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Clans of the Cathode

Turning off TV’s ersatz families

Home is where the heart is,
Home is so remote.
Home is “Good Clean Living,”
Home is—I forgot.
Let’s go to your place.

—Lene Lovich, “Home” (1979)

Picture the slightly peculiar arrangement of the living-room furniture on almost any vintage sitcom with a primarily domestic setting, from One Day at a Time to Roseanne. Even if you’ve never consciously thought about it, you’ll soon realize which omitted staple of real-life living rooms the oddly marooned front-and-center sofa must have been facing: the family TV, of course.

Why did their idiot boxes traditionally stay unseen? Well, for multiple reasons, taste at one time included. In the genteel-minded 1950s, when the bourgeoisie still hid their own TVs inside paneled cabinet consoles for politeness’s sake, showing us one on a sitcom would have been almost on a par with giving viewers a gander at Ward and June Cleaver’s loo.

Then again, consider how evocatively—not to say coercively—that missing TV’s imaginary perspective on each episode’s hijinks duplicated our own. The set’s purely hypothetical position in the room ended up implying that it was somehow the very same Magnavox or Zenith we were parked in front of at home, a bit of Pavlovian trompe-l’oeil that turned a gazillion American households into unsuspecting Magritte paintings for decades. It fell to The Simpsons, as usual, to emphasize the looking-glass identification involved by ritually plunking Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and baby Maggie down on their own sofa every week to watch The Simpsons as their TV morphed into ours.

The medium’s ritual invocations of “viewers at home”—along with the greatest of all TV advisories, “Don’t try this at home”—spelled out the uniqueness of our relationship to the tube. Before streaming and other cut-the-cord innovations, television’s strange advantage in portraying domestic life was that it was itself an appurtenance of domestic life. Our Magnavox or Zenith was virtually a member of the household, not unlike a friendly if unimaginative puppy who always wanted to play and never had to poop (okay, unless commercials count). Being a lot more obedient than the average pooch, it also supplied the only master-servant relationship available to householders who lacked the wherewithal to hire live menials.

Watch Duty

No less important was how closely the format of series TV approximated the experience of family life, regardless of whether its content did. To begin with, volition seldom seemed involved, particularly in our childhood and adolescence. Come prime time, there we were, mysteriously stuck with the same goddamn people week in and week out, both on the screen and in front of it.

Our Magnavox or Zenith was virtually a member of the household, not unlike a friendly if unimaginative puppy.

Escapism, my ass. Watching the same nonsense happen over and over with different furbelows in milieus that never changed perceptibly—except that the cast members aged and, come cancellation time, died—was realism aplenty if you ask me. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night can’t top the crummiest 1970s sitcom when it comes to accurately simulating the no-exit basics of waking up every day among a clutch of fools who turn out to be our blood kin: the mind-numbing repetitiveness, the sense of resignation, and the suspicion of overwhelming futility offset by affection, coziness, and the narcosis of sheer habit. Once we moved out on our own, our sitcom familiars, from The Brady Bunch to Newhart, became our metaphorical tether to home.

If I’m concentrating on sitcoms, go figure. Sitcoms are the locus classicus of TV’s version of family, easily outdoing even dramas as beloved as The Waltons in triggering my generation’s collective nostalgia, weary groans, or both.

But if I’m also framing things in the past tense, it’s because family stopped being the primary subject of sitcoms once the broadcast networks’ heyday yielded to the plethora of specialized nooks that audiences enjoy today. My own claim to ancient-mariner status is that I grew up in the kind of middle-class household that never knew a personal bedroom TV set, let alone the laptops, smartphones, and iPads that now let us customize our schedules and our tastes in perfect solitude. Instead, we gathered in front of good old Hearth Vader to watch programming devised to keep the ’rents and rug rats equally entertained, something it often did by showing us our own circumstances in a rose-colored mirror.

It’s not as if the topic has vanished from the airwaves. No oughties sitcom was more beloved of TV hipsters than Arrested Development, even if its Netflix resurrection a couple of years ago didn’t make such a great case for why. Now in its seventh season, Modern Family—whose title, like Arrested Development’s, is telling—is still bumptiously with us, introducing a new generation to the goony-bird jock genius of Ed O’Neill.

