Family Pickle is as fast and frenetic as New York itself, a show about a family dynasty that flourishes in a maelstrom of histrionics, laughter, and sandwiches so big that “if you can put your mouth around them, then we made a mistake,” says Sandy, who, with his wife, Marian, runs the world-famous Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan.
Marian inherited the Carnegie from her father, who died last year. Sandy took over the reins, having, he says, “an IMBD degree—I Married the Boss’s Daughter.”
Marian and Sandy, both aging baby boomers, face problems familiar to all of us: raising children set on challenging their ways, working together not only as a family but as a couple, and the question of legacy. And they’re made for each other: Equally matched in bluster and drive—not mention decibel levels—it’s a relationship as full of fireworks as it is of love. Marian is addicted to Internet shopping and provoking her husband. Sandy runs the business at maximum volume—part hurricane, part stand-up comic. When they get a call one morning alerting them that Jack Nicholson is coming in for lunch, an ordinary day turns to typical turmoil. Like kids fighting over a toy at Christmas, Marian goes into full frenzy to prep for a photo op with Jack, while Sandy goes Doberman on the staff to make sure that everything’s perfect. When Nicholson’s PR person calls to inform them that the visit is off, Marian is distraught, but it’s Sandy who takes it the hardest—he clambers over customers to rip Nicholson’s celebrity photo off the Wall of Fame.
Caught in their orbit is Sarri, Marian’s coddled daughter from her first marriage, who’s in charge of publicity and stubbornly tries to bring the business—and Sandy—into the 21st century. Her accomplice is Jen—Marian’s goddaughter and fresh out of “hospitality college”—whose ambition outstrips her maturity. Together they take on Sandy and fight to update the menu, which hasn’t been changed in a generation, using new Web technology. But Sandy is ferociously protective of his domain and brings in his “house photographer”—their 80-year-old accountant who wields an archaic Instamatic—with predictably disastrous results. Jen seizes the opportunity to make her mark and brings in her own photographer, Jeffrey, a college friend and flamboyant “artist.” It’s a mismatch made in heaven that ends when Sandy throws Jeffrey out of the restaurant for his lack of reverence toward his beloved pastrami sandwiches.
There are no tranquil days at the Carnegie, even on occasions that seem beyond argument, like the traditional Annual Pickle Eating Contest. Sarri hates it, even though it’s the Deli’s signature event, and wants to introduce promotions that appeal to a modern clientele. Sandy challenges Sarri and Jen to see who can grab the most customers. Marian will judge the winner.
Sarri and Jen quickly get to work and announce a karaoke contest; the customers flock to the deli and things are looking good for the girls. They even have money left over in their budget and, with supreme confidence, aim to strike a decisive blow for the younger generation by commissioning a rapper to write a Carnegie Deli song. The song, however, lands flatter than a knish. With the calm swagger of a pompous lion, Sandy unveils the Pickle Eating Contest. The reception is enormous and unprecedented—they even have to close down Seventh Avenue. Marian has no choice but to declare Sandy the winner.
Finally, there’s Chuck, Sandy’s son-in-law from his first marriage, who seems shell-shocked as he wrangles with the conflicting orders barked from all sides. When a truckload of pastrami destined for the Carnegie Deli’s Vegas outpost goes missing, Chuck steps up, hoping to win Sandy’s trust and become his choice for the Carnegie’s heir apparent. Without Sandy’s approval, Chuck fires the trucking company and Sandy explodes with the indiscriminate fury of a volcano. Later, when Chuck is told he has to stay in New York while everyone else travels to the Sands Casino in Pennsylvania for a press conference announcing the new Carnegie Deli—right next to chef Emeril Lagasse’s burger joint—he is upset, but sees an opportunity. Before the opening, Sandy receives a package, a challenge from Chef Emeril: whoever sells the most food on opening day wins, and the loser has to wear the other restaurant’s T-shirt for an entire, humiliating week. Sandy returns jubilant from Pennsylvania, but his celebration is cut short when another package arrives from the Sands. It’s a shirt from Emeril, meaning Sandy lost. But it’s only later revealed that the whole thing was a hoax; Chuck sent both packages in order to get revenge for being left behind.
Family Pickle is a fascinating look inside a cherished American institution, and a joyride with a wonderfully wild cast of characters. Though seemingly run on chaos theory, the business thrives, built on a foundation of the tumult, the love, and an unbreakable family bond. “People say exactly what’s on their mind,” Sarri says, “We know we’re not going to get fired.” Deliriously satisfying, furiously funny, and overstuffed as one of their signature sandwiches, Family Pickle is addictive television.