Bart: “Dad, I can’t believe you’re risking my life to save your own.”
Homer: “Son, you’ll understand one day, when you have Kids.”
(Who Else but “The Simpsons”)
Well, we now come to that time of the year when the Holidays approach and we can celebrate it with my annual Holiday Blog Post. Of course, last year I discussed movies and TV about the Holiday season. However, I used that subject already so do you honestly think that I’m going to repeat myself this year? Nooooooooo! This year, I’m going to discuss for Network TV and Cable something that is especially meaningful this time of the year but which is also apropos throughout the entirety of the year. And what might that subject possibly be? Why none other than…FAMILY! Now I am not going to discuss Cable or Network TV shows about families getting together during the holidays either. Nor, am I going to discuss what we have in the past labeled as just “family movies” on TV. You know, stuff that you would ordinarily find on the Hallmark and Disney Channels involving family and which can also include animated movies and TV shows. Nor am I going to just discuss on Network TV or Cable shows what we think of as a “traditional” family. Family can also mean for example:
- an association of people who share common beliefs or activities
- a social unit composed of those living together in the same dwelling
- a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation
So with these parameters now defined, here we go!
It might not at first seem apparent, but there are many different types of TV shows about family. On Network TV you always could find comedy shows about family. Some examples back in the fifties and sixties were “Father Knows Best” (1954-60), “Leave It to Beaver” (1957-63), and, my favorite, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-66). These shows reaffirmed the wholesome ideal of what America thought was a family, namely, mom was the homemaker, father was the wage earner who was all wise (even if he was sometimes a bumbler) and the children were always getting into impish trouble which the parents had to extricate them from while imparting their wisdom to them. Of course, they were also all Caucasian, never had any substance abuse problems, psychological problems, family abuse problems, real criminal problems, and there was no such thing as prejudice shown someone as an actual problem either. Of course, during the fifties and into the sixties Network TV Censorship was so severe that none of this stuff could ever be used as episode storylines. Also, bad actions always had to be punished for good to triumph in order to maintain the stability of what we thought of as family and home. It was Eisenhower America at it’s finest! Growing up watching this American brainwashing technique, especially, with Ozzie and Harriet, I always had a few random thoughts:
- What “Adventures” could a show called “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” ever actually have?: (1) Rolling out of bed? (2) Taking out the garbage? (3) Harriet accidently putting Ex-Lax instead of chocolate chips in her batch of cookies? (4) David or Ricky mistakenly picking up Ozzie’s copy of “Playboy” rather than “Boys’ Life” while sitting on the bathroom can?
- Why would anybody ever be or want to ever be called Oswald (AKA Ozzie)? He should have just used the name Oswald from the very beginning and removed all doubt about the matter so you always knew who would be the last guy picked for a team sport and the first guy always picked on at lunchtime.
- What was Ozzie’s actual job/profession?: (1) Lawyer? (2) Bandleader? (3) Vagrant? (4) Raincoat wearer hanging around schoolyards? (5) Russian deep-cover spy teaching Ricky how to sing Rock and Roll to subvert American children’s minds?
Comedy Network TV sitcoms about family really started to change in the nineteen seventies due to the influence of Norman Lear who ensured that they touched on modern political and social issues while constantly fighting the Network Censors every step of the way. In case you might have forgot, he was responsible for “All in the Family” (1971-79), “Sanford and Son” (1972-77), “Maude” (1972-78), “Good Times” (1974-79), “The Jeffersons” (1975-85), “One Day at a Time” (1975-84), and others. These shows were notable for being shot on videotape rather than film and in front of a live audience. Also, a couple of them (“All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son”) were adaptions from English comedy shows and to which other later comedy shows like “The Office” (2005-13), which was a family workplace comedy, also did. Workplace comedies, which were also a form of family, just in a workplace setting, were becoming popular too. You had successful shows like “Barney Miller” (1975-82) about cops, “Night Court” (1984-92) about the night shift in a Manhattan municipal court, and “Taxi” (1978-83) about cab drivers congregating in the cab company’s fleet garage for example.
For Network TV, other types of family dramas were popular too. The American public has always had a fascination with the lives of the rich and famous. Hence, two of the most popular shows at one time were “Dallas” (1978-91) on CBS about the rich, feuding oil and cattle raising Ewing family and the competing “Dynasty” (1981-89) on ABC about the wealthy Carrington family and all of their squabbling amongst themselves (Hey, everybody! Why can’t we all just get along?). Basically these shows were just badly acted soap operas (which is what any soap opera actually is) with a larger TV budget. The only thing they were good for was helping a lot of old former Hollywood stars or semi-stars to continue to find work while improving other lesser known actors’ careers. In all honesty, I have only seen one episode of “Dallas”. That episode (I hate to admit it) was the famous “Who Shot JR” episode to see if I could actually figure out who did it. After watching less than 5 minutes, I thought I figured out who did it but couldn’t believe it was who I thought it was because it was so stupid, simplistic, and easy. I thought that the CBS Network would never think that the general public was that absolutely stupid and dumb so it had to be someone else. Hence, I hung around and watched the entire episode. Big mistake! It turned out that I was the dummy because it was exactly who I thought it was (Spoiler Alert: It was Mary Crosby, Bing’s real life daughter). At that moment in time I finally realized that the main reason why TV shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” were so wildly popular with the general public was due to the fact that mankind truly was descended from Apes!
