A correction was made to this review on Sep. 30, 2003.
After the summer of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” TV’s stereotyping of gays as prissy fashion snobs continues with “It’s All Relative,” another of this fall’s Romeo & Juliet-inspired series, only in this case you’ll want to swallow the poison. Although the producers contend that the image of loving gay parents amounts to progress, the show manages to commit two of the seven deadly sitcom sins — it’s not funny and is sparingly preachy. Even a decent lead-in from “My Wife and Kids” and marginal competition shouldn’t be enough to save this series, which feels like a competitive gift to the second half-hour of NBC’s “Ed” and the WB’s “Smallville.”
While it’s easy to dismiss this as “The Birdcage: The Series,” “Relative” actually dabbles as much in class warfare as homophobia. Liz (Maggie Lawson) is a Harvard student who falls for Bobby (Reid Scott), a blue-collar Irish Catholic who works in his parents’ bar. When Bobby’s mother learns that Liz’s adopted parents are gay men, she asks, “Whatever happened to that nice black girl you were dating?”
And she’s the tolerant one compared to her husband Mace (the well-traveled Lenny Clarke), who refers to Liz’s two dads (John Benjamin Hickey and Christopher Sieber) as a “freak show.” Upon entering their immaculate home, he blusters, “Of course they have a nice place. That’s what they’re good at.” Insert multiple exclamation points and laugh track here.
Yet in order to keep the insults flying both ways, Philip (Hickey), an art gallery owner, is every bit as disapproving of the O’Neils (yes, the O’Neils), seeing Bobby as beneath their daughter, who they took in when the girl was an infant. Although that scenario is built for comedic conflict — think Archie Bunker trading barbs with George Jefferson — the first two episodes seldom rise above the “Gays love show tunes” and “Irishmen drink beer” level; indeed, with references to “Funny Girl” and “West Side Story” in the pilot, they’re on schedule to begin synergistically plugging Disney’s “Aida” and “The Lion King” by the November sweeps.
Executive producer-writers Anne Flett-Giordano and Chuck Ranberg are “Frasier” alumni, but other than having a knack for persnickety characters unafraid to ask for a Chardonnay that’s “not too woody,” they can’t lift this material beyond the broadest of jokes and lowest of common denominators. Even in a second episode, where the characters take on a bit more shape, the plot involves a stunning woman who informs Liz she’s going to steal Bobby from her — the kind of dialogue one only hears on sitcom sets, invariably followed by a big “Ooooooo.”
Lawson and Scott generate scant chemistry as the status-crossed lovers, while Clarke belts out every line as if he’s about to have a stroke — a little of which goes a long way. Harris, Hickey and Sieber are somewhat constrained by their roles, though a second-episode thread about Sieber’s promiscuous past at least exhibits potential.
Even if the show benefits from initial curiosity, it’s hard to imagine “It’s All Relative” becoming the sitcom hit ABC needs, feeling rather like a visit from those relatives you can tolerate only if such encounters are few and far between.