By Dorothy Thompson.
How does the intro go? Here’s the story, Of a lovely lady, Who was bringing up three very lovely girls, All of them had hair of gold
Like their mother, The youngest one in curls; but this time she’s not necessarily joined by a handsome husband and an assortment of impossibly cute children.
The classic television family sitcom — a genre that once dominated our screens before being laughed off them by a series of parodies — is back in fashion, topped off by the reboot of 1980’s show Roseanne.
It has been quite an evolution for the TV family, from white and conservative in the 1950s, to black and funny in the 1980s, to impossibly daggy in the 1990’s and now, it now seems, anything goes.
But could the early families live beside the new ones? And can the TV family find a permanent home back on our screens?
The genre was born in the 1950s, with the conservative family values of shows such as Leave It To Beaver.
Very quickly a format was established, with each week the children getting into some sort of trouble and the parents or other authority figure resolving the problem with wise words.
“The American template was a lot about reaffirming institutions such as the traditional family,” said Dr Anthony Lambert, senior lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University.
“In the 1950s the families were conventional or very good-looking, or both.”
There is also a formula for creating a family.
“The characters are static and don’t develop. They have the same flaws every week — each character is as funny as the flaws they’ve got — and regardless of what comic catastrophe occurred during an episode and whatever moral lessons were learned, they are reset to their old comic selves for the next episode,” said Marty Murphy, a lecturer at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School who is writing a PhD at Western Sydney University on the shared principles of literary and screen comedy. “Those early sitcoms were very monochrome — not just because they were in black and white.
“What is interesting about the revival of the more traditional formats in sitcoms is they do replicate the older format. The characters of modern sitcoms display the same comic limitations but they don’t have the same conservative values.
“Take Roseanne. She gets to get away with stuff we can’t get away with. Each week is a comic car crash and we get to enjoy that every week — but she’s not a dramatic character that transforms and learns.”
The attraction of TV families was immediate. “We want to see ourselves, our own lives, played out on the screen and yet also enjoy the fantasy connection with characters who live in large homes and have mysteriously affluent lifestyles,” Mr Murphy said.
“We’re looking at ourselves, just with a lot more makeup and designer homes.”
That was especially true of families such as The Brady Bunch in the 1970s, where six children and a live-in maid could be supported on one income. At least the Huxtables in 1980s The Cosby Show had a doctor and a lawyer to provide the income, even if they seemed to spend most of their time at home.
But while the 1980s saw a flood of family sitcoms, it was the boom before the bust. “Maybe the 1980s was the end of the traditional family sitcom, that’s when we start to see some fault lines,” Mr Murphy said. “TV started to reflect changes in values. Family sitcom shows are a social barometer on delay as it is quite a conservative media.”
The 1990s also saw the rise of parody shows Married With Children and The Simpsons, which led to even more outrageous parodies such as Family Guy. “Married With Children puts a bomb under the traditional behaviours and the roles characters would play,” Mr. Murphy said.
Social analyst David Chalke from the Strategy Planning Group said the family sitcom’s decline in the 1990s also coincided with the decline of the traditional family. “The whole notion of a mother and a father has been radically transformed,” Mr. Chalke said.
“Today, the traditional family unit of the 1970s is a minority. Pets are more popular than children. More households have pets than children.” Dr. Lambert said audiences did get tired of seeing “stale, tired representations” of families. “At that time we’re seeing a generation of women out working,” he said.
“It was a key moment in the 1990s when families changed in size, shape and how they look.”
The return in popularity of the TV family ironically now sees it trying to be a force for change, rather than an affirmation of the traditional. “You can do things in humour that would be less acceptable in drama,” Mr. Chalke said. “Take Modern Family. The lifestyles or lives of the protagonists reflect where society is heading, not where it’s at.”
Yet even a gay couple’s struggles with parenting does not break out of the format. “We are still waiting for a really, really, radical family,” said Dr Lambert. “In Australia I think we are more conservative. We are also really sensitive to stereotyping. We’d rather not show it than do it wrong.” But if society has changed so much, why are shows such as The Brady Bunch still popular on re-runs? “Who was it said that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?” Mr. Chalke said.
“The Baby Boomers are approaching — I won’t call it senility — but it’s time to remember their lost youth.” “It’s partly due to nostalgia for middle-aged viewers but also the interest in younger audiences in that period and its mores — some call this a ‘borrowed nostalgia’,” Mr. Murphy said. But what lies ahead for the genre? “Streaming,” said Mr. Murphy.
“There is an enormous appetite for series television. There’s Netflix and Amazon and we don’t know what Disney is going to do here but there will be a lot more choice. You can have lots of different versions of the television family.
“There is a risk we might not see many Australian families on the screen but maybe there’s hope there. We will see much more diversity in future.”
