Melissa & Joey

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat:  Melissa Joan Hart grossly miscalculated the possibility of funding her independent film Darci’s Walk Of Shame through Kickstarter. Veronica Mars had a rabid fanbase itching for a long-rumored capstone film, Zach Braff was a more current network television star with Scrubs, but Hart overestimated just how many nostalgic fans of Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina The Teenage Witch would help to restart her film career in an exotic location. Joey Lawrence didn’t try to round up Matthew and Andy for an intricate, interlocking reboot of Brotherly Love or Horse Sense 3: Horses In Space. But other than a desire to work in film again, Hart doesn’t really need to move from where she is, a rather comfortable sitcom plodding along to the delight of ABC Family. Melissa & Joey shouldn’t work, and yet it continues to, racking up the episodes and providing two child stars turned teen stars with a second act in another multi-camera sitcom.

That Melissa & Joey isn’t just surviving, but thriving on that network—it regularly won its time slot in the key demos among cable shows, though not as dominantly as the similarly wretched Baby Daddy did—shows that while the multi-cam sitcom may be much-maligned and creatively bereft on the major networks, it still does gangbuster business on the family networks. The network likes it so much that they increased this season’s order with an additional 20 episodes, as well as a fourth season, making it the first* ABC Family series to reach over 100 episodes. This isn’t as tiresome as Tyler Perry’s sitcoms, which felt like only a modicum of effort was spared as production rushed through hundreds of episodes. But it’s also not on the level of something as delightful-in-its-own-way as The Big Bang Theory.

Melissa & Joey feels like it belongs on TV Land, grasping at straws of an old format in tired ways with old jokes amid all the other throwback style sitcoms that haven’t registered more than mild success (for an obscure cable network’s first forays into original programming). The premise was wafer thin to begin with, setting up Hart as a government official and Lawrence as a disgraced finance guy now working as a nanny to two early teen children, and now, it makes even less sense. As the kids get older, and less in need of guidance, specifically nanny support, Lawrence’s character isn’t necessary. So the season premiere creates a moral dilemma—Ryder gets caught smoking pot on a school camping trip and suspended for the rest of the year—to keep Joe around while revealing that Mel doesn’t just need him to help with the kids, but has obvious, glaring, only-missable-in-a-sitcom feelings for him.

Hart and Lawrence booked this series based on their chemistry in the ABC Family movie My Fake Fiancé, but Melissa & Joey has spent its entire run keeping them apart, teasing out their chemistry, shoving other people in their way to keep them occupied. But now that the kids are older and becoming more independent, the two leads spend a lot more time with each other, an opportunity to lob a bunch of old jokes about will they/won’t they dynamics and wild child parents coping with cracking down on rebellious kids.

As a means of having something going on outside of the romantic quandary between Mel and Joe, the kids each get half-plots. Ryder’s camp trip ends  without moral shaming; it’s actually a rather sympathetic look at what should now be a typical teenage opportunity for basic experimentation. Mel chides him for telling the truth after being caught, while Joe questions the behavior, because the fun parent/narc binary must be employed. As for Lennox, Mel’s niece, she gets a new boyfriend who draws pictures of her all the time. But considering the number of different young guest stars a show like this goes through, he’ll probably last as long as Lennox’s other guys, kicked to the curb because he’s so into her that he doesn’t think he can capture her beauty in a piece of paper. That, or Lennox’s standard-issue jealousy.

One of my roommates absolutely adores Melissa & Joey and would watch it just about anytime, anywhere. To me, it’s a perfectly adequate program to watch at the gym, when the only other channel is Fox News. Hart remains the only blip of life in an otherwise moribund excuse for television. When one of the major networks inevitably figures out how to make a multi-camera sitcom work again—and not like the Chuck Lorre shows have “worked”—and there’s a role for an expressive mother, she had better be on that call sheet. ABC Family wants at least 100 episodes of this sitcom, no matter how many cookie cutters they have to break to get there. But at least it's inoffensive to endure, with the benefit of a hard working performer who clearly wants to get the most out of a mediocre situation.

Stray observations:

  • It would’ve been better for Entourage to acknowledge Adrian Grenier’s previous work in Drive Me Crazy if only to somehow incorporate Melissa Joan Hart as a former costar at some point.
  • Best part of early Melissa & Joey: the occasional appearance by Megan Hilty, who plays Joe’s ex-wife.
  • Ryder is played by Nick Robinson, a name that always makes me think of this Stanford basketball player.
  • *The Secret Life Of The American Teenager actually surpassed the 100 episode mark first, and shows like Pretty Little Liars will probably surpass that mark before Melissa & Joey. Still, whoever thought this show would become ABC Family's version of House Of Payne?