When 18 to Life first premiered in January, it just didn't grab me. It seemed too forced, in the writing and the acting. There was some charm in young leads Stacey Farber and Michael Seater--they play 18-year-old neighbours who run off and get married--but their parents seemed to come out of some seen-it-before sitcom factory.
I'd heard it got better, and wrote at the time I'd give it another look. Glad I did, because tonight's sixth episode (8 p.m., CBC) is a big leap forward, a funny, smart, speedy half hour. In fact, if you like Modern Family--the darling of this season's new comedies--you'll like 18 to Life.
The episode, "Goy Story," is all about secrets and lying. Tom Bellow (Seater) hasn't told his new bride Jessie (Farber) that he has quit school. (The pressure to mix school and work got to him and he figured he'd better concentrate on making money so that they could eventually move out of their parent's houses. Except he gets fired, too.) Turns out Bellow's dad Ben (Peter Keleghan) has a secret, too--he didn't exactly go all the way through with his ceremonial circumcision in order to become Jewish. As a result, his marriage may not be valid. When Tom's mom Judith (Ellen David) decides to invite Rabbi Goldstein over for dinner (she's hoping to convert Jessie), Ben is afraid his secret will be exposed, so to speak. It's one big mushugass.
It's actually, in the words of Tom's older sister Monica (Tiio Horn), the Best Dinner Ever. By the time the rabbi uses the sausage to demonstrate the art of the bris--oy vey.
Now, granted WASP vs. Jew as sitcom fodder has been explored to death. This seemed like a fresh take to me. You wouldn't want 18 to Life to get stuck in the same narrow box that is making Little Mosque such a one joke wonder, but this is just one week, one episode.
What is especially welcome here is that the writers, having established very distinct (in some cases still too broadly drawn but whatever) characters, just go for it. That they do so within the context of a single theme--lying leads to chaos--raises it all a notch. It all gets very farcical, with neighbours switching identities and plenty of awkward moments. All that's missing is a lot of door slamming.
Credit the producers with going the extra yard with little touches that make a difference. Yiddish music ads zest to scenes at just the right moment. The direction and camera work find all the punch lines.
Keleghan has really toned it down as the young groom's uptight dad, which I think really helps sell this sitcom. It is a tough role because he is the shows big authority figure. Having him just blow his top all the time is his job but that can get old fast. Seeing him squirm, as he does here, is way more fun.
Allowing the men to go all Kramden and Norton at times are the more grounded performances by the wives, Jesse and Tara (played by Ellen David and Angela Asher).
The dialogue across the dinner table is quick and witty. Al Goulem as laid back neighbor Phil Hill--who has his own dark secret to hide--gets off some of the best lines. On hearing Ben was afraid to fully go through with the bris: "So you're afraid of a little prick so to speak." Hey, it may date back to Bizarre, but it makes me laugh.
18 to Life has been flirting dangerously close to the More People Live in Brampton threshold so far this season in terms of total audience. If tonight's laugh out loud show is any indication, it deserves a second chance to find a wider audience. Pull up a chair and join in on tonight's dinner party--just skip the sausage.