Art tells us a great deal about culture – because TV is such a popular mainstream art form, TV programming, perhaps above all, reflects the Zeitgeist. Popular TV shows not only reflect cultural norms and perceptions, but also what we long for and fear. In times of strife, for example, we may see a proliferation of escapist shows about heroes or simpler times, while fears of “other” may be worked out in shows about alien invaders. This is, of course, a simplification. Here’s a more in-depth analysis.
As I write about family, I thought it might be fun to look at the changing ways in which some of our most popular TV shows have depicted family life. The slideshow highlights programs from the 1940s to the present, with explanations from the web.
What are your favorite shows about family/family life? And how do you interpret them?
TV Families: 1940s to Present
The Goldbergs, 1949 – 1951
The Goldbergs was a domestic comedy featuring the home life of a Jewish family, supposedly located at 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. In addition to writing the scripts and directing each episode, Gertrude Berg starred as bighearted, lovingly meddlesome, and somewhat stereotypical Jewish matriarch Molly Goldberg. The show began as a portrait of Jewish tenement life before later evoking such growing pains as moving into a more suburban setting and struggling with assimilation while sustaining their roots.
I Love Lucy, 1951 – 1957
At 9PM on Oct. 15, 1951, I Love Lucy went on the air, and has never been off since. The sitcom centers on an unforgettable showbiz-wannabe redhead, her Cuban bandleader husband and their landlords, who also happen to be their best friends and co-conspirators.
Father Knows Best, 1954 – 1960
After World War II, Americans had a bright future ahead, and optimism abounded. Father Knows Best reflects this mood, and was an “improvement” on reality, the way TV shows and movies used to be. The program was like a Norman Rockwell painting- filled with cheery lovable characters and a non-threatening humor that was middle America’s idea of itself. It was an air-brushed, touched-up portrait of family life that people could aim for.
Leave It To Beaver, 1957 – 1963
Leave It To Beaver is an American television situation comedy about an inquisitive and often naïve boy named Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver (portrayed by Jerry Mathers) and his adventures at home, in school, and around his suburban neighborhood. The show has attained an iconic status in the US, with the Cleavers exemplifying the idealized suburban family of the mid-20th century.
Bewitched, 1964 – 1972
In a subtle way, Bewitched responded to the turbulence and political tensions of the mid-1960s and early 1970s. During the years Bewitched was on the air the press and the public were confronted with and heatedly argued about the shifting power dynamic between the sexes, women’s’ rights, racially motivated violence, the war in Vietnam, and the gay and civil rights movements. In the midst of this painful reality, Bewitched offered America a fantastical vision of a close-knit, mostly cooperative and peaceful community that embraced powerful matriarchs, flamboyant men, all manner of strange and wonderful misfits and a loving, devoted “mixed marriage” between an exceptional woman and an ordinary man.
The Brady Bunch, 1969 – 1974
The Brady Bunch was daring for its time: A mother with three daughters by one marriage marries a widower with three boys, a maid and a dog. Despite these eyebrow-raising characters, the show had universal plotlines that were familiar to anyone growing up in Astroturf-covered, suburban middle-class America. What helped The Brady Bunch endure is that it focused on topics that were significant to any generation (self-esteem issues, relationships, careers, family vacations).
All In the Family, 1971 – 1979
Debuting as a mid-season replacement on Jan. 12, 1971, All in the Family became one of the most influential comedies in TV history and made an immediate impact on the entire television industry.All in the Family pioneered a whole new brand of realistic and hard-hitting satire based on the real world, rather than the naive escapism of most entertainment programs. The sitcom revolves around blue-collar worker Archie Bunker and his family. Opinionated and uneducated, Archie makes no bones about his racial and political views, which are borne out of every negative stereotype imaginable.
Sanford & Son, 1972 – 1977
Sanford and Son helped to redefine the genre of black situation comedy. Redd Foxx played the show’s central character Fred Sanford, a Los Angeles junk dealer. Sanford’s son Lamont … is his reluctant partner in the business, always looking for a way out — but he ultimately cares for his pop too much to leave him to his own devices. A cast of quirky characters added to the hilarity of the series, and the funky theme song, written by Quincy Jones gave the show a distinct flair.
