Overall Rating: 8.5
I have a MAJOR disagreement with fandom on this episode, but it missed the feature cut-off due to some really REALLY bad acting by guest cast.
Read all about the EMH's one-time foray into real life here. It is a good try, and once again, it's Jeri Taylor proving that she's the only member of Voyager's writing staff who has any interest in humanist storytelling.
I've seen three different strains of complaint regarding this episode. They're all wrong (sorry guys...you're all missing the boat here). I'll explain why, one at a time.
First, there is the argument that this episode does not depict "real life" as the title implies - either during the Stepford Family opening, or in the family Torres helps to create. Some fans have called this a contrast between a 50s sitcom and a 90s sitcom, claiming that in the first scenario, the Doc's family is too perfect, and in the second scenario, each member of his revised family is a cardboard stereotype character cleaved too perfectly from the backdrop of 90s shock comedy. The wife goes from Stepford Wife to the mom from Married with Children, the son goes from Leave it to Beaver to older Dillon from Rosanne or Cody from Step by Step (all that's missing in either case is the cool shades). The daughter goes from the youngest Brady kid to the Olsen twins (basically the same but with a bit more sass thrown in).
Well I think you are mostly picking up the laughably bad acting of Wendy Schaal (wife Charlene) and Glenn Harris (son Jeffrey) if you feel that Torres' altered family is too wooden. Add Stephen Ralston (Larg) and Chad Heywood (K'Kath) to the party when they appear and you have the perfect storm of just AWFUL acting in a few places. It doesn't quite hit Tommy Wiseau levels on the suck-o-meter (which is too bad, because when you suck that badly, you become funny), but man oh man did these guest actors whiff on appearing believable as human beings. Actually, though, what I like about the second family is that the "random behavior elements" added by B'Elanna did not fundamentally change who each family member was - all of the things the EMH wanted in his family were still there. Stepford Mom was too reliable to be real, but the new version is still smart, confident, physically solid and supportive...all the things the EMH said he wanted. She just had a mind of her own. The daughter Belle was still brilliant with math and a promising young athlete - she just took a few too many risks in the pursuit of athletic greatness (like most talented athletes tend to do). And the son was still brilliant, confident and articulate - he just decided that he liked the Klingon concept of honor (perhaps because he knew his father didn't, as many brilliant, confident young men tend to rebel in much the same way for a time, just to carve out their own identity). I betcha B'Elanna put the Klingon thing in there intentionally just to teach the EMH a lesson so he'd stop being so damned cocky. :) "He thinks he has all the answers to parenting...let him handle a Klingon child...mwahaahahahahahaaaa!"
I don't think this is 50s sitcom vs. 90s sitcom, but even if you want to stick with your argument there, so what? You know why we watch sitcoms? Because they're enough like real life that they let us relate. You're not going to perfectly capture real life in 45 minutes of television, guys. A sitcom...or an hour-long sci fi experience...is not about perfectly emulating reality. It's about allowing us to relate our real-world problems to more entertaining imaginary scenarios. No one-time character on a TV show is going to be exactly like the real us. I think the characters in the second version of the Doc's family are perfectly legitimate TV characters designed to let us experience the reality of our own families through an unreal (more entertaining) alternative. In any case, the characters make solid foils for exploring the VERY REAL life lesson that not everything can be perfect (and that if it were, we wouldn't get the same joy or wisdom from our experiences as we do from the travails of our imperfect real lives). So...yeah...argument #1 is a pointless non sequitor and is also incorrect factually IMHO.
Second, there are those in Voyager fandom who think this episode constitutes a melodrama. The EMH creates a family out of whole cloth, they say, and within a few days, he is so emotionally attached to them that he starts taking his frustrations out on the crew. Why would the EMH feel so strongly about this fantasy? In real life, familial bonds are lifelong works in progress forged through years of hard work, love and sacrifice. It's not something you can invent in two days.
