The Rise and Fall of the Family Sitcom

We gather here today to mourn the death of the family sitcom, requiescat in pace. Hear the death knells and try to stifle a forced, “live studio audience” laugh. Remember the awkward tension between actors who dated once, and the cloyingly dulcet piano score of the Very Special Episode. May the sitcom in this form never rise again.

Yes, yes, I know, maybe I’m being harsh. But the typical examples of sitcoms have always felt painfully false to me. I know I don’t seem like the type to demand realism in TV, but there is one facet where I do: interactions between the characters. If I’m sitting through your show thinking “wow, literally no real person would ever say/do that”, there’s a problem. I grew up with two main examples of sitcoms regularly playing in the living room: Full House and Married… With Children. I think these shows pretty well exemplify the two polar extremes of sitcom families. The one where the family is near perfect, solving all of their problems neatly and conveniently by the end of the episode, their relationships only running into the smallest road bumps before immediately returning to smooth sailing (mixed metaphors are fun!). And the dysfunctional one, where the family members argue and fight constantly, their problems are overarching the whole show, but are never treated as anything more than background dressing for the comedy.

I have a lot of problems with both archetypes. The Full House type sets unrealistic standards for families and interpersonal dynamics: the only problems that come up are easily and quickly solved by “just talking about it” and a big hug, there’s no major fights that last more than a couple of episodes at most, the kids are cute and well-behaved (except when the plot of the episode requires them to learn a lesson about misbehaving) and the parents are well-intentioned and always know best (except if it’s a bumbling dad), this show seems to gloat that your family will never be perfect like this. The Married With Children type goes in the exact opposite direction, acting like these people with massive dysfunctions can all still work together as a family unit, downplaying and making comedy out of issues like abuse, neglect, adultery, and more as if it’s no big deal; but no matter what happens the family all still love each other, no matter how much they vehemently protest their hatred, and at least your family isn’t as messed up as these guys! Both ends of this scale are pretty gross, and I feel inherently icky about finding humor in fucked up family dynamics. Again, I recognize that I’m nitpicking, but when there’s so many other sources of comedy, it seems like picking on your family is just lazy.

There are exactly two family sitcoms that I love, that I feel really capture the “real” good family, with all their foibles and flaws, but still maintaining the core dynamic of support AND still being damn funny. These are Bob’s Burgers and The Addams Family. If you’re anything like me, a grin just spread across your face thinking about the Addams and the Belcher clans.

If you’re not familiar with The Addams Family, well, congratulations on finding your way out from that rock you’ve been living under. Odds are you’re familiar in some shape or form with both the TV sitcom from the 60s and the movies from the 90s. Both are excellent in their own ways, and really the key source of humor is the same between the two: this family, posed as being the diametric opposite of your typical American suburbanites, are actually supremely loving and happy. How is that not verging into Full House territory, I hear you asking. Well for me, it’s that they’re realistically loving and happy. It’s not that they don’t have arguments and disagreements, it’s that they always find solutions and support each other through them. The parents stand as a united front, instead of the chaotic disarray of Al and Peg Bundy. They always support their children, which sure, Danny Tanner did too, but Wednesday and Pugsley are more real than DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle ever were. Wednesday and Pugsley had what, in my experience, is a typical sibling relationship: they fought and they had their rivalries, but they always stuck together when facing outsiders. Yes, the Addams were macabre, gothic, and seemingly deeply invested in evil and supernatural forces. But who says that keeps them from being a perfectly normal family? I’d say that they’re more of a counterpart to the Tanners than the Bundys; their family unit is still pretty idealized, but in a way that’s easier to swallow, not so saccharine sweet and not so hard to relate to from the outside. Unfortunately the show has been been off the air since the 1960s, and the last good movie came out in 1993.

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yeeessss look at these dorks

But there’s a new show on the rise. An animated family sitcom that’s burning up the internet. If the Addams are our actually-funny Tanner counterparts, then the Belchers of Bob’s Burgers are the Bundys. Let’s be real here, they can be pretty dysfunctional depending on the episode. Their family restaurant is constantly on the verge of going out of business, the kids are always in trouble, and the parents at times seem a little crazy, Linda especially. As the show goes on, though, you see how much they really love each other. The parents techniques for handling their kids’ uh… quirks are amazing, the kids never seem to really begrudge working for their parents in the restaurant, and the show spends equal time showing rivalries between the kids and the kids supporting each other vs. the parents arguing or disagreeing and the parents working together. It seems that if in any given episode the kids are in harmony with each other, the parents will be in discord, or the other way around. I love that, because that feels extremely real to me. The other thing I love is the family’s interactions with their neighbors, the other kids at school, other parents. Anyone who grew up in that kind of East Coast suburban environment can recognize every single one of those supporting characters as a person from their own life. The show itself can get pretty surreal, just as The Addams Family can, but the core of the show is the very truthful interactions between the family members.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have no problem with idealized or deglamorized families (yes, I had to google antonyms for idealize; there’s not many). No one wants to watch a precisely realistic family on TV; they can turn off the TV and sit there with their actual family and experience that. But the comedy on these shows shouldn’t come from poking fun at your family. I feel talked down to when Full House says “your family could never be this good” or Married With Children says “look at these morons, at least you’re not this bad”. The best sitcoms are the ones where the mostly realistic family has a few traits played up or down and the comedy comes from the situations they get into. Because I would much rather watch a show where the characters laugh along with me, and not at me.  And really, if I’m going to have “sitcom straight man father figure” in my TV viewing, I’d much rather have Bob Belcher than Bob Saget.

2 comments for “The Rise and Fall of the Family Sitcom

  1. May 16, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    “…acting like these people with massive dysfunctions can all still work together as a family unit, downplaying and making comedy out of issues like abuse, neglect, adultery, and more as if it’s no big deal; but no matter what happens the family all still love each other, no matter how much they vehemently protest their hatred, and at least your family isn’t as messed up as these guys! Both ends of this scale are pretty gross, and I feel inherently icky about finding humor in fucked up family dynamics.”

    I enjoyed Everybody Loves Raymond for years as my mom would constantly have it on the TV but eventually I got to the point of feeling that way about that show… you were supposed to think dysfunctional family dynamics were normal or something rather than dysfunctional and laugh and now… it all just makes me uncomfortable.

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