Family Matters

Snooty butlers vs. Jersey goombahs on ABC.

Upstairs and downstairs collide in the kitchen

Rose ceremonies and tribal councils have nothing on the solemn rites endured by the members of the family on The Family (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET) , ABC’s recently reprised reality show. The network seems to have found an archive of Cold War mind games for testing loyalty and psychodynamics. On Wednesday night’s episode, one faction of the self-styled goombah family (who, for irony, inhabit an opulent Palm Beach estate fashioned to confound their breeding while they compete for, what else, $1 million) found themselves locked in a black six-axle Hummer limousine and forced to elect two of their number to face possible dismissal at the hands of a stealthy and all-powerful board of trustees. The Rand Corp. must have dreamed this up. None of the group could leave the hot limo until they’d unanimously agreed on a pair to sacrifice. Even the lambs had to agree.

But, the family being the Family—a sturdy, good-looking, histrionic Italian clan from New Jersey and Long Island who, on cue, worship their patriarch and posture like the Sopranos—they introduced their own twist. The proposal came from Mike, a smart, handsome, bald—what? Cousin? (“He’s the son of my brother-in-law’s brother,” Aunt Donna has explained, implying that even blood has limits and who the hell cares about Michael.) Reclining, Mike wondered whether, maybe, Uncle Michael and Aunt Donna, the patriarch and matriarch, might volunteer to face the board together, since only one of them would be eliminated. Whoever remained would be free to get the money for both of them.

I thought that Mike, who has managed to turn his outsider status as distant kin into a prerogative to say what he wants, had them. After all, Michael and Donna love to make a show of magnanimity and family-first loyalty. But Uncle Michael shot back with a wicked counterproposal—a sharp uppercut to the group’s intelligence. OK, he said, one of us, me or Donna, will go. But then we get to choose which one of you goes as the second, and no one can complain. What?! How this captured the spirit of Mike’s original proposal—how it could even pass as a compromise—I couldn’t fathom. But nor could I fathom how all these people always so ably divine the stakes of the games, take them in deadly earnest, and implement high strategy—in a matter of TV minutes. Yes, their habits in the house include chess, but here they seemed like hypothetical operatives from the O.S.S., whose whole lives had been building to the point where they might kick ass on the Hummer Elimination Test.

Ah, Madonn’—the Family! Where has this show been? ABC aired three episodes in March, about which no one said a word; now that the jocular show has been brought back—”after the war,” as the network piously announced—critics and fans have been confessing that they adored it the first time around. Indeed, The Family may have been the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—a show about a bunch of lunks who get schooled in dress and decorum by a mincing group of experts.

Here, the mincing group (in one of The Family’s proudest gimmicks) is the “board of trustees”—the downstairs staff at the Palm Beach estate: Andrew Lowrey (butler), Ringo Allen (social secretary), Linda Levis (housekeeper), Franck Porcher (chef), and Jill Swid (stylist). They are the ones who ostensibly serve the family but whom the family in fact serve; on their collective whim, one member of the family gets cut from each show. Though the staff members are billed as sages in minute details of propriety and social class, they use the same basis of elimination that most of us use in our daily lives: They cut the women who are bitchy and the men who are jerks. In those terms.

Thus, on Wednesday, we lost Aunt Donna.

Man, that board of trustees is queer. Lowrey, who sounds English, gives lessons in pinkie-extension when the family gathers for afternoon tea. (A nice class bash; rough-and-ready Dawn Marie volunteered that she knew her way around a tea service, having tried “all the Celestial Teas.”) Ringo (Ringo?) Allen is forever in a snit. Levis is the same way; she especially likes the word “bitch.” Porcher hated Donna on sight for preferring dried parsley to fresh. And even Swid, who gets along best with the family, nonetheless made it clear early on that she’s from Manhattan. Any resemblance she bears to the outer-borough New Yorkers is purely accidental.

As the eggplant-parm crowd goofs around upstairs and by the pool (humping the statuary, clogging the toilets), the staff casts a frigid eye on them, watching as they, as one staffer puts it, “deteriorate.”

But it’s the class-coaches who seem to be deteriorating. Porcher dismissed Donna’s first-day suggestion that he buy salty Sicilian bresaola, choosing instead to force-feed them classic gross-out cuisine like frog legs and then exploding when they hate their dinners. He’s been brooding since the show started. And then there’s tight-lipped Levis, hater of bitches, who has resorted to digestion jokes and open contempt. Then there’s Allen, who chastises one of the nieces, Jill, for resisting reveille. He seems most clearly to be missing his mandate. Isn’t the board supposed to set standards for how the Palm Beach set live? He’s coming across more like a camp counselor. Surely the rich sleep late. Jill seems to have taken to estate life like a native.

The one member of the staff who has his role down is the show’s host: George Hamilton, gray and tan, an inspired casting choice. He’s got the man-of-leisure pose down, and he seems to find the family amusing, if patently beneath him. The staff grouses way too much; they’re bores. If the show’s to succeed in its goals of class-lift, the clever and devious family has just got to go teach that board of trustees something about sophistication and subtlety.