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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Retro Review: In The House

Created by Winifred Hervey
Duration: 1995 & 1999 (NBC), 1996 - 1998 (UPN), 1996 - 1999 (Trouble, UK) 
No. of seasons: 5
Release date: 10 April 1995 (US)
Produced by: NBC Studios, Quincy Jones Entertainment 
Cast: LL Cool J, Debbie Allen, Maia Campbell, Jeff Wood, Kim Wayans, Alfonso Ribeiro

'This show was good.....up until Debbie Allen departed'

In The House was one of those sitcoms that could've become one of the most unlikeliest hits in the genre's history, notably in Black sitcom history, had it not been for the demise in quality of the final 2 seasons & key cast departures.

Starring rapper turned actor, LL Cool J (real name Todd James), who had hits with 'Mama Said Knock You Out' and 'Loungin', In The House was LL's first acting stint, after initial success in the U.S Billboard charts as a recording artist. He was joined by Debbie Allen, who is most known to wider audiences worldwide for her role as Lydia Grant in the Fame TV series during the 80s. She is also credited for reviving Bill Cosby's 'A Different World', which was also The Cosby Show spin-off and managed to turn around the fortunes of an ailing show during the first few episodes, into a standalone hit.

As a fan, the interesting thing I find about Debbie Allen's body of work, both as a dancer, choreographer, director, producer, actress and the countless interviews she has done for TV, press, radio and in talking about her illustrious career, spanning over 3 decades, that in not one of them mentioned this series, In The House. It astounds me because it is assumed that just because the comedy series wasn't the massive hit that it was and it had Debbie in it, people choose to sweep it under the carpet and not talk about it.

Well I loved Debbie Allen in In The House, she was a total hoot. 

Debbie played mother of two & divorcee, Jackie Warren, who gets dumped by her husband, in favour of a younger woman. By day, she works as a legal secretary at Comstock, Nathan and Smythe. Jackie's 2 kids were daughter, Tiffany and son Austin, who was the youngest child. In the pilot episode, the Warrens move into a brand new house in L.A, unaware that it is owned by pro- football player, Marion Hill (LL Cool J). He of whom gets injured whilst playing Football (not as in soccer) and as a tenant of the house, rents out the house to Jackie, whilst he recuperates, as well as sleeps in the apartment above the garage. The interactions between Jackie and Marion throughout are at times humourous but also it underlines how different each of them are, in terms of their personalities. Marion is the free-spirited thinker; he is calm, doesn't like tension and tries to see things in a positive light, in spite of his injury. Jackie on the other hand is boisterous, loud, sarcastic, sometimes cynical but funny and as a parent, is very protective and caring towards her children. Her relationship with Marion earlier on is very hot and cold, but as the show progresses, she warms to him and has a more easy- going attitude than before.

For the first 2 seasons of the show with Debbie Allen, she was on point as Jackie Warren.

I really enjoyed watching the first 2 seasons of In The House when it was just Marion Hill and the Warren clan Jackie, Austin & Tiffany. It was very funny and enjoyable to watch.

I found the mother Jackie, played by Emmy award winner and veteran actress Debbie Allen (of Fame, erm fame!) hilarious to watch at times, especially as I thought she had great delivery & comic timing, as well as the funnier lines. Her constant barracking of her ex-husband and mickey taking of his bald head, had me in stitches. Some of her other memorable moments are of her dancing in episode 4, season 1, kissing Marion in a restaurant in front on Tonia in season 2 & her moments with Phylicia Rashad in season 2, when her sister made a guest appearance as Rowenna when they, Marion and Clayton were travelling to New Mexico for a photo shoot for a magazine. 

To many people, especially the elder generation, Debbie is best known for her associations with 'Fame', 'A Different World', as well as her turns as Dr Catherine Avery on the hit ABC drama, 'Grey's Anatomy'. Yet those same people, including some fans, don't remember Debbie's role in In The House. Debbie was a blast. She has played characters in sitcoms before; likewise, the fitness instructor in The Cosby Show, a shrink in A Different World, the uptight sister in Cosby, as well as recently as a cougar in BET's Let's Stay Together. But all those characters were frankly amusing, odd and zany. As Jackie Warren, she was a mixture of both herself in real life, I guess, and her sister Phylicia Rashad moreso. And for me, I enjoyed that very much. Jackie was much more grounded than all the previous characters she had played.

