Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Roots of Dysfunctional American Television Families

by Pa Rock
TV Viewer

A few weeks ago I mentioned the television show Shameless in this space.  It chronicles the fictional existence of a highly dysfunctional family, the Gallaghers, of inner-city Chicago.  The American program is in it's third season on Showtime, and it is a very good ripoff of the British version which has been playing on BBC for a decade.  Shameless is the story of a large family, basically surviving on public assistance and their wits, with a father too drunk and drug-addled to be of much use and a mother who gave up and moved away a couple of years before.  The oldest daughter, Fiona, and her live-in boyfriend, Steve, basically manage to keep the family together, fed, and in school.  The five younger siblings survive in the chaos while contributing their best efforts to maintain the sense of family

My daughter-in-law commented that the Gallaghers put the "fun" in "dysfunctional." And truly they do.  If it weren't for the fun factor, viewers would have no reason to tune in.  As a former child protection worker, I have been to dysfunctional households that weren't geared for fun.  They were places where not only was there nothing to laugh about, most visitors were even scared to sit down.

When I was a child, families on television were extremely functional, though not very realistic.   Barbara Billingsley (Leave It to Beaver), Jane Wyman (Father Knows Best), and Marjorie Lord (Make Room for Daddy) all wore their pearls and evening dresses around the house during the day waiting patiently on their male breadwinners to return home from work.  Fortunately all three had children to provide some sparkle to their days.

Those early television shows weren't like my family - a family where both parents worked.  My mother owned a few pieces of costume jewelry which she would sort through and trot out for special occasions - but there was not a pearl in the pile.  And I knew at an early age that if I was hungry, the quickest way to resolve the situation was to go in the kitchen and fix a sandwich.  Mom did cook, though how she found the time I will never understand - but many meals were "catch as catch can."

That was real life in the fifties and sixties - not the high-toned elegance of television families.

The first time I remember watching a television show and realizing that it involved a "real" family was Roseanne which premiered in 1988.  The Connors were real people - screaming, yelling, laughing - making their way through real situations.  A big part of the plot line was devoted to multi-generational, mother-daughter conflicts, but the show also explored how families functioned when they were forced to live paycheck-to-paycheck - in a world they jokingly described as "white trash."  Each episode looked at situations that could easily impact a majority of the viewers.  Roseanne was as real as real could get at the time.  

In 1989, one year after the premier of Roseanne, another highly dysfunctional family appeared on television - The Simpsons.  Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are still living in havoc twenty-four years later,  but it is a cartoon havoc which gives license to some truly bizarre antics that would be hard to replicate with real people.

My all time favorite dysfunctional family hit the airwaves in 2000 and ran for seven seasons.   Macolm in the Middle showed that, unlike Roseanne, mothers can also experience difficulty in dealing with sons.  (Of course, Lois, the mother, maintained a beaut of a mother-daughter conflict with her own obnoxious mother.)  The boys ranged from Francis, the eldest, who had been sent to a teen boot camp as an older adolescent and eventually aged out into life on his own, Reese, the friendless screw-up with a strong, and usually unfulfilled desire to belong, Malcolm, the smart middle child and the family's hope for the future, Dewey, a charmer who had to be outrageous in order to get noticed, and the baby, Jamie, a toddler with a mind of his own who seemed to be the burgeoning equal to his older brothers.  Malcolm's family also lived hand-to-mouth with both parents working dead-end jobs.

Looking back, the dysfunctional television family may have actually begun with Lucy.  True, she was a non-working housewife with nice dresses and the occasional pearls, but she found herself in situations that June Cleaver could never have imagined.  Lucy possibly begat Roseanne, and then along came the Simpsons, Malcolm, and finally Shameless.  Can it get any more real than that - and if it does - will we still think it is funny?

Child Protective Services showed up at the Gallagher home last week.  Trust me as one who has stepped into a home with a pickup order signed by a judge on many occasions, that is not funny - but it is very real.  There comes a point when dysfunctional ceases to be fun.

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