Yet both shows are deliberately meta spins on a genre whose last great exponent was probably Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. Able to accommodate all manner of wised-up anarchy without any loss of old-fashioned heart, that very smart series is unjustly remembered as the show Bryan Cranston did time in before Breaking Bad upgraded him from ace journeyman actor to someone in a position to be a wee bit over-impressed with his gifts. Me, I admire his work on Malcolm more, but it’s not insignificant that Breaking Bad—much like The Sopranos—presents family primarily as an exasperating obstacle to the protagonist’s twisted fulfillment.

We gathered in front of good old Hearth Vader, which showed us our circumstances in a rose-colored mirror.

With rare exceptions, family sitcoms promoted themselves as places of refuge. So it’s interesting that family is now among the things that sitcoms offer a refuge from. In a shift signaled by Seinfeld’s 1989 premiere and certified by Friends five years later, shows centered on hearth and home gave way decisively in the nineties to shows centered on posses of pals: company you could choose, not relatives you’d been trapped with at birth.

The group is the decisive unit even when some of its members are married, like Lily and Marshall on How I Met Your Mother, or siblings, like the twins on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (For whatever reason—maybe because they’re fellow survivors, not instigators—brothers and sisters are exempt from sitcomland’s current aversion to ties that bind.) How I Met . . .’s premise made the trend’s subtext explicit—namely, that your life’s happiest chapter will end as soon as you recapitulate your parents’ defining mistake. All in all, it’s as if the TV audience couldn’t wait to get away from a couple of generations’ worth of relentlessly bromidic Kinder, Küche, und Kirche.

There Is a War

Only it hadn’t really been all that bromidic, certainly not in one key respect. In the 1950s and ’60s, TV’s view of family was strikingly at odds with its view of marriage, which by default (thanks to the period’s taboos) was also its view of sex.

Midway between August Strindberg for hockey fans and Ubu Roi relocated to Eisenhower-era Brooklyn, that astounding show The Honeymooners was all about frustration and hostility. It was also presciently pro-feminist in its lampooning of men as big babies whose idiot dreams spawned messes their tuckered-out better halves were forever cleaning up. At the time, the Kramdens’ and the Nortons’ more reactionary counterparts were the Ricardos and the Mertzes on I Love Lucy, whose title character may have set back women’s lib twenty years. Her crazed aspirations to some sort of identity separate from or equal to her husband’s were the chucklesome proof she was a delightful dunce. Not least because she was a genius at it, I’ve always loathed Lucille Ball for turning herself into male chauvinism’s answer to Stepin Fetchit, especially since—off camera—she was one of the shrewdest and most resolute women ever to conquer showbiz.

Television’s strange advantage in portraying domestic life
was that it was itself an appurtenance of domestic life.

In both those shows and others like them, the point was that husbands and wives were antagonists. Their dueling worldviews—and, by implication, incompatible sexual agendas—were the source of the comic friction. In TV terms, marriage was the war and children were the armistice. (For I Love Lucy, Little Ricky’s birth was the equivalent of the Peace of Westphalia.) The Honeymooners, God love it, never went that route, staying true to its name; when you think about it, the only other American classic with a title as acrid is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. That your head would explode if you tried to imagine Ralph and Alice Kramden as parents, or even Ed and Trixie Norton welcoming a little future sewer worker, is backhanded testimony to how intransigent the show was.

Nonetheless, even TV’s view of the nuclear family wasn’t always as innocuous or conventional as die-hard Leave It to Beaver fans like to think they remember. It wasn’t all, to travesty Philip Larkin’s best-known verdict on the parenting business, “They cheer you up, our Mom and Dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” You’ll never understand TV—or any other commercial art form, really—until you notice what it’s either leaving out or insistently telling you not to take seriously.

For starters, recollect how many of the wholesome “family” shows the boomers grew up on torpedoed a potential source of discord by smugly getting rid of Mom: The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. At least until the seventies, sitcoms that got rid of Dad were rarer, but a few shows upped the gratification ante by ditching both parents—e.g., 1966–71’s Family Affair, a.k.a. Lord of the Flies for rich kids. Meanwhile, the sixties TV clans to which at least some of us would have given anything to belong were The Addams Family and its rip-off epigone, The Munsters. Both spoofs made a seductive case for family life as a secret funhouse of untrammeled self-expression and joyous eccentricity that the outside world would never understand. But they could do so only by announcing up front that they were absurd.

