The Evolution of the Sitcom Family

The sitcom is a format difficult to define in detail but instantly recognizable when we see it. The field is broad, as is often the comedy. It has undergone significant changes over the years only to end up, to some extent, back in the same place. Sometimes it holds a mirror up to society to reflect the changes going on in the world, and sometimes it’s a show about nothing. But one major constant throughout the years is the sitcom family. While Seinfeld’s influence may have threatened the future of the nuclear sitcom family in the 90’s, the ties that bind managed to survive.

Sitcoms began in the family and remain family-oriented. You could argue that at its core, situational comedy is all in the family. Then you would immediately apologize for insulting your readers with such a terrible pun. I’m sorry.

But as evolution has taught us, in order to survive one must adapt. Sitcom families are no exception. Unless you think God created sitcoms. Which is impossible. As long as Big Bang Theory lives, there is no God.

Let’s take a look at some of the sitcom families that changed the game throughout the years.

“The Ricardos,” I Love Lucy (1951 – 1957)

In addition to being a pioneer of the multi-camera set-up, and one of the most popular sitcoms ever, I Love Lucy was also one of the first television programs to feature a pregnancy. When Lucille Ball became pregnant IRL, she and Desi made the groundbreaking decision to write it into the storyline.  CBS forbid them from saying the word ‘pregnancy,’ so the cast had to use euphemisms like “expecting” or like in the clip below “a blessed event.”

“The Cleavers,” Leave it Beaver (1957 – 1963)

One of the first sitcoms told from the kids’ point-of-view, Leave It To Beaver also represented an idealized portrait of suburban bliss. It was a quintessential piece of Baby Boomer lore, extolling the virtues of hard work and marriage. The whole idea of suburban life was a fairly new concept to see on primetime television. Pre-fab communities like Levittown were only just built in the early 50’s. It has since become a relic of simpler times, when America had “good values.” Note my “sarcasm.”

“The Taylors,” The Andy Griffith Show (1960 -1968)

At the time, it was common to name a show after the star instead of the main character. This show was a smash ratings hit, and also gave us the wonderful Don Knotts, as well as Ron Howard. But what makes this Taylor family (clear eyes, full hearts) revolutionary, is that as a widower Sheriff Andy Taylor became one of the first single parents on primetime television.

And now, that whistle.

“The Petries,” The Dick van Dyke Show (1961 – 1968)

Like the previous sitcom, DVDS was named after its star whose name has nothing to do with the actual show. A sterling leader in the golden age of 60’s sitcoms, the Dick van Dyke Show also showed the dichotomy and parallels of the workplace vs. the home-place. Creator Carl Reiner based the show on his experience writing for Show of Shows, and in a precociously meta ending – variety show writer Rob Petrie (Dick van Dyke) sells his life story to a television network to be turned into a sitcom.

Here’s the pilot in its entirety.

“The Bradys,” The Brady Bunch (1969 -1974)

Quick: name all six children without even thinking about it. How do we know these things? How? Sherwood Schwartz’s sitcom about Astroturf was hardly a hit when it first aired, cancelled after only five seasons. But thanks to Nick@Nite, TVLand and a national obsession with nostalgia, it’s a part of our collective consciousness.

But its real contribution as a game-changer was its emphasis on the blended family, at a time when divorce rates were on the rise. Mike Brady was a widower, but Carol was a divorcee – though it was never addressed outright on the show. Either way, it was one of the first sitcom families not completely related by blood.

“WJM TV Station,” Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 – 1977)

The woman with a broken engagement who could turn the world on with her smile doesn’t exactly translate to family. Except that the Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the first to champion the idea of the workplace family: people who spend so much time at the office that the people they work with become akin to their next of kin.

The extent of the WJM family is captured pretty perfectly in the last few minutes of the show’s poignant series finale.

“The Bunkers,” All in the Family (1971 – 1979)

Meet the Grand Poobah of Game-changers. All in the Family aired during a tumultuous decade for the US, and reflected that in its themes. Working-class bigot Archie Bunker is a far cry from Ward Cleaver. It broke all kinds of new grounds not just for the sitcom genre, but for broadcast television in general. At a time when no show had confronted taboos full on, All in the Family addressed racism, rape, abortion, cancer, Vietnam, impotence and even homosexuality. Today these issues can be found in one episode of Law & Order: SVU. But it would probably still be shocking even in 2011 to see a sitcom talk frankly about racism or the war in Iraq.

Here’s a famous clip of Archie Bunker meeting crooning legend Sammy Davis Jr.

