Lionsgate // 2001 // 264 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 9th, 2009
He thinks he's the head of the family. Humor him.
ABC's My Wife and Kids ran for just shy of five seasons, from 2001 to 2005. Co-created and starring Damon Wayans, it marked the comedian's big return to network television after Fox's seminal sketch show In Living Color. Though My Wife and Kids didn't push the envelope in the same way as Wayans' first show, it did use the sitcom formula to present not only an African-American point of view, but a view of family life with a harder edge than most of its contemporaries. Nearly a decade after it debuted, the series' first shortened season is available on DVD.
Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans, Bamboozled) has finally made it. He owns his own shipping company, and has a beautiful house in the suburbs and a loving family. But that doesn't make life any easier, especially when his wife, Jay (Tisha Campbell-Martin, Everybody Hates Chris), announces that she wants to start working full time, leaving him to deal with his kids. His 16-year-old son, Junior (George Gore II, New York Undercover), spends his days listening to rap music and fantasizing about women. His 12-year-old daughter, Claire (Jennifer Freeman, Mercy Street), is too focused on her body image and keeping up with her friends to give her parents the time of day. And preschooler Kady (Parker McKenna Posey, Alice Upside Down) is quickly growing out of her role as Daddy's little girl. What's a father to do?
Wy Wife and Kids is a strange beast. It mixes everything you'd expect to find in a family sitcom (wacky scenarios, life lessons, child-parent conflict) with a lot of stuff you wouldn't (frank discussions about sex in front of the kids, for instance, and a father who alternates between supportive and scheming). It tries to update the upper middle class black family formula of The Cosby Show in a way that acknowledges things like rap music and African American culture, while at the same time hewing to the time-honored traditions of the TGIF set.
Perhaps the strangest sitcom convention is that, despite everyone making jokes, no one ever laughs. My Wife and Kids gets that right at least. Michael is always cracking jokes, and often cracks up his family. But that relative realism comes with a price. He uses humor as a weapon, casually mocking family members for no apparent reason other than because he thinks it's funny. Even if the jokes are clever, it comes across as creepy. Some of the plot devices are equally disturbing. Is it okay for a parent to invite a bully's parents over for a dinner party just so he can gather dirt that his kid can use as verbal ammunition at school the next day? What about getting so worked up about your son beating you at basketball that you taunt him back and train hard so you can humiliate him on the court? It all adds up to the portrait of a proud man who has trouble getting over his own ego despite genuinely loving his family -- a good character for a drama, perhaps, but not so much for a saccharine sitcom.
There's also something strange about watching a seemingly traditional sitcom that has a running joke between parents about how much their son masturbates in the bathroom, or has a dad bribe his son to bring up his grades in order to satisfy his wife so that she'll satisfy him. That kind of earthiness should be refreshing but in this context it's just unsettling.
Damon Wayans is the star of the show and he knows it. Every episode revolves around him in some way. He gets the most jokes, and uses the series as an excuse to show off his many impressions. That so many of them are hopelessly dated (Bill Clinton and Louis Farrakhan, for example) isn't his fault. That he can't go ten minutes without doing one is.
It makes sense for the show to be so Damon Wayans-centric. Otherwise it would probably be called "A Husband, a Wife, and their Kids." His character, Michael, is a man of contradictions. He obviously loves his family and works hard to provide for them, but he also has a very clear idea about the traditional life he wants in return. He doesn't like his wife working outside the house partly because he wants their family to be strong, but also because he wants her to have dinner waiting for him when he gets home from work. He wants his kids to succeed in life and at school, but isn't afraid to play practical jokes on them or bully them to get the desired result. Instead of acting like a grown-up, he's often as childish as they are. And he wonders why he doesn't have the perfect family?
Compared to the episode count of later seasons, My Wife and Kids: Season One clocks in with a paltry 12 episodes. The widescreen picture looks crisp and clear, with a 5.1 audio track that's surround in name only.
Unfortunately, there aren't any extras -- no commentary, no making-of featurette, nothing. My guess is this short first season is testing the waters to see how much demand there is for this show on DVD. For the fans' sake, I hope it does well enough that they finally get some bonus materials on later sets.
My Wife and Kids was on for five seasons, and ended because Wayans wanted to, not because the network pulled the plug. That means it had an audience. The first season didn't do much for me, but it does have some decent laughs and if you liked it when it originally aired you'll probably like it on DVD.
My Wife and Kids is a strange show that can't quite decide what it wants to be. It looks like a traditional sitcom, but tries for a half-hearted realism that feels out of place. Though his hard-edged comedy doesn't translate well to a family comedy, Damon Wayans is a charismatic, funny guy. If you liked the show when it was on, this might be for you. Given everything that's happened to sitcoms since 2001, though, this style of show is going to feel outdated to pretty much everyone else.
Court-ordered family therapy should do the trick.
Review content copyright © 2009 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 264 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated