Who’s the Boss? is all about stereotypes. But rather than challenge them, it uses them, and rather than injecting freshness into the family sitcom, it falls flat. We’re supposed to delight in the role reversal of Brooklyn tough guy Tony Micelli (Tony Danza) working as a housekeeper for the rich ad exec Angela Bower (Judith Light), seeing it as a step toward equal opportunity. But we’re also expected to chuckle at Angela’s inadequate parenting due to her busy lifestyle and Tony’s dunderheaded antics that usually stem from his ethnicity or his maleness. The more this opposition becomes apparent with each episode in this first season, the more it doesn’t matter. The contradictory premise of Who’s the Boss? does what it’s supposed to do: it sets the scene for cheesy sitcom tomfoolery. What else does an ‘80s sitcom need?
It’s weird, though, how nary a single episode of the 22-episode season—newly released to DVD—passes without at least one gag about the apparent wrongness of Tony’s place in Angela’s home. “This is my housekeeper, Tony Micelli,” Angela says again and again, to employees, friends, nosy neighbors, and even her ex-husband, eliciting predictable scoffs and sexist remarks. Apparently the idea of a male housekeeper is just too ludicrous for anyone in suburban Connecticut to comprehend. But of course, this is the point. While the repeated references to the man-maid thing make much of the show’s humor seem dated, they also allow today’s viewers a fascinating look at just how times have changed in the battle of the sexes.
Or not. Recent shows like Everybody Loves Raymond insist on doing everything that Who’s the Boss? did. Raymond‘s set up of successful sports writer and housewife has somehow found enduring success, with show after show built around a controlling wife whose sole purpose is doing laundry, and an uninvolved husband who’d rather be out playing golf than spending time with the family.
At least Who’s the Boss? realizes the silliness of its stereotypes (Angela calls Tony’s love of combined families “ethnic”). Tony might be the butt of a thousand jokes, but he always manages to get the last laugh. And that’s where the show shines. If it weren’t for his “voice of reason,” Angela’s seemingly perfect world would collapse and she knows it. She does everything in her power to reassure Tony that he is part of her family, which includes her sexy mom, Mona (Katherine Helmond), and reptile-loving eight-year-old son, Jonathan (Danny Pintauro). Tony succeeds not only as the housekeeper, but also as a good father to his own tomboy preteen daughter, Samantha (Alyssa Milano), and father figure to Jonathan.
They all engage in standard sitcom silliness—Tony decides to earn some extra cash by sweeping out Angela’s chimney, Tony has to go bra shopping for Samantha, Angela pretends to be her secretary so as not to intimidate her new boyfriend with her success—but this is the fun part. Like most sitcoms at the time, Who’s the Boss? is also guilty of some overt sappiness, as when Angela learns the dangers of hypocrisy in “Angela’s First Fight,” or Tony learns to accept Samantha is growing up in “Samantha’s Growing Up” and “Double Date.” Such moralizing is delivered without pretentiousness (as in Seinfeld), angst (Friends), or smartassery (Frasier).
It could be that the show provides such nostalgic reverie only for those of us who were teenagers in the ‘80s. If so, that’s fine. It speaks of a time when the world was changing, and like every cheesy 80s sitcom, this one does well to document those changes. Danza and Light manage great onscreen chemistry, both as serious actors and physical comedians. In “Requiem”, for example, Tony must come to terms with the death of his father (the episode, incidentally, is dedicated to Danza’s own dad) with help from Angela. Light is especially strong, transforming Angela from a fish-out-water socialite in the Brooklyn backstreets to a compassionate friend to Tony. She’s hilarious to watch sparring with a tarty bar waitress (played by Fright Night 2‘s Julie Carmen) in “Angela’s First Fight,” and Danza’s stint (in “Rash Decision”) as a spokesmodel for a soap that turns out to cause hives sees him scratching and rubbing himself up against a variety of household appliances. (Tony’s physique gets quite a bit of screen time, actually, much to the enjoyment of the show’s live audience.)
The DVD collection also displays the series’ array of guest actors, including Delta Burke as a hot temptress, Danza’s old Taxico-star Jeff Conaway as a stumbling drunk, Teen Wolf‘s dad James Hampton in two different roles (an ad man and a cop), James Coco as Tony’s prison-bound father-in-law, and an hilarious appearance by Peter Billingsley as Samantha’s first date. Don’t be fooled, though, by the purported “extras” here, because they’re a giant scam. The packaging is a little standard, but loud and colorful, and the mini-guide is informative and helpful when navigating through the episodes, but the apparent seven featurettes (including “Brooklyn Meets Connecticut” and “How Will it End?”) are merely minutes-long highlights from the first season, disappointing considering how very cool a cast look-back could have been. (Then again, last I heard, Danza was still mad at Alyssa Milano for doing that lesbian vampire movie, so maybe not.) Maybe on Season Two.