Fortunately, a number of successful Network dramas were also made that actually focused on families of more modest means and which also were more realistic and believable. Maybe the pioneer for these shows was with the premiere of “The Waltons” (1972-81). The Waltons was about the life of a rural Virginia family between 1933-46 and how they survived and changed throughout the years. It starred Ralph Waite and Michael Learned as the parents, Will Geer and Ellen Corby as the grandparents, and the parents’ seven children with the oldest, John-Boy (Richard Thomas), reminiscing at the beginning and end of each episode through a middle-aged adult voiceover by Earl Hammer, the creator of the show and whose actual life was reflected in Thomas’s character. This show came into existence after a successful TV movie called “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” (1971), based on the same family, received critical acclaim. Over the years it won a number of Emmys and was a bellwether for wholesome family oriented shows. It also spawned six additional movie sequels years after the show’s cancellation. It helped to bring about more realistic portrayals of families with their assorted trials and tribulations reflecting social and political changes in society and which was reflected in other critically acclaimed and successful family shows such as “Family” (1976-80), “Thirtysomething”(1987-91), and the more recent, “This Is Us” (2016- present). Now, if you are waiting for me to tear these shows down, well, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Can they be maudlin or boring? Sure they can! Can they be far-fetched or unlikely or stupid? Sure they can! Can they be really corny or reach for cheap sympathy? Sure they can! Can they be all of the above? You better believe it! However, they can also be believable, touching, thoughtful, interesting, well written and acted, and have us look at our perceptions of life with each other in a new or different way.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, with the advent of Cable, “family” shows were not hindered by censorship so they could be portrayed in a far more dysfunctional and, at times, unsettling way. One of the biggest and longest dark comedy drama hits was the series “Shameless” (2011- present) on Showtime. “Shameless” stars William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher, a hopeless alcoholic single father of six children left to basically raise themselves with all of them living in poverty and how his alcoholism and their overall family dysfunction affects them all. It was adapted from a similar British series and it is the longest-running original scripted series in Showtime’s history. Another dysfunctional family drama was the series “Kingdom” (2014-17) starring Frank Grillo as Alvey Kulina, a retired mixed martial arts (MMA) champion now running his own gym helping people work out while training MMA fighters in Venice beach, Ca. along with his girlfriend Lisa (Kiele Sanchez). He has two sons (one with drug and alcohol problems and the other, gay) but both have potential talent as MMA fighters even though their relationships are strained with him. The gym is in such dire financial shape that Alvey has to gamble convincing Ryan (Lisa’s ex-fiance), who used to be a great fighter to have Alvey train him to fight again. The only problem, Ryan is out on parole after spending five years in prison after maiming his father (What a mess!). This series is a profane, violent, and testosterone fueled saga of a blue collar family at odds with each other who try to co-exist and survive. The acting is outstanding and the show captures a wild side of life that few know about in a compelling and interesting way.
Two acclaimed and even darker dramas involving serious dysfunctional families involved in crime are “Breaking Bad” (2008-13) and “Ozark” (2017- present). In “Bad”, chemistry teacher Walter White (Byran Cranston), who supposedly gets into the drug trade by secretly cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after discovering that he has cancer, actually has a healthy loving family in the beginning. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) who has cerebral palsy, both love and respect him even if their lives are financially difficult. As the series progresses you slowly see Walter self-rationalize his slow decent into evil and as he changes, so does his family with regards to him and to themselves. By the end of the series, Skyler and Walter, Jr. are both emotionally estranged from him with Skyler debasing herself by condoning and even helping Walter, at times, in his schemes and with Walter, Jr. losing all trust and respect for his father. Worse, Walter finally admits to Skyler that he really didn’t do it for his family after all but that, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.” And when Skyler asks why it felt so good he says, “Because it’s illegal.” He cannot even self-rationalize his crimes to himself anymore!
