Break it up: 'On Our Own' cute to a fault

September 13, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Mom and dad are dead, and the foolish government social workers want to break up our loving family. So, what's a big brother to do but dress up like a woman and call himself Mama J?

If that makes sense to you, "On Our Own," a sitcom that premieres at 8:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), might just be your kind of show.

ABC is betting it's a show kids will love the way they love "Full House" and "Family Matters" -- two of ABC's biggest hits, which happen to be from the same producers. After tonight's showcase after "Full House," the sitcom about seven orphans will move to Sunday nights at 8:30 as alternative programming to CBS' "60 Minutes."

"On Our Own" is mainly about cute. Six of the seven siblings who make up the series' Jerrico clan are real-life siblings. The Smollett kids range in age from 17 years to 18 months.

From the opening scene tonight -- when the breakfast table is suddenly transformed by the kids into an assembly line for making school lunches to the beat of rap music -- viewers are going to be reminded of another musical family called the Jacksons. That's intentional; another of the show's producers is Suzanne de Passe, the former Motown executive credited with discovering the Jacksons.

The needle on the old cute-o-meter moves even closer to the red zone when the Jerricos' bulldog, Jinx, is shown a few scenes later heading off to bed in a nightshirt and cap. But that's only a warm-up. Cute with capital "C" comes when 4-year-old Joc, in his best poor-widdle-kid voice, tells the fool of a social worker: "Lady, please don't split us up. We're all we got."

This is when the oldest Jerrico, 20-year-old Josh (played by comedian Ralph Harris), hits on the plan to dress up like a distant aunt and pass himself off as a guardian in hopes of keeping the clan together. This Mrs. Doubtfire is called Aunt Jelcinda, a.k.a. Mama J.

When Mama J is told by one of the social workers that the children need a "proper guardian," she says, "Well, what am I, a road kill?"

Mama J then leans closer and says to the female bureaucrat, "Can I ask you something just between us girls? . . . How do you keep your pantyhose from giving you a wedgie?"

Yes, it's cute-going-to-silly. But there's also a lot going on here that's not silly at all, in terms of messages on gender, sexuality, race, family, government and power. Power and sex, for example. The main reason the family is allowed to stay together is that the male social worker is smitten with Mama J. Her ability to save the family is a result of her sexual power over him and her ability to continue to deceive him. I'm not sure that's a great message for kids.

But, hey, it's only a sitcom, right? How did we get from a bulldog in a nightshirt to feminism anyway? Why bother getting Freudian and discuss kids' wish fulfillment of dead parents in new TV shows? (Fox's "Party of Five" shares a similar setup.) After all, it's only a TV show for kids. What was that wedgie joke again?

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