What within us creates nostalgia? Is Generation Y really so sentimental for wholesome childhood values in our current world of corruption and needless distaste? The cynic in me says no; it is not nostalgia, but narcissism that fuels the contemporary wave of childhood reboots—from this year’s Grease revamp to the upcoming Gilmore Girls reunion—so that we might relive adolescent comfort from behind a knowing smirk that the world is not quite so upbeat after all.
Enter Fuller House, Netflix’s latest attempt at breaking into the family market. I imagine a boardroom full of Netflix execs skimming through the endless clickbaits about “The 19 Most WTF Moments From Full House,” or “Undeniable Proof That Uncle Jesse and Michelle are the Cutest Ever” and thinking, “Yes, this is what the masses are calling for!” (And hey – with a reboot, they don’t even need to pay for casting calls or an original screenplay!) But these popular culture callbacks are hardly a bona fide yearning, and what could have been a unique opportunity to reinvent an old family with a modern critique was passed over entirely for a Xerox copy of the original, which aired from 1987 to 1995.
We find the Tanner family 21 years later in essentially the same scenario, but with the gender roles flipped. Whereas Danny was left with three young girls after the sudden death of his wife, adult-DJ Tanner (Candace Cameron Bure) is the recent widow of a firefighter, left with their three young boys Jackson (Michael Campion), Max (Elias Harger) and baby Tommy (played by twins Dashiell and Fox Messitt, who unfortunately are not nearly as reactive as the Olsen twins were). Ultra-cool adult-Stephanie Tanner (Jodie Sweetin) is called away from her promising music career to help raise the kids (remind you of a certain uncle?) and goofy best friend adult-Kimi Gibbler (Andrea Barber) also steps up to help (sound like a certain puppet-playing best friend?), joined by her tweenager Ramona (Soni Nicole Bringas). The pilot features the original adults Danny (Bob Saget), Joey (David Coulier), Jesse (John Stamos), and Becky (Lori Laughlin), plus less thrilling appearances from Steve (Scott Weinger) and college-aged twins—the show’s starkest reality-check for the passage of time—Alex and Nicky (Blake and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit).
The show’s pilot sets the standard for the rest of the season’s overstuffed references to the original, and takes every possible liberty to justify its rehashed plot. The actors frequently break the camera’s 4th wall, such as when Stephanie makes fun of child actors, or when Kimi’s daughter buys clothing from the Mary-Kate and Ashley fashion line, or any mention of Michelle being “too busy” to visit the family. Inside jokes about the original casts’ outside projects abound, such as Bure’s jokes about The View, which she has appeared on, and her excellent dancing as a Dancing with the Stars alum. There are countless declarations of “how rude,” “oh Mylanta,” “you got it, dude,” and “hug it out.” Even for nostalgic fans of the original show, it is overdone. There was one moment in the pilot with genuine heart: a touching side-by-side recreation of one of the show’s classic scenes with the adult dads singing to baby Michelle, and now singing to baby Tommy. Otherwise, the show’s frequent references are simply heavy-handed.
While the gender role reversal—including an updated theme song from Carly Rae Jepson—makes sense for the new plot, it feels uncomfortably regressive. In the original, three single dudes were forced to take on the nurturing and emotionally-versed role of “single parent,” and many of the episodes’ plots rested on their balancing act between work, dating, and always, always, always family first. We saw them figuring out how to give little girls hairstyles, how to pack lunches, and nailing emotional pep talks. In the mid-80s, this was a progressive theme. Now, as three single women come together to raise the children, there are few progressive moments, no matter how many times DJ brings up “girl power.” At best, the mirrored premise of the show emphasizes the cycle of children resisting and ultimately becoming their parents. DJ cannot help but clean the house constantly, and when Jackson brings his unwelcome friend to the house he justifies the camaraderie to DJ, “He’s my best friend! He’s my Kimi Gibbler!”
And this antiquated scenario feels that much more outdated by the deluge of 2016 innuendos, as the script stuffs in references to selfies, Instagram, Facebook, Rihanna, online dating, Uber, and smartphones. Yes, you will hear Kimi Gibbler call something “on fleek” (screenwriters, have mercy). One of the more poignant and realistic scenes shows Joey trying to entertain the kids with his puppets, only to be ignored in favor of their smartphones. But the references to contemporary media come as often as the callbacks to the original show, and the result is unsettling. Ultimately, the show flops back and forth between the past and present, never sure which side is more powerful (or profitable?).
While Bure and Sweetin have not really progressed as actors, they were, after all, raised on this show and hold their own as leading ladies. Gibbler’s quirky childhood role never necessitated a real storyline, and Barber’s acting is consistent if not quite strong. The children on the show seem to have been educated in the Disney Channel school of scream-talking, and only the precocious Max is a joy to watch. Fuller House features the same awful laugh track as its parent show (was it really that successful the first time around?). At its best, it likens the show to other ABC Family hits, and at its worst, it helps indicate where the laughs should have gone when a joke doesn’t land. It is a shame we only see occasional cameos from the original adults, who were clearly the most beloved and relatable characters, not to mention the strongest actors.
Maybe Fuller House cannot be evaluated as its own entity. It was always meant to exist in fawning reverence to its parent show, but in doing so, it fell into an ironic trap of oblivious duplication when it needed to be sharp satire. It was not wholesome teens from the ‘80s that grew into wholesome adults and craved a reunion. Our nostalgia that yearned for a Full House reunion is the millennial sort of modern irony that sees a golden standard from the past and mocks it. To succeed, Fuller House needed to subvert itself, to play to the raunchier standards of modern binge-watchers. It miserably attempts this through awkward references to Stephanie’s ample chest or Kimi’s prowess in bed, but these come across as the sort of cringe-worthy sexual jokes your parents make to each other, not smug subversions of the Tanner Family’s infallibility. Fuller House should have taken a page from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, whose naïve characters’ jokes had a hidden smirk in them, betraying the unrealistic nature of the innocent personalities they showcased. This eye-rolling at outdated family standards, this pitying grin, this narcissism, is what kept Full House in our hearts for decades after it’s final laugh track. But we know now what we didn’t then, and we want to smugly judge anything existing in a state of perpetual naiveté. We have changed since 1995; why didn’t Full House?
For nostalgic fans: B- You wanted the reunion show, and you got it, dude.
For first-time watchers: C- Ideal background noise while you pack for summer vacation, but hard to sit through otherwise.