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Friday, June 7, 2013

'Growing Pains' S3: Dunphys, Keatons, Bradys, Cleavers; their shows are no better than the Seavers

Growing Pains: The Complete Third Season
Watching episodes from Warner Archives recent DVD release of the third season of the '80s sitcom "Growing Pains" reinforced that that show deserved more regard than it received then and now. Any series that recognized the potential of a young Brad Pitt, who appeared in the third season, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who was regular in the series' final season, could not have been all that bad.

The obvious acknowledgement by "Pains'" writers and stars that the show provided escapism in the form of a traditional family sitcom was part of what made the series so fun. Alan Thicke played dad Jason Seaver as a combination of a tragically hip baby boomer and a loving caricature of "Leave it to Beaver's" Ward Cleaver.

Future Lifetime Movie mainstay Joanna Kerns played Maggie Malone Seaver as a Shirley Partridge mom who managed to see that dinner made it to the table while still enjoying a professional career. Further, like Partridge, she was not easily duped and never hesitated to call her offspring on their shenanigans. Kerns added the element of always standing by her man regardless of how big a doofus that Jason became.

Dreamy teen idol Kirk Cameron stole the show as stereotypical slacker not-so-bright teen son Mike Seaver. A third-season episode in which improper motives prompted nominating Mike for school council president really reinforced the character by explicitly calling attention to his "party animal" persona and having one of his buds tease Mike that he was becoming Michael J. Fox.

Every Xer knows that Fox was the clean-cut conservative star of "Family Ties," which was the "Partridge Family" to "Pains" "Brady Bunch" despite airing on different networks on different days.

A more mean-spirited rebuke came during an episode about a burglary at the Seaver home. Mike commented in response to general apathy by the investigating police officer, played by "24's" Dennis Haysbert, that the officer was not exactly "Miami Vice." The officer was responded that the Seavers were "not exactly 'The Cosby Show.'"

Mike's line seemed scripted; the harshness of the officer's line, the brief silence right after it, and the lack of a laugh regarding it suggested that Haysbert had improvised the line.

Others self-referential humor included at least one explicit reference to growing pains and Maggie telling Jason that he was thick.

Tracey Gold played the rather nerdy and bright good teen girl Carol Seaver, who reveled in becoming more of a regular teen to the extent that being punished for her role in helping typical enthusiastic moppet brother Ben scam his parents into buying him a new bike made her giddy. A scene in that episode in which Ben wore Carol's formal gown alone justifies buying the third season DVD.

The alternating twist in the opening credits of having the rest of the cast walk off and leaving one hapless member of their group grinning stupidly in front of the family's suburban Long Island home was both a great commentary on family sitcoms and the funnest thing to look for in a sitcom's opening credits since looking to see whether Rob Petrie tripped over the ottoman during the opening credits of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

The third season started with the standard family sitcom Hawaiian vacation, which the "groundbreaking" "Modern Family" resorted (pun intended) to in its first season. The primary twist in this two-parter was that Maggie and the older kids were too busy with their own agendas to give Jason the family bonding time that he desired. Jason and Maggie even played the "strangers in a bar" game in that episode a good 25 years before "Family's" Phil and Claire Dunphy.

One of the better "Pains" episodes involved the sitcom standby plot of a hilariously calamitous high school play. Aside from the amusing silly mishaps, seeing Cameron show that his acting ability extended beyond playing an '80s valley boy was nice and evoked sadness that he chose to become an evangelist rather than remain an actor long enough to further develop his talent. 

Conversely, the Brad Pitt premiere episode was one of the worst of the season. The 24 year-old actor was simply too long in the tooth to play a soulful but carefree 16 year-old who courted Carol.

Pitt's delivery was flat regardless of whether he was trying to express youthful exuberance or telling the Carol the harsh reality regarding their relationship. He additionally was incredibly stiff in a scene that called for him to skip and hop around.

Pitt's complex 'do of feathered hair and a modified mullet did not add to his appeal because it largely obscured his matinee idol visage.

This poor performance prompted reviewing Pitt's IMDB profile. It was not surprising that it did not list much light comedy, and that most of the entries in that genre was voice-over roles in animated kids' films.

These elements of "Pains" third season demonstrated that shows work when they play to their strengths. This series succeeded because its core cast understood, and relished, the basic elements of a family sitcom. 

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Pains" is encouraged to email me.