If In The House was the first ever project where LL Cool J's character wasn't a supporting one or reoccuring one, then In The House is also the first ever sitcom, where Debbie's character was the main character. In The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cosby, she had bit parts and uttered a few lines in a few episodes she was in. But In The House on NBC and season 2 on UPN, Debbie Allen didn't feature on the show, she was a part of it and part of the main cast. & for that, we were able to see her develop more as a sitcom actress.

I was born in 1981, a year after the original movie, Fame came out and 1 year before Fame the TV series debuted on NBC in the U.S and BBC in the UK. As for A Different World, it definitely aired in the U.K on Channel 4, but as groundbreaking a series as it was in its native US, it didn't make the same impact where I lived. I was also unaware at the time of its run that Debbie was involved in that series as a director and producer. 

But when In The House first aired on TV, and when I saw the first episode, from then on, that was when I became a fan of Debbie Allen's. It was this show and her performances that convinced me to look up her old work, as an actress, producer, dancer etc. 

In the House was first created by producer and screenwriter Winifred Hervey, whose previous credits include Mork and Mindy, Benson, The Cosby Show, Golden Girls and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She also served as a head writer for another African American sitcom titled, The Steve Harvey Show. Surprisingly, season 1 aired on NBC but when ratings were low, In The House was then cancelled- only to come back on TV, only this time on UPN, who ran the next 2 seasons. NBC then aired the final season, which was shortlived. 

In the House has been often compared to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but the main comparisons it draws is that the actors of the Fresh Prince appeared in episodes of In The House. Other than that, there is no direct link, story-wise, involving Marion Hill and Will Smith. Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton) and Tatiyana Ali (Ashley) appeared as their namesake Fresh Prince characters in In The House season 2, whilst Daphne Maxwell Reid (the second Vivian) and James Avery (Uncle Phil) appeared in season 4 of the show.

The first 2 seasons of In The House were great but casting-wise, they should've left things as they were. Obviously, the move from NBC to UPN meant the show had to be tinkered with; however, the truth is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In The House with Debbie Allen in it did not need fixing, nor did she need to be removed. It was fantastic, she was fantastic. It was a mistake that her character and Jeff Wood's character, Austin had to be written out of the end of the second season. When they left, the show was never the same after that, and thus it never recovered as the ratings fell further.

Season 3 was poor, but season 4 was virtually unwatchable, bland and less funnier, as the comic relief-based characters were no longer there. I don't remember much of seasons 3 and 4 these days, given as I watch the first 2 seasons on Youtube and ignore the last 2, because I didn't enjoy them first time round when I watched it on TV. Once the writers got rid of the family component of the show after season 2, - which was key to its success and the characters, Jackie and Austin, - and reverted to the workplace/teen sitcom format, it signaled the end of In The House. The ratings may not have been through the roof with Debbie Allen and Jeff Wood on the show, but it was still passable. 

I thought Maia Campbell did okay - when I was 14 and watched the series, I didn't care much for Tiffany, but as I rewatch those episodes today, I realised that she was important, to a extent and in season 2, she had a few interesting moments and lines that I liked.

Kim Wayans is a great actress & comedienne and I enjoyed her in season 2, but her character Tonia was wasted by the writers in season 3, who didn't seem to know where to fit her into the story lines properly, and she was gone by the end. Maxwell Stanton played by Alfonso Ribeiro, on the other hand, was virtually a carbon copy of Carlton Banks, -only more arrogant and uptight. He wasn't too different to his Fresh Prince character, & his performances reminded me too much of Carlton. I don't think he did enough in the role to distinguish himself from the one in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Strangely, for no given reason, there was this kid character named Rodney, who showed up earlier on in season 3 & disappeared after 6 episodes or so (& I guess was a 'replacement' for Austin). But unlike Austin, he had very little redeemable qualities about him. I know a lot of people couldn't stand Austin on the show, but he was all right by me, and he was and is far more interesting than Rodney. Whereas Rodney was bland and not very funny.

To this day, In the House fans still don't know the real reasons as to why Debbie Allen (along with Jeff Wood) left the show in real-life. But needless to say, for the first 2 seasons, it was a fun sitcom the whole family could enjoy and the writing and dialogue was insanely funny. It could've, would've and should've been more, had it not been for the cast changes and change of direction from season 3 onwards.

In all, it was a good series with Debbie Allen, Jeff Wood, and it would've been just as amusing, entertaining, as well as it would probably be a better one, had they not left after season 2.


Seasons ratings: (out of 10) 

1 - 7
2 - 9
3 - 5
4 - 2 

Overall:  7.5 out of 10 

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