Anybody who’s ever tried to put together Ikea furniture has learned that even when you start with all the right parts, sometimes they just don’t fit together in the right way.
Family Dinner is the first web series created by The Young and the Restless actress Lauralee Bell and her husband Scott Martin. The pilot begins when desperate fame-hungry, mother Karen O’Connell (Bell) has a reality show producer (Dan Cortese of 90’s MTV fame and numerous sitcoms) join her family at the dinner table to document a typical O’Connell meal. At first Karen instructs the family to act “normal” and the producer isn’t interested, but once their real dysfunction leaks out, he likes what he sees, and the dinner tapings become a weekly event.
The concept is solid. Everybody thinks their family is “a little off”, so we can all get on board with the idea of a weekly showcase of family wackiness. And the cast is rounded out with pros like Bell’s longtime Y&R costar Aaron Lustig as Karen’s boring husband Steven and iconic comedienne Phyllis Diller as a raunchy, denture-wearing grandma who says whatever the hell she wants like “young girls are getting their monthly curse earlier these days because of all the hormones being fed to chickens and cows.” Even the children, played by Zach Cumer, Makaela Johnson, and Maxim Knight already have resumes far beyond their ages.
So what about Family Dinner wasn’t quite working for me? To put it bluntly, I didn’t believe I was watching a real family being captured on a reality show.
Both episodes were written and directed by first-timer Bell, who proves to be an adequate writer, structure-wise, especially in the pilot. The misdirect of introducing Karen’s “normal” family and then pulling the rug out to show their real dynamic worked for me and also showed us just how far Karen is willing to go for attention. But a lot of the dialogue feels written, especially coming out of the mouths of precocious children with high school vocabularies. And situations like grandma peeing on the floor or Kim throwing up on her little brother’s lap as he sits on a toilet just don’t ring true in a “slice of life” context.
But my problem isn’t as much about the occasional writing hiccups as it is about the directing and the tone. As strong as the cast is, they deliver their lines no differently than they would on the set of Y&R or Veronica’s Closet. They’re giving us the hard sell on every joke rather than playing it real and letting the humor come from the situation. The production values are very high for the web, but the flawless lighting actually works against the documentary feel as well and only serves to remind us that we’re watching actors on a set, reciting lines written in a script.
The popularity of The Office has lead to a stream of faux documentary/reality comedies that try to emulate its format. But the majority of them forget that “mockumentary” isn’t just about capturing the action with a single handheld camera. It’s also about making sure the action that handheld camera captures feels like real people doing real things. Which is why the Poäng they’re trying to assemble doesn’t come out looking like a chair, even though Ikea gave them all the right parts.