Why TV's ''Greek Life'' is a big fat mess -- Nia Vardalos' charming indie movie hit, ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'' has transformed itself into a heavy-handed CBS sitcom, says Ken Tucker
My Big Fat Greek Life
Credit: My Big Fat Greek Life: Monty Brinton/CBS

Why TV’s ”Greek Life” is a big fat mess

Lots of people left their houses, went to a movie theater, plunked down money, and felt warmly nuzzled by ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Nia Vardalos’ semi-autobiographical comedy about bringing a non-Greek guy who loves her into her big Greek family that loves her so much it almost hurts. A true populist success story, ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding” became a kind of event movie –folks started going to it because it wasn’t an over-hyped, megabudgeted production starring a reed-thin Famous Beautiful Person. As its creator and protagonist, Vardalos shone.

As a TV series, ”My Big Fat Greek Life” premiered on Feb. 24 post-”Everybody Loves Raymond” to the highest ratings of a network debut in five years. And it won its time period when it moved to its regular time period this past Sunday at 8, actually building to a higher rating than the venerable series it follows, ”60 Minutes.”

Nonetheless, ”Greek Life” is a big fat bore. In transitioning to television, Vardalos has gotten skinnier — i.e., she looks more like the actresses her movie persona was such a crowd-pleasing alternative to — and she’s developed an annoying habit of opening her eyes very wide whenever she’s about to deliver a punchline.

This pop-eyed actress, writer, and coexecutive producer seems far less in control of her material now. Where the movie extracted its humor from her Greek heritage, the TV show goes for things like cheap big-boob jokes…delivered by Vardalos herself. ”Holy mangoes!” she yelped, her eyes threatening to explode from her face as on Sunday night. ”How does that poor woman run?”

She made that remark while watching a Greek women’s-soccer game on TV in the restaurant owned by her father (nicely gruff Michael Constantine) and her brother (excessively clueless Louis Mandylor). Like the movie, the TV show is stuffed tighter than a grape leaf with aren’t-the-Greeks-the-best? jokes that quickly become less than funny — they’re like background white noise. When Nia says her dad might get in trouble with the government, he burbles, ”The Greeks invented government!”

Early reviews have panned poor Steven Eckholdt for not being as soulfully hunky as his movie equivalent, John Corbett, in the new-husband role. But it’s not as though Eckholdt has been given any sort of character to play. What about all those stories we heard about how Vardalos was going to oversee everything and make this ”Greek” as faithful and funny as the movie ”Greek”? The show already looks as if it’s been hijacked by bad sitcom writers. Only Andrea Martin, the ”SCTV” pro, manages to give her lines enough of a spin to make them mildly amusing while playing Nia’s Aunt Voula.

I don’t know how many more weeks people are going to keep tuning in to the gabby folks that populate Dancing Zorba’s Greek diner, but I’m betting they’ll end up being the older ”60 Minutes” audience (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but that most of the curiosity-viewers will switch back to Sundays-at-8’s true testament to the government of the sitcom, ”The Simpsons.”

My Big Fat Greek Life
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