The rule of cool applies. Trek fans have been willing to forgive writers for cramming entire romances into one single episode taking place over at most two weeks or real time in the past if the story being told is one worth telling. One of the strongest TNG episodes of the fifth season revolves around Data having an experimental relationship with a human female. The whole thing takes place over a period of perhaps a week, we see the relationship move from cute and awkward flirting to experimental physical romance to cohabitation to heart-breaking conclusion in forty-five minutes, and the episode is well-received by fans. Why? Because it is yet another of TNG's great explorations into the nature of humanity. Data learns that relationships are not only difficult to predict, but life affirming even when they fail and even when he feels a sense of loss at the end and reluctantly deletes his relationship subroutines. And that is a great story well worth telling. We have to forgive the writers...they can't always tell realistically timed stories about human relationships, familial or romantic, in the restrictive 45-minute format. Give them a break...there's only so much they can do.
This is a story about the enduring strength of familial bonds and the need to embrace those bonds, even when they result in tragedy and anguish. And it's actually pretty well told despite the bad guest actors. So...the timing issue is a non-starter with me. I'm willing to go with it because it's worth getting invested in...because I like seeing characters learn and grow as the EMH is doing.
Complaint #3 comes to us from SFDebris. I respect his honesty, and I would never wish hardship on anyone if it could reasonably be avoided. His review of this episode includes one of the most gut-wrenching personal admissions he's ever made. In it, he explains that one of his children once nearly died and that the experience had been so crushingly painful that it had put an almost intolerable strain on his entire family. His child recovered, but he hesitates to imagine what would have happened if they had not survived. And further, he argues that, if he had the ability to make the entire trauma go away and never feel the pain of it, and never remember what that was like...he would, and he believes anyone would in his place.
Essentially, he is arguing that, while the unpredictable and often troublesome nature of life is important, pain is not good in and of itself - pain is what you have to accept in order to have any freedom at all. He's willing to make that trade, but that doesn't mean he considers pain salient to his enjoyment of life or worthy of experiencing if he had another choice. I can respect this argument...and I can see how a man who experienced the near-death of his own offspring would feel that the ending of this episode is pat and saccharine. Belle dies and the EMH receives the love and support of his family in those final moments and we get the sweet music and fade out. It all seems very neat and orderly, doesn't it?
I would agree that the FORMAT of the final moments is rushed and rather...erm...Hollywood. But...this IS a Hollywood show and they do only have so long to tell a story. I would argue that the EMH should have been dealing with the aftermath for several more episodes...we should have seen this family again and seen some realistic fallout...we should have seen him get overly emotional at the death of a patient. A nice family hug shouldn't make everything OK after someone he loved died.
But you know what does? Faith. That is the missing element. For both SFDebris and Jeri Taylor. SFDebris is a self-avowed atheist and libertarian. I'm not criticizing him for his beliefs, but it is a common trait among those who do not believe in an afterlife to take pain rather badly because, if you don't believe in a greater force for good, then all painful stimuli are both horrible to experience AND pointless. Taylor obviously can't go around writing Christian-messaged science fiction - her audience is broad and with many tastes. But the story begs for some appeal to having faith in AT LEAST your fellow men. And the EMH should have been getting love and support from his family on Voyager too. So no...it's not completely perfect even for me - a person more likely to be receptive to its message - but I don't agree with SFDebris here that if you could remove pain from your life...if there was another way to be free other than the way we know...it would be silly not to.
A personal story to make my point - the first time I really fell in love, I was an undergrad in college. The person for whom I had those deep feelings was involved in a bad relationship and had many personal hurdles to leap before she was really ready to be in a relationship, but that didn't change the way I felt. After two years of being her friend (an experience that was sometimes painful), I finally admitted to her how I felt. She turned me down, though she was very moved at my words and felt bad for not feeling the way I did. When the dust settled, though, all of that frustration and the unhappy ending to the story still left me with a vast set of new experiences from which to learn, improved self-confidence with women, and that certainty that I was truly living. Strong feelings, even painful ones, remind us of how precious our lives truly are - at least if we have some fundamental belief that life is good, infinitely valuable, and worth the struggle.
It isn't a near-death experience, but the principle is the same.
I will also freely admit that I may be overrating this episode simply because I wish more Voyager episodes centered on the human element and fewer centered on some boring space amoeba of the week or annoying alien warrior race. But I have to rate how I feel...and I believe that this episode is well worth the viewing.
While imperfect, the writing is more than suitable to the task of conveying the message.
Ouchies. Picardo was his usual brilliant self, but the guest cast was laughably bad...sorry.
See above comments...the triumph of life and love over our darkest hours is worth seeing no matter how many times it is shown.