Who’s The Boss 1984 – 1992
Widower Anthony Morton “Tony” Micelli (Danza) is a former second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals who was forced to retire due to a shoulder injury. He wants to move out of Brooklyn to find a better environment for his daughter, Samantha (Alyssa Milano). He ends up taking a job in upscale Fairfield, Connecticut, as a live-in housekeeper for divorced advertising executive Angela Bower (Judith Light). The Micellis moved into the Bower residence. Mona dates all kinds of men, from college age to silver-haired CEOs. This portrayal of an “older woman” with an active social and sexual life was unusual for television at the time.
Roseanne, 1988 – 1997
Roseanne, a show that celebrated the ups and downs of a working-class American family, was one of the most successful series of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Helmed by stand-up comedian and self-proclaimed “Domestic Goddess” Roseanne Barr, the show was a consistent ratings winner that amassed several awards during its tenure.
Married With Children, 1987 – 1997
The Bundys are a stereotypical American family. Al is a shoe salesman who is fond of frequently reliving his doubtful 15 seconds of fame on the football field. Al is terrified of the all-too-frequent amorous advances his ditsy wife Peggy, a woman who must spend most of Al’s wages at the salon and the mall. They have two children: Kelly, the stunning but superficial party animal, and Bud, who is too wrapped up in himself to realize his goal of scoring with a girl.
The Simpsons, 1989 – present
John Ortved: “The Simpsons issued its response. Seated in front of the television, the family watched Bush make his remarks. “Hey! We’re just like the Waltons,” said Bart. “We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.” While the immediacy of the response was surprising, the retort was vintage Simpsons: tongue-in-cheek, subversive, skewering both the president’s cartoonish political antics and the culture that embraced them.”
Family Matters, 1989 – 1998
A spin-off of Perfect Strangers, the series revolves around the Winslow family, a middle-class African American family living in Chicago, Illinois. Midway through the first season, the show introduced the Winslows’ nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White, who quickly became its breakout character and eventually the show’s main character. Having run for nine seasons, Family Matters is the second longest-running U.S. sitcom with a predominantly African American cast; it follows The Jeffersons, which aired for 11 seasons.
Everybody Loves Raymond, 1996 – 2005
Based on the comedy of Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond is similar to Seinfeld in that single episodes are based on a simple incident spinning dizzyingly out of control, and shares with Roseanne a look at the fabric of a painfully funny family. The most groundbreaking element of the series is how classic it is. Like <The Jeffersons and All in the Family before it, Everybody Loves Raymond episodes often unfurl like one-act plays. Sometimes they become farce; sometimes they become a surprisingly touching portrait peeling back the layers of the characters.
The Sopranos, 1999 – 2007
Richard Plepler (co-president of HBO): They came in here and said, “Here’s the idea: 40-year-old guy, crossroads of his life, turmoil in his marriage, turmoil in his professional career, beginning to raise teenage kids in modern society—all the pressures of every man in his generation. The only difference is he’s the Mob boss of northern New Jersey. Oh, by the way, he’s seeing a shrink.”
Family Guy, 1999 – present
The show revolves around the adventures of the family of Peter Griffin, a bumbling blue-collar worker. Peter is an Irish-American Catholic married to Lois, a stay-at-home mother and piano teacher. Peter and Lois have three children: Meg, their teenage daughter, who is awkward and does not fit in at school, and is constantly ridiculed and ignored by the family; Chris, their teenage son, who is overweight, unintelligent and a younger version of his father in many respects; and Stewie, their diabolical infant son of ambiguous sexual orientation who has adult mannerisms and uses stereotypical arch villain phrases. Living with the family is Brian, the family dog, who is highly anthropomorphized, drinks martinis, and engages in human conversation, though he is still considered a pet in many respects
Modern Family, 2009 – present
This mockumentary explores the many different types of a modern family through the stories of a gay couple, comprised of Mitchell and Cameron, and their daughter Lily, a straight couple, comprised of Phil and Claire, and their three kids, Haley, Alex, and Luke, and a multicultural couple, which is comprised of Jay and Gloria, and their son Manny.