Embarrassing though it is, I am compelled, not for the first time, to tune in the brainwaves of Caitlin Flanagan, the noted anti-post-feminist writer. Flanagan devotes the first chapter of To Hell With All That, “The Virgin Bride,” to exploring the cultural anxieties that have built the wedding business into a $70 billion-a-year industry, and she credits the 1950 film Father of the Bride with both exploiting and fueling the postwar trend toward the big old American wedding—cakes the size of dresses, dresses the size of coupes. It happens that Turner Classic Movies ran both Father of the Bride and its 1991 remake on Sunday night, and it was striking to see what a difference four decades made. That is, no difference at all. The Steve Martin version, like the charming original, treats issues of family and romance as if they were made of Chantilly lace.
Big Day (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET) is an update of the wedding theme that actually feels up-to-date from its first instant—a credit sequence in which an endless file of bride-and-groom wedding-cake toppers stream down an assembly line. The show is clued in to a culture radioactive enough to spawn Bridezillas, in sync with the absurdist style of The Office and its ilk, and happily hostile. Last spring, ABC introduced the sitcom to advertisers with the promise that “if 24 married Father of the Bride, their child would be Big Day.” The pitch inspired a fantasy—5:53:08 a.m.: Elizabeth Taylor’s maid of honor pistol-whips Spencer Tracy into springing for a hand-beaded aisle runner—that’s only slightly more nasty than the best moments in this uneven farce.
The action begins at 8 a.m. on a suburban Saturday. In something like real time, the season will carry us through the wedding day of Danny (chipper, earnest, a cutely scruffy puppy) and Alice (dewy, a touch prissy, fiery with entitlement). Steve, Alice’s father, disapproves of the bridegroom with a bitterness that neither sweetly crusty Tracy nor crustily sweet Martin ever had to summon. Danny—with his job as a camp counselor, his lack of seriousness, and his rather doofusy air—is not acceptable, and Steve tells Alice as much before the first commercial break. But that’s the least of her worries.
For instance, the best man, a thoroughly modern cad nicknamed “Skobo,” picked up Becca, Alice’s sister and her maid of honor, at the rehearsal dinner, and they woozily defiled each other in Becca’s childhood bedroom. He unwittingly stole her heart. She, the morning after, accidentally eats his contact lenses. Now, squinting Skobo is pratfalling around the house while Becca, who hails from the sullen school of indie-rock chic, is refusing to be in the bridal party alongside a guy who’s done her wrong. Meanwhile, the pack of groomsmen includes Johnny, Alice’s college boyfriend—”Damn, the things I used to do to her,” he reminisces—and Freddy, Danny’s poorly closeted college friend. Damn, the things he wants to do to the groom.
Every detail of the reception is a potential meltdown. Tonight, the bride and her mother have a protracted fight about salad: Alice had dreamed of serving a nice homey Caesar with croutons, but her class-conscious mom has gone behind her back and placed an order for baby field greens with a poached-pear vinaigrette. The two women clash horribly, and Alice, weeping, locks herself in the bathroom with a head of romaine lettuce, and the wedding coordinator trembles and whimpers.
The creators of Big Day have imagined many vivid characters—most of whom would inspire you to rearrange the place cards if you were seated by them at an actual reception—and cast the parts superbly. As the wedding coordinator, Stephnie Weir allows herself to resemble several members of the order Rodentia, a neurotic gopher and a weird field mouse among them. As the mother of the bride, Wendie Malick offers a master class in arching the left eyebrow. But Steven Rannazzisi’s Skobo and Miriam Shor’s Becca are the best, and the toxic connection between them as essential to the show as the sweet—and sometimes saccharine—bond between Alice and Danny.
Skobo, magnetically repellent, seems to have derived his ideas about relationships from a close reading of Hustler. “I haven’t had a conscience for a very long time,” he shrugs at one point. “It’s just the way daddy likes it. It’s my life.” Piggish though he is, we don’t really fight him when he calls Becca clingy, needy, and desperate. She is, after all, annoyingly clingy, needy, and desperate, and yet her childish sulking fits are endearing. But Skobo also believes that his temporary blindness is divine punishment for engaging in one too many one-night stands, and the show seems to agree with him. Big Day asks, among other things, what a white wedding might mean in a world of meaningless hookups. The answer, quite often, is farce.