Dr. Lambert agreed that streaming is the new home of the TV family. “There is a need for these things to come back,” he said.
“Streaming — as well as SBS and the ABC in Australia — will become the torchbearers as mainstream clings to more traditional versions of family. “Women are no longer passive objects of male-dominated media and we’re going to see families that are more female-focused.” So a series of stories about lovely ladies?
“Roseanne is about a return to television of Hollywood stars and a shift in emphasis to TV as the place to go. It’s a return to a kooky, unconventional family but one that’s still fairly normative in a sense,” Dr. Lambert said. “But television has become a place pushing women-centred stories.”
LEAVE IT TO BEAVER
THE quintessential 1950s-style American nuclear family with mum June always dressed to the nines and proud of her spotless kitchen, while dad Ward came home to his slippers, a drink and some wise words for son Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver when he got himself into trouble. Every episode had a moral lesson and kids and families aspired to that ideal.
Eddie Haskell: Gee, your kitchen always looks so clean.
June Cleaver: Why, thank you, Eddie.
Eddie Haskell: My mother says it looks as though you never do any work in here.
THE BRADY BUNCH
THE Bradys were a blended family of dad and three boys, plus mum and three girls. Yet while that was different, the conservative values were the same.
Carol Brady had Alice the maid to help her out, she was still the one responsible for looking after the house.
Dad Mike worked as an architect but somehow managed to support everyone, plus pay for Alice, while still getting home early enough to deliver wise homilies when the kids got into trouble. The girls love to play with dolls in their flower-patterned room, while the boys’ room is blue and they like to play football.
Mike Brady: Jan’s allergic to Tiger … and I’m afraid, boys, that they cannot live together in the same house.
Bobby Brady: Where’s Jan gonna live?
THE COSBY SHOW
THE 1980s was, in many ways, the golden decade for the sitcom. You had Family Ties, Family Matters, Full House, Diff’rent Strokes — but the Cosby Show was the real groundbreaker in that it featured black professional parents (Cliff Huxtable was a doctor and Clair was a lawyer) delivering the wise words to the wayward children.
Obviously now it is tainted by the Bill Cosby sex scandals but at the time it was hugely important in the way it portrayed black families and gave us a new style of family to aspire to.
Clair: “Make sure she stays in the bed, give her lots of liquids, and aspirin every four hours.”
Cliff: “You’re the only woman who went to law school and got a degree in medicine!”
MARRIED … WITH CHILDREN
THE 1990s still had the tail-end of many successful sitcoms but it also saw this, the beginning of the end for the classic formula. Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) was a useless shoe salesman with a nagging wife Peggy, a slutty daughter Kelly and a slimy son Bud.
It delighted in taking every family-style sitcom situation it could think of and then very carefully wiping its butt across them. The television family would never be the same again and nobody would ever aspire to be part of this family.
Peggy: No television, Al, we’re talking.
Al: You’re my wife. I will not talk to you while I have a TV. I work in a shoe store, I make less than minimum wage, and yet I’m not happy to be home.
THE 1990s also saw the rise of this four-fingered cartoon family that is still amusing and outraging people today. Yet while it plays with the genre, there is still much that is familiar.
Sure, Homer is a fat, oafish father, Marge a blue-haired yet houseproud mother and the children Bart, Lisa and Maggie still provide much of the narrative force with their misadventures.
Yes, Homer thinks nothing of choking Bart for discipline, while his misadventures dwarf those of the children. Yet there are still lessons to be learned here and a truth in many of the episodes.
Lisa: Dad, just for once don’t you want to try something new?
Homer: Oh Lisa, trying is just the first step toward failure.
THIS was a groundbreaking show when it launched in 2009 as it showcased a variety of new twists on the traditional family. You had parents Phil and Claire (he’s a bit of a doofus but she’s wise and beautiful) have all sorts of trials and tribulations raising two daughters and a son.
Then there’s Claire’s dad Jay who has remarried a young Latina woman called Gloria and they are raising a son. And finally Jay’s gay son Mitchell and his partner Cameron have adopted a little girl.
The idea of a gay couple being not only as good but also often better than the straight couples at this parenting business was huge. And it also had Ed O’Neill moving on from Married … With Children to blow up the sitcom father in a different way.
Jay Pritchett: Isn’t it enough this family spends a lot of time together? Now we have to inbreed.
Another look at the classic sitcom family but this time the handsome father and beautiful mother were replaced by Roseanne Barr and John Goodman.
The wisdom was still there but it came with large doses of sarcasm. The audience may not aspire to be the Connor family but many could certainly identify with them.
The reboot throws in everything from Roseanne voting for Trump because she thought he was for the working class, a grandson who likes to dress in women’s clothes and a daughter being paid to be a surrogate mother.
Roseanne: As a housewife, I feel that if the kids are still alive when my husband gets home from work, then hey, I’ve done my job.