Consider the lowly Torkelsons, a TV family that deserves more respect than it has received so far. Since its debut in the fall, The Torkelsons has told the tale of 35-year-old Millicent Torkelson (Connie Ray) and her life as the single mother of five noisy children living in the tiny town of Pyramid Corners, Okla.
The Torkelsons is not your standard squabbling-family-in-a-big-suburban-house sitcom. For one thing, the Torkelsons don’t squabble or wisecrack as compulsively as other TV families do. Instead, they actually converse — they discuss things; they argue. Then, too, their big suburban house is more accurately a big, drafty, dilapidated monstrosity, and the recession has hit this struggling family pretty hard. The series’ pilot, for example, climaxed with an attempt by the local department store to repossess the family’s washing machine. Instead of being played for laughs, this scene conveyed the sense of shame involved in not having enough money to maintain your payments on the household appliances — with not having as much money as all the other sitcom families do.
All of this makes The Torkelsons a bit more melancholy than most situation comedies — the family’s situation is always dicey. To make ends meet, Millicent runs a freelance upholstery business out of her house; she has also recently taken in a boarder, Wesley Hodges, who rents out the family’s basement and always shows up for meals with the family dressed in a necktie and cardigan sweater. Hodges is played by William Schallert, eternally beloved by baby boomers as the smart, gentle dad on The Patty Duke Show; here, with their Midwestern manners and twangs, the Torkelsons always address him as ”Boarder Hodges.”
The Torkelsons is structured around the musings of the family’s oldest daughter, Dorothy Jane, played by Olivia Burnette. With her round face and large, dark eyes, Burnette looks like a teenage version of Linda Ronstadt, and most episodes of The Torkelsons begin with Dorothy Jane sitting in the window of her bedroom, looking up at the night sky and talking aloud to ”the man in the moon.” In these brief scenes, she confides her hopes, secrets, fears, and joys — it’s a brazenly sentimental device to draw us into the show.
Most of the time, Dorothy Jane waxes deliriously lyrical as the moon wanes, speaking of ”poetry and moonlight and the power of love,” but the scriptwriters aren’t above making her awfully literal-minded as well. In a recent episode, Dorothy Jane explained to the man in the moon — and, therefore, to us — that when she talks to him, she’s ”really talking to God.” The Torkelsons’ creator, Lynn Montgomery, has worked subtle, novel variations on the standard sitcom form, but Montgomery and the show’s director, Arlene Sanford, keep poking us in the ribs with obviousness, as if to say, ”Get it? Get it?” Back off — we get it already. The Torkelsons asks us to identify most closely with Dorothy Jane — to share her disappointment, for example, when the boy she has a crush on doesn’t invite her to the school dance. But Burnette’s youthful poise and actorly knowingness work against her; Dorothy Jane comes off a little cold, a bit off-puttingly dour. And Dorothy Jane’s siblings are a disappointingly stereotypical lot: Steven Floyd (Aaron Metchik), a smart-mouthed 12-year-old hood; Ruth Ann (Anna Slotky), a blandly cheerful 10-year-old; Chuckie Lee (Lee Norris), a prepubescent nerd who chases girls with the absurd ardor of Groucho Marx; and Mary Sue (Rachel Duncan), a standard-issue pretty little tyke. All of the perfectly competent young actors portraying these cutesily double-named children deserve better.
No, the character who really makes The Torkelsons worth watching is the children’s mother. Connie Ray’s Millicent is a terrific but atypical TV mom: She talks to her children as equals, leveling with them instead of razzing them with jokes or sarcasm. With her exploding red hair and scrunched-together features, Ray radiates energetic determination tempered by emotional exhaustion. She really communicates the strain of lower-middle-class single parenthood without making Millicent seem self-pitying or martyred.
But The Torkelsons dramatizes a mother-daughter relationship you may have observed in real life and read about in novels but have never seen on television. Millicent identifies so strongly with her oldest daughter that she thinks of Dorothy Jane as some complicated combination of friend and alter ego. Resigned to a life of genteel poverty, Millicent has invested all her aspirations in dreamy Dorothy Jane, and the young girl rankles under the weight of her mother’s expectations.
It’s difficult to champion The Torkelsons because it’s such an uneven and sometimes embarrassingly sappy show. Or maybe that’s precisely the reason one should champion it. At a time when most sitcoms strive for a bloodless hit formula that can be endlessly repeated into syndication, The Torkelsons seems to be going on its own nerve, allowing the series to wander wherever the extravagant emotions of Millicent and Dorothy Jane want to take it. B