"Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60." - Gore Vidal
"Dada began not as an art form but as a disgust." - Tristan Tzara
If there is such thing as a percipient television theme song, it is the theme to Step by Step. In the song, the singer astutely asks "Will there ever be a second time around?" The significance of this line derives from the fact that every aspect of Step by Step is recycled from other television programs. While sitcoms are often criticized as formulaic, Step by Step stands apart due to the sheer pervasiveness of its unoriginality. Indeed Step by Step is essentially a collage of television history. The premise of the show borrows liberally - some would say copies - from television icon the Brady Bunch. The show's stars Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers attained stardom on Dallas and Three's Company. Even supporting actors and characters borrow from other media. Stacey Keenan played a similarly wise cracking daughter on the show My Two Dads. The character Cody is constructed from Keanu Reeves' Ted "Theodore" Logan in the Bill and Ted films. Notably, Cody is the nephew of Patrick Duffy's character, Frank Lambert. This is significant because Sasha Mitchell, the actor who plays Cody, previously portrayed Bobby Ewing's nephew on Dallas. Absolutely everything about Step by Step is derivative.
It is this derivative nature that makes Step by Step perhaps the most challenging of the sitcoms addressed in this blog. The challenge stems from the fact that it is impossible to discern the philosophical nature of Step by Step's derivative approach. For instance, one could interpret Step by Step by concluding that the show is taking a Pop Art sensibility to the sitcom. Like Warhol, Step by Step's writers simply view the pop culture landscape and liberally incorporate elements into a new whole. Seen through this Pop Art lens, Step by Step brilliantly acknowledges what is obvious to any viewer - no sitcom is remotely original. Instead of avoiding this truth, Step by Step embraces it.
It is also possible to view Step by Step as portentously cycnical - a ridiculous farce that levies a harsh criticism on the sitcom form itself. Like the dadaist movement, perhaps Step by Step's derivative nature arises not from an appreciation of the sitcom, but a disgust. Clearly, Step by Step's imitative nature makes it a fascinating, though troubling, study.
Nowhere is Step by Step’s dedication to unoriginality more prominently displayed than in "J.T.’s World," the fourth episode of the second season. Originally airing on October 9, 1992, in "J.T.'s World," J.T. has a cable access show where he and his sidekick Cody discuss attractive females from their living room couch. At the beginning of the episode, J.T. is excitedly preparing for the arrival of a big time producer who may want to syndicate their cable access show. As a side note, one of the more intriguing aspects of this scene is that J.T. declares that the producer is looking for the "next Wayne and Garth." This statement is interesting in that J.T does not reference the movie "Wayne's World." Instead, J.T. speaks of the characters Wayne and Garth as if they are actual people within his reality. The statement creates the possiblity that Step by Step exists completely within the continuity established in Wayne's World and that J.T. is attempting to emulate the success of two indivduals within that reality.
But I digress. After the producer's visit, J.T. begins making plans for his new found fame and fortune. Frank even makes a deal with him that if the producer calls back, J.T. does not have to do his paper for school. As luck would have it, the producer calls and J.T.'s World will seemingly hit the big time. As they begin preparations for the show, J.T. and Cody arrive on a set that is an exact replica of the Lambert living room. Throngs of adoring women crowd the set hoping to get a glimpse of J.T., the new star, even seeking to have J.T. autograph their undergarments. On the second day of shooting, however, the producer tells J.T. and Cody that they are fired and will be replaced by actors who will portray them on the show. Apparently, J.T. signed away all of the intellectual property rights to the concept, characters, and set of the show, retaining nothing for himself. Embarrassed, he learns a valuable lesson about not counting your chickens before they hatch and has to do his homework again.
As should be evident, except for the ending, this is the exact plot of the movie Wayne's World, a film that premiered just eight months prior to the air date of the episode. It is impossible to accept that Step by Step's writers were simply lazy and decided to steal the premise from a highly successful and recently released film. Instead, the show must have had a deeper significance for appropriating pop culture elements in such an obvious manner. This reviewer finds it highly vexing that he cannot discern the philosophical purpose the writers intended.
In the end, however, Step by Step's philosophical perspective may not matter. Whether the show is the height of Pop Art or cynically dadaist, it is unquestionably brilliant. As Gore Vidal suggested, the difference may not lie in the show's genius, but merely in its measurable IQ.