“The Jeffersons,” The Jeffersons (1975 – 1985)

A spin-off of All in the Family, The Jeffersons is the longest-running sitcom in the history of television where the majority of the cast was African-American. After opening their own dry-cleaning chain, the affluent Jeffersons “move it on up to the East side” to live in a fancy uptown apartment. While the show ran for 10 years, it was cancelled without having a proper series finale to much controversy.

During the finale of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the entire cast shows up to buy Uncle Phil’s mansion.

“The Keatons,” Family Ties (1982 – 1989)

Reagan was president and the national pendulum swung away from the liberated 60’s and 70’s to a more conservative mindset. Family Ties turned that change on its head, illustrating the country’s newfound conservatism through the children instead of the parents. Alex P. Keaton rejected the free love of his formerly-hippie mother and father, embracing the role of a young Republican.

Also the show had a pretty classic 80’s theme song.

“The Huxtables,” The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992)

A lawyer mother, a doctor father and a whole lot of family values. The fact that the family happened to be African-American was not the point of the show, and yet was everything. It crossed all boundaries to become a major hit, and made NBC a huge pot of money. Some critics even said it revived the sitcom altogether.

Here’s a family values clip from the pilot presentation, between Bill and Theo.

“The Bundys,” Married…With Children (1987 – 1997)

Married With Children made an absolute mockery of the sitcom family, and that is why it’s important. It took the middle-class ideal and had a crass field day, to the chagrin of some Christian housewives. But it was a pioneer in the parody of the traditional sitcom, opting for lessons in immorality as opposed to clichéd family values.

“The Conners,” Roseanne (1988 -1997)

Speaking of turning a nose up at convention – can you imagine this show getting greenlit today? A blue-collar family with two working class parents who happen to be overweight. This is probably the most accurate depiction of the modern American family. Much like its predecessor All in the Family, the show openly dealt with taboo topics. These included, but certainly weren’t limited to, poverty, drugs, periods, birth control, masturbation, race, domestic violence, adultery, social classes stratification and gay rights.

But more importantly, it challenged accepted ideals of the woman’s role in the family and household. A female character led the household and her appeal was not connected to her looks. The women on the show cooperated with each other instead of competing and were opinionated without being punished for it. Unfortunately, this evolution of the female seemed to end at Roseanne instead of evolving from it. Think about how little cooperation among opinionated females we see on sitcoms today.

Here’s the first 10 minutes of the pilot:

“The Barones,” Everybody Loves Raymond (1996 – 2005)

Ray Romano’s mega-successful sitcom marked a return to the traditional nuclear family. While it held broad appeal, it also signified an evolutionary regression or completed the circle- depending on who you ask. Based on Romano’s stand-up, the show revolved around a suburban family with 2.3 kids and meddling in-laws. It spawned a spate of nuclear family sitcoms that did more for preserving the genre than progressing it. The effects can still be felt on CBS to this day.

“The Bluths,” Arrested Development (2003 – 2006)

In contrast to Everybody Loves Raymond, this critical darling of a sitcom was perhaps over-evolved. Something for which, it turns out, America wasn’t ready. It was so meta, so mean and slightly ahead of its time with the single-cam format. It completely ditched the laugh track for subtle jokes, callbacks and a flurry of quips. Full disclosure: this is one of my favorite shows so I’m operating under a bias and a fan’s grudge.

The Bluths represent a modern family that no one wanted to watch except the critics. I’ll admit, it’s possible that most American viewers wanted to see a family that actually loved each other instead of a mother who can’t stop bringing up the will when she mistakenly hears her husband might be dead.

But for those of you who believe the Bluths loved each other in their own weird way, I give you various members of the family doing the chicken dance.

“The Pritchett-Tucker-Dunphys,” Modern Family (2009 – present)

Which brings us to Modern Family. Is it the perfect evolution of the sitcom? It combines the docu single-cam format and snark of Arrested Development, with the heartfelt morality of sitcoms of yore. It doesn’t directly address any major social issues, but the unconventional make-up of the three families implicitly does this. And yet, the name of the show is slightly misleading. All three families are very well-off, predominantly white and living in an ambiguous upper-middle-class California suburb. They aren’t exactly the 99 percent.

But it has achieved both critical and ratings success that has eluded its NBC single-cam peers. Community, The Office and Parks and Recreation all have a strong family current among their characters, but don’t seem to resonate with the public like Modern Family. Are blood relatives the key element to success? Discuss, o’ internet commenters.

Despite the dismal ratings of some critical darlings, we are experiencing a resurge of the sitcom. In the 1990-1991 season, 20 of the top 30 shows were sitcoms.  In 2005 -2006 season, there were only 2 in the top 30. And one of those was Two and a Half Men. Like I said, no God. Family isn’t necessarily at the center of this recent success. But, you better believe, just like your real family, the sitcom family will always be there.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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The Evolution of the Sitcom Family