What The Hell Happened To Family TV?

Married… With Children

I don’t watch television all that much, but every so often I’ll sit down and commit to “vegging out.” And when that happens, I find myself consistently overwhelmed and disappointed – as our options have grown, the value to be derived from watching cable television has withered into nonexistence. Cable television has destroyed the sitcom. Why does a show like Freaks and Geeks get one season while the Real Housewives franchise has enjoyed no less than 20? It’s hard to remember a time when channel surfing didn’t introduce you to a parade of dysfunctional Americans pretending to go about their everyday business as though some of us were just born and conditioned to accept the burden of being filmed 24-7. “Oh, the camera? I hardly even notice it anymore. Just another nuance of being the fabulous, enviable, all-important me!”

I like trash television in small doses, but it concerns me that producers have replaced quality writing in favor of these robotic, hedonistic excuses for human beings. The consequences become amplified when we’re talking television that’s meant to depict the modern American family. What the hell is MTV’s The Riot on the Bayou? Why does Mob Wives exist? “Hey Ma! Can’t wait to come ova fa’ dinna! Yeah, it’ll be me, the kids, and the film crew. Big Mike’s a vegan and Charlie can’t have gluten. See ya Sunday! Clear the driveway so the boys can unload the cameras!” Ew.

When I was growing up, my family could watch television together. What can a kid watch with their parents these days? “Come here, kiddo, let’s watch another REAL story about a 17-year-old kid who refuses to pay child support!” I grew up with, what? Ten channels? For every channel, there were no less than five excellent family-based TV shows that I could watch and enjoy with my parents. Here are a few, for posterity.

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Dinosaurs

Aside from being dinosaurs, Dinosaurs was about a typical family – Mom, dad, three kids, and a cranky grandma. While set in 60,000,003 B.C., the Sinclair family is unabashedly American – their livelihoods revolved around petroleum and, despite logicality, each member of the family belonged to a different species of dinosaur (blended family, so modern!). There was constant conflict between Earl (the dad) and his mother-in-law, Ethyl; the teenaged daughter Charlene was super vapid, and the teenaged son, Robbie, was the voice of reason. The baby, simply known as “Baby Sinclair,” was a troublemaker who showed an affinity for the mother and would constantly smack Earl in the head with a frying pan (popular Baby Sinclair catch phrases include, “I’m the baby; gotta love me!” and “Not the mama!” – both of which I parroted exhaustively). Dinosaurs always reminded me of the prehistoric treatment of Family Matters and later, Family Guy.

Married… with Children

My parents probably only allowed me to watch MWC because I was too young to actually “get it.” And yes, a lot flew over my head. But I was a giggly kid, so Al slouching on the couch with his hand down his pants was enough to send me into hysterics. I learned that working in a shoe store is disgusting; smoking cigs in the house was normal (my parents were both smokers when I was younger) and embarrassing your dowdy next-door-neighbor is an endless source of entertainment. I also developed a fascination with Bonbons; they seemed exotic and weren’t available at my local bodega. I related to Peg most, inasmuch as a pre-teen could. I eventually channeled her for Halloween one year (although everyone under the age of 25 thought I was Amy Winehouse). While Al, Peggy, Bud, and Kelly were a gross caricature of an American family, my parents and I were able to watch Married… with Children as a decidedly superior family unit.

The Simpsons

Before King of the Hill and Family Guy, The Simpsons was all we had, and all we needed. It was the only cartoon the entire family could agree to. Parents across America were probably like, “Oh thank fucking god, a cartoon that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. Being a parent isn’t so bad anymore.” Watching The Simpsons on Sunday nights with your parents was like, a pre-requisite for being alive in the ‘90s. If there’d been a watercooler in my elementary school, us kids would’ve gossiped about last night’s episode while standing next to it. It was just universal; a Matt Groening world that we were all living in. Not only did my family rally around Fox’s Sunday night lineup for the sole purpose of watching The Simpsons, we owned all of Groening’s “_______ is Hell” books, as well. His influence on my family was indispensible.

Unhappily Ever After

Unhappily Ever After was indisputably the poor man’s Married… with Children (which is really, really poor). It came of age during what I believe to be a peak moment of programming for the then-WB network. The show featured a young Kevin Donnelly (aka “the Bud”) and Nikki Cox (aka “the Kelly”). Cox had previously appeared as a guest star in a few episodes of California Dreams as the adorable-but-blind love interest of one of the band members. I could never really reconcile that. The father, Jack Malloy, kept a stuffed rabbit in his basement named Mr. Floppy, who was kind of a horrible influence on Jack and introduced me to plot devices in which inanimate objects and/or pets serve as a “guardian angel” to a sitcom character. I liked watching this one with my parents, because it felt like they’d been watching all of the aforementioned shows before I’d developed consciousness and therefore had “a leg up” in terms of understanding the deeper meaning behind plotlines and characters.

Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm in the Middle was one of the last shows my family and I would watch as a cohesive unit. The show starred Frankie Muniz (where is he now?), and the only lead female character was the mother, Lois. It was hard for me to relate to their family (women are dominant in mine), but my mom didn’t feel the same. She was obsessed with the overworked, controlling, downright crazy Lois. She even began adapting her mannerisms, which was probably around the same time that I stopped watching TV with my parents (although, a crush on Chris Masterson made it difficult to turn my back on the show entirely, and I continued to watch it alone when possible).

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The shows I enjoyed as a kid didn’t always take the high road, but network standards and guidelines helped to keep the crass under control. As soon as cable television became dominant, the bar was lowered and networks were forced to compete with heinous, morally bankrupt programs that masquerade as family-friendly programming. Shows like Modern Family prove that a well-written family show can still prevail – but they’ve certainly become the exception, not the rule. TC mark

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  • shelby

    MODERN FAMILY

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

      Nice.

  • Poob Smoad Attorney at Law

    I think now is an OK time to say that the Simpsons is probably the best TV show of all time.  I'm not even gonna get into drawing the line on where it started to suck (but man, did it).

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      I'm confused by The Simpsons. I'm not sure when it started to suck – or if it started to suck. Maybe it doesn't suck to people who haven't been watching it for 15+ years? It influenced a ton of shows that came after it, but those shows were malleable and able to adapt whereas Simpsons seems to be stuck as the archetype? I don't know. I haven't watched in a few years.

      • Poob Smoad Attorney at Law

        I think the issue is something that we can see at work in shows like the Office today- they had to develop the characters.  At the beginning of a show (and this is visible in the first 2 or 3 Simpsons seasons), the characters are fairly malleable as their defining characteristics are fairly broad.  But if you want anyone to care about the characters, you have to have plotlines that matter and subsequently affect these characters.  The Simpsons managed to do this successfully an impressively large number of times (Marge and Homer's marriage, Homer's mother, Lisa's vegetarianism, Bart's coping with his own lack of intelligence, etc).  They later managed to extend this period of development by focusing on the Simpsons' wide cast of side characters- Patty and Selma, Principal Skinner, Moe, Apu, Mr. Burns, etc.  But what do you do once all these characters have had so many stories told about them?  They become caricatures of themselves, and must be boiled down to their barest essences to accomodate cycling casts of writers.

        Shows like the Office or Parks and Recreation suffer horribly from this as they lack a diverse cast to develop.  Family Guy managed to sidestep this by avoiding taking itself seriously at all, although this birthed an entirely new set of problems.
        Or at least, that's my opinion, or as much of it as I can convey in an ill-thought-out comment conceived in under 2 minutes.

      • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

        Interesting insight, I'm glad you added it to the conversation.

        It may have become repetitive/tapped out over the years, but it'll be a sad day when it ends. I'll definitely be watching.

  • bucky716

    Family tv is on Disney and Nickelodeon.. not the usual ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox channels.. not the same as those shows but it exists.  iCarly is one that a lot of people families watch but are afraid to admit to.

  • ...........

    NBC's thursday shows are pretty funny…. except for The Office and 30 Rock (stinks now) and Outsourced…. but Parks and Rec/Community are pretty good for the family.

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      Check out the original Office if you haven't. Much better than the American version.

  • Em

    even stevens!! i use to love that show. i had a crush on shia la beouf :D

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      Me too. He's a huge stoner now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Another enjoyable read by S.G. BTW – Family Matters was the shit!

  • http://brianmcelmurry.blogspot.com/ Brian McElmurry

    Love Married With Children. Nice article!

  • Asdf

    fuck this article was boring

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      so was this comment, yawn.

  • http://profiles.google.com/emil.rivera Emil Rivera

    nostalgia and her soft hands.

  • Brandon h

    True family TV always sucked, even if it sucked so bad it was good it still sucked (Hello Family Matters and Full House). It was the stuff that pushed the envelope that was funny and the best example of that was Married with Children.

  • Waicool

    Thank you for writing, a tc article i made it all of the way through.  I can understand those who produce our tv product may not have had traditional family experiences growing up.  Our contemporary tv producers simply don't care to create a family show they know very little about.  It appears to be much easier and profitable producing  base human experience narratives.

  • Dwyane wade

    isn't Glee the highest rated show right now? did i make that up?

    either way RIP to this shitty form of media, watch Seinfeld reruns if you really miss it

  • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

    whatever happened to predictability?
    the milkman, the paper boy, and evening tv.

  • Fox

    Let me share with you what ironically happened as I read this:
    I'm reading this article after finding out I really enjoy the shit you talk about. As I am basking in the glorious reminiscence of days when people used such devices as message machines to record some archaic form of communication with each other (if I remember it had something to do with vocal chord vibration) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “pretty violent”, a show begins to play on CBS (thats local television, folks) in which the entire plot of the episode is some guy trying to be better than the amazing dildo his girlfriend got for her birthday, which is oh so subtly referenced by a full on cunnilingus episode with a sheets barrier. Apparently what used to only be on late night HBO is now on local television line ups.

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