Elsewhere on the dial, all sorts of fraught domestic hurly-burly was getting itself sublimated in the most underrated of all sixties TV genres. The vogue for surreal sitcoms featuring witches, genies, Martians, and talking horses—and the men desperate to keep the secret—is as eloquent as can be about the pressure-cooker stresses undermining middle-class America’s postwar facade. The sixties’ embryonic chaos reigned in those disguised treatments of prostitution (if not worse—was I Dream of Jeannie’s Major Tony Nelson the Humbert Humbert of sitcoms, or what?), homosexuality (My Favorite Martian), mental illness (Bewitched), alcoholism (Mister Ed), and the like. If they generally didn’t identify themselves as shows about family ties, that was partly to keep them looking safely far-fetched.

Bewitched was the major exception. It not only made a big deal of Samantha’s bizarro clan—if Agnes Moorehead’s Endora was the ultimate gorgon mother-in-law, the immortal Paul Lynde’s Arthur was the ultimate dissolute gay uncle—but also featured an infant daughter (Tabitha) who was clearly headed down the same path. There may never have been another sitcom with so much fascinating subtext; in hindsight, it hardly seems accidental that this show about a man driven berserk by his wife’s uncanny powers premiered a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique aimed the first cannon shot at the patriarchy’s Bastille. Famously, Bewitched’s pilot was scheduled to begin filming on November 22, 1963—one hell of an omen for a series about witchcraft—and the series went off the air two months after Ms. magazine’s 1972 debut gave its heroine permission to say, in effect, “My work here is done.” I swear, if the Symbionese Liberation Army had had an ounce of wit, they’d have rebaptized Patty Hearst Tabitha instead of Tania.

Message Blocked

From there, it was only a short step—albeit, for my money, an imaginative retreat—to Norman Lear’s discovery of family-oriented sitcoms as dandy arenas for issue-mongering. Premiering in 1971, his landmark show All in the Family was followed in quick succession by Sanford and Son, Maude, and The Jeffersons. The Nixon jokes, abortion teach-ins, Vietnam arguments, and racial wrangles flew thick and fast. Predictably, people who’d always scorned “the sitcom pablum the three networks force-fed us”—to quote one latter-day Lear admirer—concluded that the medium was finally growing up.

Maybe. But Lear’s high reputation as a TV innovator at least partly reflects the familiar liberal fallacy of mistaking a sociological advance—in this case, establishing African American home life as a worthy subject for sitcoms—for artistic progress. I don’t think Lear had any genuine affection either for his characters or for sitcoms as a form, and it strikes me as absurd that he’s considered more important than, say, sixties guffaw maestro Paul Henning—the creator of, among others, Green Acres, a happily malicious spoof of our relationship to our own folklore that may well deserve that worn-out word “subversive.” (How deeply Thomas Jefferson would have hated it is a major recommendation in my book.) What makes Lear’s shows memorable isn’t their trademark exercises in ideological tic-tac-toe but their stars, from Carroll O’Connor redeeming his staggeringly mediocre career as a character actor by recognizing that Archie Bunker was a human being as well as a stereotype to Bea Arthur and her hilarious basso-profundo imperiousness as Maude to Sherman Hemsley inducing viewers to judge George Jefferson by the content of his irritability instead of the color of his skin. Yet Lear professed dismay when Archie Bunker became a hero to Middle America, proving that he either misunderstood the nature of his chosen medium or could lie like a psychopath.

Shows centered on hearth and home gave way in the nineties to shows centered on posses of pals: company you could choose, not relatives you’d been trapped with at birth.

The Lear series that stands up best is a relative anomaly: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, starring Louise Lasser as a discombobulated New Jersey housewife facing more community and family tribulations than she has IQ points to cope with. What made the series prescient wasn’t its fish-in-the-barrel parody of soap operas so much as the recognition that parody could generate pathos—a novel insight back then. This same gotcha maneuver was exploited to the hilt by Soap, MH’s superior imitation. My all-time favorite series that nobody else remembers, not to mention the one you may or may not forgive for giving us Billy Crystal, Soap anticipated Twin Peaks the way Cole Porter prefigured Paul McCartney.

