The Ghosts of ‘Fuller House’

Critics were understandably put off by Fuller House’s first season, which was packed full of in-jokes and meta gags for fans of Full House who had also not matured in any way since 1995. It can be difficult to describe what was enjoyable about Full House without relying on the obvious: it was in heavy syndication when millennials were young, so it’s part of our shared consciousness, not actually good. The first season recreated the original so faithfully as to be almost unwatchable – instead of a dad to three daughters, his brother-in-law, and their unemployed friend, the show is now a mom to three sons, her sister, and their self-employed friend.

In season 2, things got substantially better: Danny, Jesse, Becky, and Joey made fewer cameos, there was considerably less winking to the audience, and the show got the chance to become what it would be. Fuller House became not just Full House fan fiction, but a fully formed show in its own right (and if audiences want Jodie Sweetin winking at the camera, they can always watch Hollywood Darlings). Max (Elias Harger) moved away from being a Danny clone into the much more obnoxious showboat he’s become, the writing began to catch up to Sweetin and Andrea Barber’s talents, and the storyline matured quite a bit. The first nine episodes of season 3, which premiered last week, are an unfortunate step backward. Typical for multi-cam sitcoms, by now the cast has comfortably settled into their roles. Unfortunately, it appears the writers are too comfortable.

It’s not all bad, though. In one of the season’s most surprising pleasures, Stephanie visits the Gibbler house for the first time, which has been fully restored by Fernando to the exact layout and decoration it had during Kimmy’s childhood (on Fuller House, the details of their lives on Full House are so sacrosanct that Max describes Stephanie’s old stuffed bear as “a legend!”). The premise teeters just on the edge of ruining the Gibbler mystique, but it’s recovered by the surprising surreality of its set dressing and the opportunity it seizes to give backstory to Kimmy and Stephanie’s mutual antipathy. There’s some forgettable nonsense about a ghost, which is ironic, because it’s the Fuller/Tanner house that’s really haunted.

Television shows about insular groups of people (e.g., families and offices) can have their internal logic spiral out of control over time. In the case of a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, after a dozen seasons the characters behave in a way that would be unrecognizable to themselves in the first couple of seasons. When this kind of world is set in a single location like a bar or a house, it can be easy to start thinking of that set as a haunted house – the longer people spend there, the less capable they become of dealing with the outside world. Annalise’s house on How to Get Away with Murder was a haunted house. The mansion on UnREAL is a haunted house. And to a greater extent, the Tanner house in San Francisco is a haunted house.

The show emphasizes this dynamic with an unexpected houseguest in one episode this season: Rocki (Landry Bender), daughter to Gia (Marla Sokoloff), both of whom DJ despises. As is the Tanner family custom, because DJ and Gia didn’t get along twenty years ago, now DJ can’t even be civil to Gia’s family – Jesse is even rude to Ramona (Soni Bringas) because she’s Kimmy’s daughter. When Gia’s Tinder date goes well, Rocki needs to stay the night at the Tanner house and finds herself slowly transforming from surly goth into full-on Tanner hugger. When Gia arrives to pick her up, she’s surprised by Rocki’s goodie-two-shoes wardrobe. Rocki explains, “Mom, you left me in a cult. I had to fit in to survive.” It’s a moment played for laughs, but there is some menace to the real way the house seems to flatten its occupants in service of uncomplicated family harmony (Becky’s transformation from partner to caregiver in Full House is another great example of this phenomenon).

On Full House, Danny was the cursed caretaker of the haunted house, pushing everyone around him to resolve all their conflicts with hugs and mutual declarations of affection. There were never any differences that couldn’t be solved cleanly and without fallout. Now that he’s gone (and his character has changed dramatically to better align with Bob Saget’s public persona), that oppressive role falls to DJ. Now that DJ’s the head of the household, she continues to reinforce the Danny-Jesse-Joey dynamic between herself, Stephanie, and Kimmy. It manifests in ugly ways – when Stephanie receives a paltry Spotify residual check for the song that made her briefly famous last season, DJ immediately insists that she become Stephanie’s life coach. This leads to a few goofy sight gags (like the DJ-authored book Fixing Stephanie: A Sister’s Guide to Repairing a Wayward Sibling: “Why is this so thick?” “Oh, I’ve been working on it since high school”), but it also leads the characters to the obvious revelation that DJ does not have her life completely together – she’s just judgmental.

Of course, it’s not haunted house logic that forces every member of the family into contrived, unpleasant romantic storylines – that’s just sitcom logic. It’s sitcom logic that preadolescent Max be saddled with so many strange sexualized dramas between himself and his peers (while constantly unsubtly hinting that he’s gay). In a house where everyone’s accepted DJ’s fundamentalist insistence on using the phrase “Oh, Mylanta!” in the place of “Oh my God,” Max’s young lust stories feel beyond uncomfortable. That children behave like adults in love is sitcom logic. It’s also sitcom logic that Stephanie’s fertility is everyone’s business. And it’s certainly sitcom logic that Kimmy puts on a racist display to pitch Gibbler Style as Steve’s wedding planner (for his wedding in JAPAN) so that Steve can stay entangled in DJ’s life for longer.

In the half-season’s final episode, there’s a little sequence where Stephanie and Kimmy try to point to behavior that indicates that either Steve or Matt is a better choice for her. Steve and Matt unknowingly take turns entering the room, coincidentally proving someone’s point. That back-and-forth is a microcosmic expression of DJ’s love triangle throughout the season. For convenience’s sake, DJ is blissfully happy with both Matt and Steve – there’s never an off moment that might stop this storyline from dragging out over even more seasons. While Scott Weinger has always been fun and affable as Steve, his continued unnecessary presence on the show underlines how far Fuller House has yet to go to grow up past Full House. One can only hope that the back half of this season takes bigger risks, because there’s no bigger ‘90s throwback than a sitcom that runs forever and never goes anywhere.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

The Ghosts of ‘Fuller House’