So Modern Family, ABC's new pretty darn funny comedy, premieres tonight. And that got me thinking about, well, families. TV families, that is. Pretty much every third show on television is about some sort of blood-bond, but only a certain few stick out as the truly great television clans--ones we admired, or wanted to be a part of, or loved to laugh at. With that in mind, here are my five favorite TV families.
The Keatons -- Family Ties: The Keatons were prototypical white, middle class, former hippies who somehow found themselves mired in the 1980s. They were, essentially, most of my childhood friends and their parents, just a little bit older. The mom, Elyse, was a deep-thinking architect, while dad Steven worked for freaking public radio (perfect). And yet these liberal Baby Boomers managed to produce a son, Alex P. (the marvelous Michael J. Fox), who giddily bought into the "Greed is good" conservative money mania of the Reagan era. What a conundrum! What a conflict! What a typical family thing. Jokey political strife with Alex aside, there were also sisters Mallory (a little ditzy and boy crazy) and Jennifer (perpetually whining and feeling left out), and sorta forgotten late edition baby Andrew ("I'm shocked and happy... I'm shappy.") The family's problems seemed simple on the surface, but they usually also teased at some bigger design for living. A show, a sitcom no less, about what happens when ideology melts away into the practicality of everyday living, Family Ties was one of the quintessential series of the '80s. Suburban, but not lulled into the stupor we later came to associate with that particular milieu, the Keatons were awake and alive and full of ideas and, most importantly on a sitcom, they were funny.
The Huxtables -- The Cosby Show: Well, this is kind of a no-brainer. Obviously Bill Cosby's wildly successful sitcom about a Brooklyn doctor and his large brood is a touchstone of television history. They were just such a good family, always relating to each other in close, intimate ways without being sappy or dumb (see: Full House). Cosby and his costars' and the writers' talent lay in how lived-in and eased the show was right from the very Phylicia Ayers-Allen (remember when she was called that?) beginning. It's funny to think about how, for a show that was so popular and so influential, nothing really happened in each episode. The Cosby crew figured out how to do a show about nothing a good five years before Seinfeld came along. That sort of quotidian ho-hum pace-of-life plodding along, peppered of course with huge bits of humor, just really made you believe that the kids (Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy) belonged to this house, to these parents. The Huxtables were the family we all wanted to be--wealthy but not showy about it, intelligent, prank-pulling, and neighborly. They weren't the perfect black family, mind you. They were just the family, race, color, or creed be damned. That Cosby pulled off that bit of cross-culturalism so deftly will be, among other things, his legacy.
The Simpsons -- The Simpsons: Again, a no-brainer. The Simpsons are the bright yellow stars of the best television show that's ever aired. Trenchant, observant, crass, dumb, loving, indifferent, bored, and hopeful, the Simpsons represented (and still do today, albeit to a more diluted extent) every common banality and peccadillo of the modern American family. That they did so so subtly and warmly beneath a thick polish of side-splittingly witty, absurdist, and referential humor is a testament to just what an incredible project Matt Groening, Sam Simon, and James L. Brooks embarked on all those years (20!) ago. The Simpsons themselves as a family--daft Me Decade dad Homer, quietly intelligent wallflower homemaker Marge, sarcastic troublemaker Bart, loudly intelligent Lisa, and baby Maggie--have the kind of bond that has them strangling each other one minute and piously (if reluctantly) going to church the next. Groening created a show that was both bitingly hilarious and refreshingly sincere. The Simpsons never hate each other, like the gang on end-times creation Family Guy so cynically seem to. No, instead the Simpsons are just a hyperbolized version of a lot of our families--middle class and wanting more, but still pretty grateful for what we have.
The Chases -- My So-Called Life: Nothing was perfect about the Chases. You didn't want to be like them. But like it or not, some of us simply were them. Parents Graham and Patty lived with their two daughters, surly teenager Angela and buddingly curious tweener Danielle, in a gray and brown suburb of Pittsburgh, on a street that looked like so many other streets in the eastern United States. The genius of the show, created by Winnie Holzman and exec-produced by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz (parents of another great domestic drama, thirtysomething), was just how eerily and heart-soaringly familiar this family, this entire life depicted on the small screen, felt. Particularly resonant, for me at least, was Patty. Played with beautiful detail and precision by the criminally under-worked Bess Armstrong, she just spoke with that mom patois that chills and elates and pangs with nostalgia every time I hear it. She's just mom. And Angela (future movie star Claire Danes) was partly you, or at least your sister, or your cousin, or someone you knew. She was real! Not so-called at all. My So-Called Life was a show about how living, the joy and the pain of it, is a long process of learning to accept our flaws and weaknesses while trying to tease out what's good for us, and what we're good at doing. It's a shame that the show didn't get to continue on that journey itself. It was canceled after one brief season. One of TV's biggest shames.
The Arnolds -- The Wonder Years: Like a late '60s/early '70s version of the Chases, the Arnolds of California were just so real. Or at least I gather they were, judging how my mom (born pretty much at the same time as the protagonist, Kevin) would react to the show when we'd all sit in the TV room and watch on Wednesday nights. The Arnolds weren't fabulously rich or Dickensian poor. They weren't beautiful or silly or terribly special in any way. They were just the Arnolds. The show helped revolutionize the half-hour "sitcom" with its often serious storylines (the show followed an adolescent boy, played by Fred Savage, growing up through turbulent times) and laugh track-free, single-camera format. But it also was great because it didn't have any pretensions about showing anything beyond what happened to one kid in one particular time in one particular town. No matter what generation we were born in, we've all known (or been) a kid like Kevin, all met his sad, scared mom (the terrific Alley Mills), his surly last-of-the-dying-patriarchs dad (the equally-awesome Dan Lauria), his rebellious and faraway sister Karen, and his piggish (but secretly not so bad) bully of a brother Wayne. They were just a regular family. That's all. And that's a lot.
Of course I also love ridiculous familes like the Bluths of Arrested Development and tragic, messed-up families like the Sopranos or the Henricksons of Big Love. The five listed above are just the ones that I hold closest to my heart. You know, like family.
What about you? What TV clans do you like the best?