vardalos doing a bit in Los Angeles about Vardolos' insane family and the ruckus its members raised when she fell in love with a non-Greek. Wilson made her husband, Tom Hanks, attend a performance. They loved it so much they gave Vardalos $5 million to make a movie based on her one-woman show. Armed with the cash, Vardalos was able to fend off movie studios' demands that she tinker with the ethnic formula. (Picture My Big Fat Lucrative Minority-Audience-Attracting Wedding marketed around J. Lo's callipygian charms.) Vardalos starred in the movie herself, along with likeable lunkhead John Corbett, the former aspiring Mr. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. The happy ending? Last year, Greek Wedding raked in some $200 million.
A reupholstered fairy tale, an ugly duckling transformed by true love -- it was familiar enough fare. But Greek Wedding also had that extra ethnic sauce. Its formula was simple: Foreign-food porn plus loud-ass, embarrassing family members plus ethnic tensions smoothed over by the bathetic glow of nuptials equals shiny, happy audiences. I had been hoping for more, especially after reading about Vardalos' refusal to alter her work. Visions of a cinematic Trojan horse danced in my head -- a big-hearted, generous thing that, once firmly ensconced in an audience's hearts and comfort zones, would crack open to reveal sharp, radical insights on tribalism, cultural insularity and ethnic politics and identity. Greek Wedding did touch on some of these issues; it also hinted at some of the darkness in protagonist Toula's family. Why the hell was a 30-year-old woman still tiptoeing around her tyrannical, stumpy Greek nationalist of a father? Why was Toula's Prince Charming such a dull pud, going along with her nutso family's unceasing demands? But instead of grappling with these elements to get at real, stinging truths, the movie just let its schematic characters -- the cranky old man, the mom who knows she's really boss, the ho-cum-cousin, the Old World granny and the imperious aunt, all yelling, all the time -- go wild.
With such thin material, Greek Wedding seems like perfect sitcom fare. But even so, something has been lost in the translation from the film to My Big Fat Greek Life: a lot of the warmth that made the movie palatable. Where she was once gracious and genuine in her movie and interviews, Vardalos seems to have gone shrill in her sitcom. There's also the problem of scope. Wedding revolved around just that -- a wedding, the giddy experience of falling in love and fitting a new loved one into an existing family. That whirl of activity and excitement could feed off the kooky-ensemble dynamic, and it led to some very funny moments. Most of these were handled by the hilarious Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula, who could dispense with a character's vegetarianism -- "He don't eat no meat? That's OK. I make lamb" -- and hold forth on the lump removed from her neck with equal aplomb. But as you may have noted, we've moved from a Wedding to a whole Life, and Vardalos' one-note conceit could hardly even fill the first episode.
Life picks up where the film was winding down: The newlyweds, named Nia and Thomas instead of Wedding's Toula and Ian, have returned home only to discover that overbearing Papa has purchased them a house. Do they take it and risk constant meddling? Or do they struggle along in a tiny studio apartment? Do we care? There's no sense of the drama or tension that marks good comedy, nor is there anything that we haven't seen in the movie. The gang's all here, screaming, yelling, frightening the nice WASP husband. Dad is still confusing control freakishness with love. (The house he purchased is right across from the family business, a Greek restaurant called Dancing Zorba's.) Aunt Voula is also kicking around, thankfully. With her perfect timing, she zings a piece of post-honeymoon advice for Thomas: "Women have zones. Call me, I have a book." In between frequent yelling and infrequent funny moments, the show pads its half-hour with some drivel about how difficult it must be for a father to let his daughter go. It's all very Lifetime TV.
The show's fuzzy blandness and feel-good mediocrity remind me of comedian Margaret Cho's short-lived sitcom, All-American Girl. The Korean-American comedian launched a similar wackjob-family show nearly 10 years ago. After being told that her face was too fat and losing creative control over the sitcom, Cho spiraled into years of drug abuse and eating disorders. She's made her comedic comeback, however, reclaiming her foul-mouthed, brilliant and loving one-woman rants on race in America, sexuality and the screwed-up Hollywood industry. She's particularly famous for her imitations of her mother, who is unexpectedly open-minded, shockingly forthright and down-to-earth -- a real pistol.
Vardalos may be much more experienced and business savvy than Cho was when the latter starred in her sitcom -- and as a result, less likely to stray down Cho's unhappy path. But without Cho's scathing eye for both politics and character in the service of "ethnic humor," Vardalos' show won't amount to much more than a string of lamb and freaky-dances jokes. It's time she focused less on the caricatured Greek part of the equation and more on the Life part, the truly crazy stuff of three-dimensional characters -- and ethnicity beyond baklava.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.
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