Silly, you don’t sleep in the rain. You make love in the rain.
—Dharma Finkelstein (Jenna Elfman)
First aired in 1997, Dharma and Greg is almost old enough to be considered “retro,” along with songs from the ‘90s. It’s also intelligent as far as romantic comedies go, humorous without being stupid. Now released on DVD in an attractive package that includes commentaries for three episodes and an interactive game called “Reaching Your Inner Dharma,” Season One establishes the show’s use of stereotypes to poke fun at extremes, in this case, conservative and liberal. Both unorthodox and familiar, Dharma and Greg’s relationship imagines a romantic-comedic version of middle ground.
In the pilot episode, Dharma Finkelstein (Jenna Elfman) and Greg Montgomery (Thomas Gibson) lock eyes passionately on the San Francisco subway. She gets off and though he tries to follow, he’s just a moment too late. Not to worry: soon after, he finds her in his office, where he works as U.S. Attorney, cross-legged on his desk. Her position, both at ease and out of place, as Elfman points out on the commentary track, “sums up” Dharma. A yoga teacher, dog trainer, and free spirit, Dharma tends to challenge the status quo.
The contrast between Dharma’s spontaneity and Greg’s bureaucratic, upper-class world forms the sitcom’s conventional premise: opposites attract. Dharma convinces Greg to join her for pie in Reno, where they marry on their first date. Fortunately, their chemistry is convincing enough that it sustains them through the first season’s various “worlds colliding” plots. Greg’s first sight of Dharma’s parents, Abby (Mimi Kennedy) and Larry (Alan Rachins), constitutes one such episode. She’s a painter who likes to work in the nude, her husband is posing as her naked Adam. “The naked woman,” Greg tells Dharma, “is your mother.” As she’s intuited however, Greg’s stiffness is not intractable, and he’s willing to accept her family’s eccentricity.
Dharma has a slightly harder time with Greg’s parents. Predictably, Kitty (Susan Sullivan) and Edward Montgomery (Mitchell Ryan) are as rich and conservative as Dharma’s folks are free-thinking. Upon their initial meeting, Dharma sets herself to the task of liberating the Montgomerys’ minds and improving their relationship (“You know, you guys should try doing it outside!”). In turn, Kitty tries to teach Dharma some social graces, appropriate to the wife of a Montgomery. The tensions become slightly more complicated when Dharma gets a taste of “power” (in the episode titled “Mr. Montgomery Goes to Washington”), and her new age ethics take a beating (at least temporarily).
Essentially unsurprising, this dynamic proves durable (the show ran for five seasons). Its charm stems from the ludicrous situations that pit these different backgrounds and values against each other. In “Invasion of the Buddy Snatcher”, Kitty is unable to get rid of ducks that have nested in her backyard pool. She calls Abby, who conveniently has a degree in ornithological intelligence and manages to communicate with the ducks. Eventually Abby and Larry “mate” in the pool to drive the ducks away. Kitty is appalled, but happy to be rid of the ducks.
The jokes often come at the expense of Larry and his burnt-out forgetfulness or Kitty’s uptight conservatism. Due to a bad telephone connection, for example, Kitty and Edward assume that Abby and Larry have propositioned them for swinging, reasoning that because Abby and Larry are “hippies,” they must be “into” swinging. The show, however, frequently celebrates Abby and Larry’s untraditional (they were never married) partnership, as it appears more loving and functional that Edward and Kitty’s cold and businesslike marriage.
In the commentary for the pilot episode, Kennedy and Rachins complain that critics didn’t write enough about the show’s “new ideas,” revealed within the context of a romantic relationship (“So it made sense,” as Elfman puts it). Dharma & Greg does attempt to explore some of the more “serious” issues facing young couples in the first year of marriage, but these are usually undercut by elaborate displays of the characters’ idiosyncrasies.
In “The Ex-Files”, Dharma meets Greg’s ex and becomes jealous, then sets out on an obsessive quest to find the ex a new partner, going so far as to screen candidates herself. She is like a caricature of a jealous partner, shedding light on what jealousy will push people to do. And In “Much Ado During Nothing”, Dharma and Greg worry that their sex life is becoming boring, a typical concern for a young married couple. The show makes the situation unusual, however, in that the catalyst for their worry is that Dharma’s best friend Jane (Shae D’Lyn) won the coveted “duck,” a prize apparently invented by Dharma and Jane and awarded for having sex in the weirdest place. Dharma and Greg become obsessed with winning back the duck and spice up their sex life in the process.
This becomes the first season’s pattern. As the newlyweds learn about one another, they also provide a lens through which to view their social and political circumstances. If Dharma & Greg‘s basic dynamic is not so new for television marriages (see: I Love Lucy), its charismatic performers and energetic scripts make it seem fresh.
Dharma and Greg: Season One - Living Room Lawn clip