In “Ozark”, the family dysfunction is even more pronounced from the very beginning. The family consists of financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) a former public relations political campaign operative, and their two children, Charlotte and Jonah. Marty and his partner money launder money for a dangerous Mexican drug cartel but, when the cartel discovers that Marty’s partner was skimming cartel money, he is killed and, to save himself and his family’s lives, Marty convinces the cartel that he can set up an even bigger money laundering operation in the Ozarks region in central Missouri once they move there. The Byrde family is already ethically and morally compromised. Marty has been committing numerous long-time criminal acts and Wendy, who is so emotionally estranged from Marty that she is having an affair, becomes his willing accomplice once her plans to escape with the kids and any money she can grab is ruined when her lover is killed as a warning if they do not keep their family together. Both children, who were originally unaware of their parents secrets, ultimately become a part of the overall family schemes in order to just try and stay alive. The show is violent, suspenseful, and continually surprising with the family dynamics fascinating and ultimately, the heart and soul of the show. Throughout the entire series so far, Marty and Wendy alternate actively helping and hindering each other while advancing their own agendas which can put each other’s life at risk. Both have their own goals and no real moral compass. Wendy basically, “Wants it All” while Marty wants (1) to only launder money when it’s safe and (2) to be thanked and appreciated for his laundering efforts for the cartel. Both children are also corrupted with Jonah having a knack for setting up bogus laundering accounts to hide cartel money and Charlotte pretending to befriend the daughter of Helen, a cartel representative while actually reporting back to Helen. In “Ozark,” this family unit can turn on each another in a moment’s notice!
Lastly, family shows portraying dysfunctional family relationships do not have to be either grim or serious dramas with comic overtones. They can also be just plain outrageously silly and fun. I can think of two examples. The first one was “Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-06) starring Jane Kaczmarek and Brian Cranston (before turning “Bad”) as the working-class parents of Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) and his five sibling brothers. Malcolm is a middle child with a genius IQ and a photographic memory but, like too many children, he is insecure, immature, and destructive (like his other brothers) and he has to put up with their constant everyday antics. His siblings are also intelligent but in different ways which makes all of them a chaotic mess along with their constant abuse of Malcolm and with each other (and to which Malcolm is a more than just willing participant with them too). All of this turmoil drives their parents to distraction although they too have their issues. Cranston is goofy, immature, and indecisive while Kaczmarek is wildly hotheaded and stubborn while constantly trying to reign in the kids destructive antics which makes the entire family’s interactions even more manic and hysterical. This sitcom was unusual in that, at times Malcolm broke the fourth wall by both narrating in voice-over and talking directly to the audience on camera almost as if asking for our help. It won a number of Emmys, and was a welcome alternative to the usual dysfunctional family scenario. The entire regular cast is terrific, with a special shoutout to veteran actress Cloris Leachman as Kaczmarek’s one-legged (Don’t ask!) mother Ida who hates her daughter while being alternatively hated by just about everyone else. This youngster (she’s still with us at age 94) is an absolute riot. The one thing you have to say about “Malcolm in the Middle” is that it definitely puts the “Fun” into dys-FUN-ction!
The other show that I want to mention is the long running and still great, “The Simpsons” (1989- present) which is the longest running American sitcom in history as well as having a successful feature film (with more to come), a video game, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And before I forget, it is an animated sitcom everyone. The series is a satirical depiction of a dysfunctional working-class Middle American family in the fictional town of Springfield and it slams just about everything from American culture and society to the general human condition as a whole. The family consists of Homer and Marge as the parents and their three children: (1) Bart, the ten year old troublemaker, (2) Lisa, the eight year old activist, and (3) Maggie, the baby who never speaks while always sucking on a pacifier. Homer, a lazy, fat, beer-drinking doofus works as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant while Marge is your stereotypical housewife. The family never ages but there is a floating timeline between episodes made during the same year which helped in making a satire of current events.
Names are intentional for the show. Matt Groening, the creator and co-executive producer, named the fictional town, Springfield because there were so many places named Springfield that it could be anywhere along with it also being the name of the fictional town where “Father Knows Best” originally took place (and this sitcom is definitely not that). “Simpsons” was synonymous for “simpleton”, and Bart was an anagram for “brat”. You had to constantly pay attention to every episode because the writers would often name things (air conditioner store: “It Blows”, gun shop: “BloodBath and Beyond”, etc.) that probably drove the censors crazy in trying to keep the show from crossing too far over the line for Network TV. There was always something going on in the background which, at times, happened so fast that you might miss it with a blink of the eye. There were also continual running gags like Bart making anonymous prank calls to Moe the bartender (Bart to Moe: “Is an Al Coholic there?”). Numerous celebrities played guest roles on “The Simpsons” and sometimes they even played themselves, and not necessarily in a flattering way. Time magazine picked “The Simpsons” as the century’s best television series. And, to return to the family aspect of the show, how many Network TV or Cable dysfunctional families do you know of have a set of commemorative postage stamps for each family member? Well, in 2009 the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of five stamps along with a set of five picture post cards with each family member on a different stamp/picture post card. As a family (dysfunctional or otherwise), “The Simpsons” are one of a kind!
Well, that’s about it for another year my friends! I hope that you have enjoyed my continued blabberings this year, and I hope that you’ll hang around for more of the same next year. This has been some year and I hope that we never have another one this bad. For all of you I only hope and sincerely wish that you have continued good health and good fortune for the upcoming year.
Stay safe everyone and…