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.
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.
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).
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.