The show’s loony-bin version of family life was one symptom of how 1970s TV couldn’t help reflecting the real-world institution’s increasing instability. Remember, this was the decade when feminism (thanks, Samantha!), gay liberation (thank you, Paul Lynde), rising D-I-V-O-R-C-E statistics, and other real-world bids for autonomy were turning “family values” from an agreed-on concept into a polarizing one. Even the premise of The Brady Bunch depended on Mike and Carol Brady’s prior marriages, and while Mike was the traditional sitcom widower, what happened to Carol’s first husband never did get explained. Years later, Florence Henderson won my undying love by saying that Carol had actually murdered him.

That may explain sitcomland’s vogue for workplace families—the WJM gang on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the cabbies on Taxi, and so on—as less volatile substitutes for the real thing. The idea of workplaces as havens of security looks awfully quaint today, but prime time had to keep us reassured somehow, even when the sublimations involved were transparent: the father-daughter relationship between Ed Asner’s Lou Grant and Mary Richards, for instance, or the way Marilu Henner’s Elaine could spend five seasons on Taxi without getting hit on by any of the other regulars (meaning that Alex, Tony, Bobby, et al. were effectively her brothers and romance would have amounted to incest). Cheers came along in 1982, splitting the difference between the workplace sitcoms that preceded it and the Friends-era salutes to camaraderie that the title saloon’s regulars anticipated. So far as quasi-familial comfort goes, not much could top a version of The Iceman Cometh in which Hickey never shows up to damn everyone’s pipe dreams and nobody even gets drunk.

Equally telling was that, beginning with Dallas’s 1978 premiere, the most emblematic biological families on TV were the vicious ones on prime-time soaps: the Ewings, Dynasty’s Carringtons, Falcon Crest’s Channings. Those Reagan-era glitterfests made the most of a pop-culture truth that daytime soaps—always the Borgia-friendly yin to prime time’s Panglossian yang—had exploited for decades: if you want to keep an audience spellbound by unregenerate evildoers whose cutthroat view of life in no way implicates them, just make everybody rich.

Norman Lear professed dismay when Archie Bunker became a hero to Middle America, proving that he either misunderstood the nature of his chosen medium or could lie like a psychopath.

But the family sitcom wasn’t moribund quite yet. Far from it, since the eighties brought us the once sainted, now tainted Cosby Show—broadcast television’s ultimate monument to the old kids-do-the-darndest-things patriarchal verities, and consciously conceived to be just that by its benignly (yeah, right) authoritarian star. The show—or maybe I mean he—ruled unchallenged for three years until three rival programs that functioned as dissents premiered in quick succession between 1987 and 1989. Fox’s fabulously dystopian Married . . . with Children, which was actually called Not the Cosbys at one point in its development, was followed by The Simpsons, whose impudence aroused Cosby’s wrath even before Matt Groening’s upstart cartoon series tied The Cosby Show in the ratings one glorious day in 1990. By then, Roseanne was on the air too, eventually taking over Bill’s old spot as the No. 1 show in America.

For more than one reason, I think of The Cosby Show, Married . . . with Children, The Simpsons, and Roseanne as the Final Four. Not only did they all contend for the title of Greatest Sitcom Ever, but between them they expressed everything family sitcoms were capable of so definitively that nothing that’s aired since has really been able to compete. It’s all there: Cosby’s didactic bent and soothing shelter from the storm; Married . . .’s gleefully crass depiction of a now candidly sexual frustration and hostility; The Simpsons’ post–Addams Family circus of superficially insolent, surreptitiously heartwarming delights; and Roseanne’s post–Norman Lear use of the form to talk about every abiding kitchen-table and faddish kitchen-sink issue in sight. If Cosby was the one I hated even then, because old Bill was feeding the public Quaaludes in order to have his way with us a long time before we learned that he was pulling the same stunt in private, the other three are in my pantheon.

A quarter-century later, only The Simpsons is still with us, a freakish survivor in a TV landscape that’s been transformed more radically than rock and roll was between the Beatles’ acme and Eminem’s. Back when it premiered, nobody would have guessed it would end up as the last of the great family sitcoms. Running for reelection in 1992, George H.W. Bush memorably called for an America that looks “a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons,” and we all know how that worked out. I’m glad it did—but don’t blame me if I sometimes miss the days when TV’s job was telling me what home looked like. Millions of us thrived on sorting the welcome illusions from the infuriating lies.