A few months ago, I got sick. Not just a passing cold, but bedridden-on-the-living-room-couch, breathing-out-of-one-nostril, liquid-diet-of-Gatorade-and-cough-meds sick. I recovered in a week or so, but it was a long week of sleeping and accomplishing next to nothing — which also made it the perfect time to consume a ton of “bad television.”
I have never understood the appeal of using a sick day to catch up on new shows or binge that series everyone is talking about. If I’m not feeling well, I need content that matches my drowsy and incoherent state of mind, which rules out anything requiring even a modicum of focus. If I fall asleep and miss half an episode, there’s no harm done if I already know how it ends.
Sitcoms are ideal sick-day viewing material. Their episodes are short, the plots are relatively uncomplicated and the familiar faces are easy to drift off to. As I cycled through ’90s classics like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or “Boy Meets World,” I began to consider why these shows aren’t as riveting when I’m fully conscious. I enjoy their reruns very much, but unlike the newer shows I love, I haven’t seen every episode or watched more than two or three in succession. With sitcoms, I just turn on the TV to whatever episode is playing and jump in. I learn about the characters sporadically across seasons and 20-minute storylines because, above all else, they never really change.
Watching shows out of order has a strange effect on the way later audiences absorb them in syndication. I had seen episodes of “Full House” for years, but when I got sick, I watched it in premiere order for the first time and had some revelations. Namely, I discovered that the first season of “Full House” is way less of a cheese-fest than the later seasons. Before they had the chance to establish the catchphrases and stereotypical heart-to-hearts, before “Full House” was “Full House” as we know it, the characters actually felt like human beings.
It makes sense, of course, that infant Michelle (Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, “New York Minute”) wasn’t spouting “You got it, dude” in season one, but the difference was more than just logistical barriers to delivering catchphrases. Danny (Bob Saget, “How I Met Your Mother”) was a bit of a brown-noser, but a pretty normal dad. Uncle Jesse (John Stamos, “General Hospital”) had a great head of hair, but nobody made copious jokes about his blow-dryer and hair care routine.
Somewhere along the way, the show experienced a serious shift in comedic tone. Once it had been around for a few seasons and audiences conceivably knew the characters, the comedy began to look inward. They couldn’t go to bat right out of the gate with jokes about the Tanners being a “family of huggers” — they needed a couple of seasons of talking and hugging out their problems under their belt first. But with the eventual onslaught of meta-jokes, certain aspects of the characters were heightened to better suit the comedy, taking over the entirety of their personas. Danny’s type A personality led to a neurotic cleaning streak. Jesse’s aspirations to be a rock musician became a fanatic Elvis obsession. In most shows, characters get more fleshed out with time, gathering depth and developing new relationships, but by some strange sitcom logic, the Tanners gradually regressed over the seasons — by the end, their catchphrases became insufferable, their episode arcs trite and unimaginative, and this is coming from someone who genuinely likes the show for all of its cheesiness. In the “Fuller House” reboot, the characters are essentially caricatures of the roles they once played.
My chief grievance is that, at some point, the show became unable to construct a scene without planting a perfectly timed catchphrase. In the first season, Stamos’ self-coined phrase “Have mercy” was the only one to speak of. But once the Tanner girls developed lines of their own (Candace Cameron Bure infamously used “Oh my lanta” to avoid taking the lord’s name in vain), watching an episode was like getting hit by a grenade of “How rude”s and “You got it, dude”s. Michelle’s lines might consist of the same few phrases partly because the Olsens were so young, but the adults had no such excuse. There is no reason I had to sit through Joey (Dave Coulier, “The Thirteenth Year”) doing that “Cut it out” bit after every half-hearted joke.
This formulaic dependence also carried over to the episodes’ structure, which would end with a neat emotional resolution in the form of a father-daughter talk. These end-of-episode conversations imbued with life lessons and sentimental messages became a hallmark of the show, but those from the earliest season easily had the most emotional depth. The series’ premise of the girls losing their mom and Danny losing his wife was still fresh enough to warrant a decent amount of moving material for the characters to work with. Jesse has a particularly difficult time adjusting to living in the house and the grief of raising his nieces in the wake of his sister’s death; he has a temper and sometimes gets genuinely upset with the reality of his life, and the show doesn’t play it off for laughs. DJ (Bure, “Aurora Teagarden Mysteries”) had multiple episodic plots structured around her frustration with her mom being gone, Danny had a tough time returning to dating and Joey and Jesse struggled with pursuing creative passions while working day jobs and learning to raise three girls. It’s not like all of this abruptly vanished in season two, but the show gradually began to lean more onto its shticks instead of dealing with actual emotional turmoil or conflict that lasted longer than a single episode.
What I enjoyed most about this first season is that the problems in each episode were not fully resolved by the end — they offered a resolution or reconciliation, yet allowed the themes to recur in later episodes and the character arcs to steadily build. The beauty of a sitcom is that, with episodes airing for most of the year, for several years, we watch those characters grow in real-time. But even as the cast of “Full House” expanded, nothing ever really changed. I don’t have to wonder what would have happened if the show hadn’t been canceled, because the existence of the reboot “Fuller House” (set up with the exact same premise as the original) proves that the show was never going to let itself be something more. Once “Full House” found its groove and those catchphrases were established, that family was crystallized in amber for eight seasons straight.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.