Sunday, March 9, 2003

'Greek Life' hits low, but painfully close to home

By Beryl Love
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You wouldn't know it by my name, but I'm Greek. Half, to be precise. You can tell which half by looking at my back for the side that has all the extra hair.

There we go, right off the bat I've resorted to a cheap stereotype in hopes of getting a laugh. But I have a purpose. As the office Greek, I've been fielding a lot of questions lately about the television show My Big Fat Greek Life. Most are well- meaning inquiries on whether I'm offended by the cartoon-like treatment of my brethren in the Greek diaspora.

In a word, oxi (no). But let's back up.

Nia Vardalos' stage-show-turned-mega-blockbuster movie (mega, you should know, comes from the Greek megalo, which means, uh, mega) surprised the Hollywood critics who said it was nothing more than a bad sitcom on the big screen.

Out of a sense of duty I went to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding and found the experience to be quite painful. Why? Vardalos nailed it, exposing our dysfunction to the world. But I laughed. A lot. And since the movie grossed more than $260 million worldwide, I wasn't the only one.

This brings us to the debut of My Big Fat Greek Life on CBS, which I of course watched out of obligation. So here's one Greek's assessment.

Reuniting the actors from the movie (minus John Corbett as the non-Greek husband) is definitely a strong point. Michael Constantine, a Greek, carried the first episode. Even without Windex, he was funny and convincing as the controlling yet lovable patriarch. (Patriarch, of course, is from the Greek word pateras, meaning, "father who meddles.")

`I brought you a casserole!'

Lainie Kazan, not a Greek, scored points with me for improving her accent. Her effort in the movie sounded more Jewish to my ears, trained by years of being cajoled by my own Greek mother. "Why aren't you eating your fakis (lentils)?"

Vardalos seemed to be the most awkward in her conversion from Toula, her character in the movie, to Nia, the name she uses in the TV show. Partially to blame is some forced physical comedy. The diving-on-the-luggage-carousel scene at the airport was just stupid and strayed too far from what a Greek woman would be seen doing. Nails, hair and makeup can never be put in such danger. (I can say this without fear because my wife is not Greek, and my Greek mother will be so proud of me for having something in the paper, she won't care what it actually says.) But supported by such a strong cast, Vardalos should eventually find her groove.

Like the movie, Greek Life captures the dynamics of a big fat Greek-American family. One moment drama - "You are killing your father!" - and in the next breath, cooking advice - "Bake the casserole at 350."

But the show can't ride on stereotypes forever. Vardalos and her writers should be careful to use the ethnic humor as seasoning. Serving it as the main course every week will become difficult to digest, sort of like kokoretsi, a dish that makes use of lamb parts better left unmentioned.

It's OK to laugh

Bottom line, the Greek half of me finds the show mildly amusing and absolutely harmless. Celebrating diversity doesn't have to be so serious. It's OK to laugh at the things that make us unique. And in Vardalos' case, she has every right to go for the comedic jugular. She lived the life.

She finds humor in the Greek-American experience that all of us can relate to. My dad isn't Greek, so he didn't buy my sister and her husband a house. But I have friends whose Greek fathers bought them entire businesses - restaurants, of course.

If some of her characterizations go a little too far, I won't be offended. There's nothing wrong with a little hyperbole. (Hyperbole, by the way, is a Greek word. My ancestors invented the concept while the rest of the world was banging rocks together.)

Love is the Enquirer's news editor. E-mail

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