Shout! Factory // 1986 // 510 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 7th, 2009
Heather (chewing on a large "gummi" rat): Want a bite?
Mr. Belvedere: What flavor is it, plague?
Time to catch up with the Owens family of Pittsburgh. There's dad George (Bob Uecker), a sports writer; mom Marsha (Ilene Graff), who's returned to school and is studying to become a lawyer; oldest child, teenager Kevin (Rob Stone), whose dream is to lose his virginity; middle child, teen Heather (Tracy Wells), whose dreams involve boys and independence; and Wesley (Brice Beckham), a mischief-making pre-teen. Holding the family together is Mr. Belvedere (Christopher Hewett), a proper English butler who works as the family's live-in domestic. Belvedere is not just any butler. He's known the likes of Churchill and Gandhi, and he seems to have a history with the Queen.
How did Mr. Belvedere end up as caretaker for the wacky, yet typical, Owens clan? I couldn't tell you. I'm guessing that story was the basis of the pilot and maybe a few early episodes, but since this is Mr. Belvedere: Season Three, all those ducks are already in a row, and the time for that kind of exposition has long since passed.
Sitcoms are all about families. You've got your "family is what you make it" groups of friends and acquaintances, such as Seinfeld, Cheers, and Taxi, your nuclear-yet-non-traditional types like Two and a Half Men and Kate and Allie, your single-parent-with-kids like The Partridge Family and The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and the classic two-parents-and-offspring as represented by shows as diverse as Father Knows Best and Married with Children.
Mr. Belvedere is part of that last category, and while the Owens have none of the edge of the Bundys, they're also a far cry from the chaste '50s era Andersons and their ilk.
During its original, six-season run (1985-1990), Mr. Belvedere received respectable-enough ratings, though it wasn't "appointment TV." It was one of those shows that was just sort of "there," never producing a breakout star (as, say, Family Ties did with Michael J. Fox) or any truly memorable episodes. It spent much of its run as a "bubble show," a program whose renewal by the network was never assured. For most of its run, it aired Friday nights as part of ABC's loose-knit (at the time) family block, alongside shows like Webster, Full House, and Just the Ten of Us. Watching these episodes now, Mr. Belvedere seems like a slightly odd fit. A fair amount of the jokes in Mr. Belvedere are about sex, and not the "mom and dad getting romantic" type. For instance, as the hopelessly horny high schooler Kevin, Stone all but walks around with a constant erection; there's no doubt that his interest in girls has to do with "getting it," and his imposed chastity is much mocked and heavily discussed.
Little sister Heather isn't exactly a shrinking violet, either. While generally a level-headed "good girl," she's not above the snarky double entendre, as when she cracks to a girl in ballet class who shows her how to lift her legs over her head, "I hear you've had a lot of practice." Heather on more than one occasion dresses up like a tramp to attract boys, tries to bum a cigarette from an unsuspecting adult, gets a hold of prescription pills to try to lose weight, and while dating the Dumbest Jock in the World, breaks out the big guns to seduce him, only to be thwarted by the always-reliable Belvedere. Both Stone and Wells are appealing, personable actors, and they get some very funny storylines this season.
Brice Beckham's Wesley is spared the fate of so many other sitcom moppets and is never forced to deliver leering, smarmy, way-too-old-and-knowing jokes. Wesley pretty much finds girls icky and is refreshingly clueless about sex. He's also not an "Awww"-inspiring font of innocent wisdom. He's a relatively bratty kid who occasionally goes too far and is "punished" for his sins. Beckham's a good actor, not too cloying or annoying, and he makes a fine foil for the stuffy Belvedere.
As mom Marsha, Ilene Graff doesn't get as much to do as her castmates, though when she is given a storyline, she runs with it. Bob Uecker, on the other hand, is memorable as father George. Uecker could have gone the one-note route and played George as a clueless buffoon, but instead the actor -- better known as a former baseball player turned sports announcer -- creates a believably exasperated and not unintelligent character. George might butt heads with everyone else in the household, but this is not a show about putting one over on Dad. Add to that Uecker's down-to-Earth quality and smart timing, and you've got a nicely rounded and very recognizable man.
The eye of the storm, of course, is Belvedere, and stage vet Christopher Hewett plays the butler with a winking grace. As Judge Christopher Kulik noted in his review of the first two seasons, Belvedere is really more of a supporting character and frequent deus ex machina, tossing out not pearls of wisdom but spoonfuls of common sense. In this season, here and there the character takes center stage. Hewett is great fun, his understated delivery and ever-arching eyebrows a welcome relief from the usual kind of over-the-top sitcom characterizations whether he's sparring with Wesley or George, helping Kevin or Heather on their seemingly endless roads to adulthood, or recapping the episode's events in his journal.
Sometimes Mr. Belvedere tries too hard. It seems like every other episode is of the Very Special variety. We get stories about drugs (Mom takes amphetamines and becomes insufferably perky), self-respect (Kevis strikes out with the town slut because he treats her too nicely), infidelity (who wouldn't want to sleep with Bob Uecker?), Alzheimer's disease (no, Belvedere doesn't get dementia), fear of aging (that one's Belvedere's story), unemployment (George loses his job), marital strife (George moves out and Belvedere sends Dr. Joyce Brothers, Bubba Smith, Edwin Newman, and Susan Anton to talk to him), and the story of how Kevin finally -- finally! -- loses his virginity (to an older woman, the way Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and Billy Tate on Soap lost theirs). A two-parter that concerns itself with Belvedere being deported has perhaps the lamest resolution this side of "it's all a dream." While these episodes don't push the very specialness but so far -- there's always some ancillary story to keep things light -- the show is at its best when it focuses on simple, day-to-day stuff.
Shout! Factory gives us all 22 episodes from the show's 1986-87 season spread out over four discs. The DVDs are housed in a pair of slimline cases with episode descriptions on the back. They look and sound just fine. For extras, we get a series of cast commentaries featuring Stone, Wells, Graff, and Beckham. The commentaries are less episode-specific and more general and genial conversation about the Belvedere experience, and fans will find them to be a fun and occasionally enlightening listen. Unfortunately, they are not accessible from the remote, so you cannot toggle back and forth while watching the episodes.
Mr. Belvedere is a cut above the average '80's family sitcom, and Shout! Factory gives the show a level of respect that eluded it when it originally aired.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 510 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries