Judge Christopher Kulik might just live the good life yet.
Our review of Mr. Belvedere: Season Three, published October 7th, 2009, is also available.
"Streaks on the china never mattered before…Who cares?
Gwen Davenport's popular 1947 novel Belvedere served as the basis for a film trilogy starting with Sitting Pretty, which garnered star Clifton Webb an Academy Award nomination. When the films ran their course, Mr. Belvedere tried several times to find a home on the small screen, with no luck. In 1985, the portly English butler was finally given the green light by ABC, although it was reportedly more or less a vehicle specifically created for Bob "Mr. Baseball" Uecker. Mr. Belvedere never received high ratings or critical acclaim, but served up a platter of laughs and a bundle of warmth for its modest fan base over a six-season run. Now that the first two seasons are on DVD courtesy of Shout! Factory, does the show hold up after nearly 25 years?
Facts of the Case
Having worked for Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II, Lynn Belvedere (Christopher Hewett, The Producers) has decided to go to America to find a new job. He calls upon the Owens family in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Pittsburgh), who had recently put out an ad for a domestic. Wife Marsha (Ilene Graff, Ladybugs) has decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an attorney, thus spending very little time with her three children: high school junior Kevin (Rob Stone, Terminal Entry), freshman Heather (Tracy Wells, Gremlins), and fifth grader Wesley (Brice Beckham, I Hate My 30's). Her husband George (Uecker, Major League) is a sports columnist who finds Mr. Belvedere a bit too cheeky, but is pushed into hiring him when Belvedere bonds with the kids. Eventually, George and Belvedere see eye to eye, as the latter ingratiates himself within the walls of the Owens residence.
Under license from Twentieth Century Fox, Shout! Factory presents all 29 episodes from the first two seasons on five discs.
As one of the many avid watchers who caught Mr. Belvedere on primetime, it's an absolute joy to see it on DVD. Part of the reason is because it has been virtually unseen for over 15 years, despite the fact it's been in syndication the entire time. For some reason, the show struggled to stay on the air, even being cancelled without notice in 1987. Although it returned due to viewer demands, the show never once entered the top 30 Nielsen ratings, while serving a steady but loyal audience. In other words, it barely remained on the air. I'm sure ABC became impatient with its lackluster performance, particularly when compared to other dominating family sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Even short-lived, second-tier shows like My Sister Sam and The Hogan Family performed better.
Why didn't Mr. Belvedere make a better impression? Its Friday night competition—NBC's Knight Rider and CBS' Twilight Zone, with an aging A-Team and Dallas coming later—was partially responsible. In Fall of 1989, the show was doomed, moved to graveyard Saturdays against Cops. My theory is many viewed the show as "routine" and "just another family show with a funny domestic." Some no doubt felt the title character was, in essence, the comic focal point and a panacea to all the little problems which would spring up day after day. If one of the kids screwed up, Mr. Belvedere would be there to help. If Kevin or Heather had dating problems, Mr. Belvedere would be there to offer advice. If George or Marsha had a fight or a marital crisis, Belvedere would serve as the go-between…and so on, and so on, and so on.
Those who held these perceptions likely dismissed the show too easily or too early. The reality was Mr. Belvedere was more of a supporting character, usually making witty asides in response to conversations and conflicts between certain members of the family. More often than not, he might push one of the Owens to do the right thing but not tell them what to do, ultimately letting them make their own judgments. Sure, the premise itself was contrived but creators Frank Dungan, Jeff Stein, and Tony Sheehan went off into some unusual directions. For one thing, the comedy is never uproarious, as none of the Owens' exploits are outrageous or unbelievable. They could have easily made Wesley the ultimate troublemaker, but instead went for a more honest interpretation of a very smart kid easily seduced by peer pressure with his sometimes juvenile dad setting a bad example. On the other hand, the early conflict between George and Belvedere is obvious, opening the door for some sneaky (and predictable) insults. However, they eventually grew to tolerate and like each other, which improved things greatly. Indeed, Mr. Belvedere does take some time to work its magic, but does so with comfortable doses of warmth and humor.
At first glance, Mr. Belvedere looks like a wholesome, clean family sitcom in the vein of Full House. Surprisingly, much of the humor was sly and slightly sardonic, with some jokes more edgy than you might remember. Examples include the mother-daughter dialogue, which includes numerous references to sex, birth control, and the occasional use of double entendres regarding George and Marsha's love-making. Even Wesley can get by with a wicked or suggestive statement, like when he is dragged to a Swedish movie where the characters are (in his words) "naked and rolling around in the snow." As for Mr. Belvedere, his one-liners are playful without being wacky or obnoxious; if it was the opposite, it would have unfortunately rendered his character as a one-joke punchline. Everyone is given a chance to shine, with no spotlight-hogging, greatly emphasizing the show's originality.
This sitcom was not afraid to address relevant social issues nor beat one over the head with a message. There are the usual topics of underage drinking ("The Contract"), addiction ("Pinball"), and running away from home ("The Letter"), although the writers weren't afraid to delve into homelessness ("Sweet Charity") or unconventional romance (Kevin dates an Amish girl and Heather gets involved with her blind French tutor). The one episode most people remember is "Wesley's Friend," which might well be the first ever to deal with AIDS. The story is handled with taste and respect, and the incorporated comedy actually holds up quite well. Wesley learns to ignore the kids at school and be with his friend. When everyone else has rejected him, he brings up the time they were at the movies and left Bambi to go see Porky's.
Sitcom aesthetics and social themes aside, what really sells Mr. Belvedere is the attendance of a completely disarming family. The Owens may reflect real families while also being scripted in terms of eccentricities and dialogue, but each actor attacks the material with honesty and spirit. Uecker's sports-obsessed dad is delightfully snarky, and the chemistry between him and the late Christopher Hewett is both infectious and believable. Graff and Wells also play well off each other, as well as their male co-stars, while Stone is adequate as the teenager preparing to become an adult while leave immaturity behind. However, the real scene-stealer is Beckham. This ostensive brat is typical of most kids as his age, as he attempts to grasp the confusing nature of childhood. He's very funny, not because he shows off or "acts out," but because he has enough smarts to make biting comments about family members and life in general. Sure, my words may sound exaggerated, but I actually related to Wesley, as I was roughly the same age when the show aired. (And, yes, my older sister was high school age and I liked to terrorize her once awhile…and vice versa).
Once again, Shout! Factory has come to the rescue, releasing fondly remembered television shows to DVD. All of the episodes appear to be the original, uncut broadcast versions which Fox has supplied, although they do show their age. Colors are a bit faded and there's a slight fuzziness in the full frame prints, but grain is kept to a minimum. Quite honestly, Mr. Belvedere looks no better or worse than it on television today, so there are few complaints. Audio is a serviceable Dolby 2.0 Stereo, with the title song playing well before each and every episode. Dialogue is easily discernable, although Shout still seems reluctant to include subtitles or closed captioning; the latter is usually provided at the very least, but not this time. Kudos to Shout's attractive packaging, which houses the five discs in three plastic slipcases, all snugly fitting in a nice brown box with cover art. Episode descriptions are provided on the back.
Unlike Shout's recent release of Blossom (which included featurettes and commentaries), the extras here are a bit on the slim side. "The Owens Family Remembers" is a sweet piece of reflection and recollection, hindered by too many clips and the curious absence of Tracy Wells (even more curiously, she's barely even mentioned!). Still, we have comments from Uecker about his off-camera friendship with Hewett, and Beckham's working experiences. Graff—who looks like she hasn't aged a bit—injects how her previous collaboration with Hewett gave an extra pull to the proceedings. The other bonus feature is the 1991 SNL sketch, "The Mr. Belvedere Fan Club," which is quite funny even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the show. The sketch's cast is impressive, too, with Tom Hanks acting as the Prez and such comic personalities as Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson, and Michael McKean making up the club members. Finally, there is an Easter egg on the special features page hidden in Hewett's head, containing two scenes from a Family Guy episode in which Stewie screams the theme song.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I firmly believe Mr. Belvedere is one of the most underrated sitcoms in television history, and thus can find few faults with it. Yes, the set up is contrived and many of the elements are familiar, but the actors are wonderful and the relationships ring true. Some who revisit the show may not consummate their overly fond memories, but it should be a nice nostalgia ride nonetheless.
While the visual quality could have been improved and the special features increased, it's very difficult to direct any criticisms towards Shout! Factory. They have done a tremendous job giving these well-remembered shows a second life on DVD, when their actual, respective owners would have just sit on them. Bring on Seasons Three & Four!
The show is found not guilty, with Shout! Factory free to go for a nice DVD package.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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