The Return of the Family Sitcom

January 7, 2010
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So I have a long tradition of disliking family sitcoms, reaching all the way back to my adolescence, when my regular complaint was that I never recognized the problems and issues (and solutions) facing my TV cohorts and their parents. Exceptions emerged as I got older (most notably Roseanne) but for the most part, I’ve remained true to my more immature roots. But this season on TV, I have fallen in love with two “traditional” family sitcoms, both on ABC on Wednesday nights: The Middle and Modern Family. No doubt, this is due in part to having turned 40 and being the mom of a rambunctious toddler. (Incidentally, I also enjoy Cougar Town in the same lineup, which I see as a family sitcom of sorts—but I’ll save that for another post.) What is it about these shows that has grabbed my fancy as a feminist TV scholar?

I’ll use last night’s experience as an example. I have a habit (age be damned) of working furiously on my laptop while most TV shows are on. Usually I only have to “really watch” when a serial drama is on (Lost, Mad Men, Glee), which means I can count on a few hours of work time each night while a DVR’d sitcom runs. So there I am last night, trying to write up a report for my job while my husband pulls up these two shows. And all of a sudden, I find myself having to actually watch the tv screen for three reasons: the acting and dialogue is top notch, calling my attention aurally; the jokes and story points are visually oriented, meaning if I’m not looking I’m not catching the full story; and the situations that gave the genre its moniker are delightfully realistically funny.

On The Middle what grabbed me was a dual storyline about the teenagers: daughter Sue, hopelessly awkward and socially inept, wants a pair of ridiculously priced jeans and her mom caves in; son Axl wants a car (without having to work for it) and his dad says he’ll get him one for the same amount spent on his sister’s jeans. Simple? Beyond doubt. But what charmed me was the timeless universality of the problem: in an era radically different from the one I grew up in, these demands could have easily appeared in the shows I grew up with. But somehow, this all seems different. Perhaps it’s because the Heck family really can’t afford these expenditures and the show actually takes pains to make this a part of the comedy. Perhaps it’s because Frankie’s (the mom’s) voiceovers add poignancy to her purchase of the jeans because she explains her empathy for her daughter’s emotional and psychological need to fit in at school. Maybe it’s because the show reveals a power struggle between the parents over the money spent and the problematic lessons imparted to the kids. Maybe it’s because the kids are deliciously imperfect and selfish and rude in the way that teens can be—and the parents are deliciously stressed, cutting corners with home, family, spouse, and work as they try to make life for their kids as complete as possible.

I had to keep my computer idle as Modern Family whirred on (and also because my husband insisted I had to “see this, see this—look up from your work, you’re missing this”). There is always a lot going on with this multigenerational sitcom, but last night what got me was the comeuppance (of sorts) of new parents Mitchell and Cameron as they attempt to sleep train their infant daughter Lily. (And let me just insert here that I love the fact that my students watch this show!) Mitchell and Cameron are an uber-suburban upper-middle class couple when it comes to their baby—they fall prey to every advice book (in this case Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, by Richard Ferber) and every trend in child-rearing you can imagine as they fret over their first child. In an hysterical visual joke, babycam footage (a simple audio baby monitor is no longer sufficient in this country for new parents) reveals Cameron sneaking into baby Lily’s room when she starts crying at 4am, breaking the cardinal Ferber rule of letting your baby “cry it out,” a method Cameron has explained in the show’s documentary style confessional moment that he finds reprehensible. So into the bedroom he goes—and as I watch the actual babycam footage, Mitchell (pro-Ferber) pops up from behind Lily’s crib to shoo his husband back out of the room. As a parent who has had many a late-night argument with my spouse over pretty much exactly this scenario (though we don’t have that babycam—we’re too much like the Heck family financially to swing that) I just about peed my pants. I just have to love the fact that a traditional family sitcom has managed to give me a gay couple to identify with (as opposed to liberally root for). And as with The Middle, I enjoy the representation of parents who don’t always know what they’re doing, and of parents who argue over how best to raise their kids instead of always pleasantly grooving along together.

So three cheers for the return of the family sitcom to TV! These two are fun and have actually made me start to think about what feminism means in lived reality in relation to parenthood and marriage. I don’t have that quite figured out yet…perhaps it has something to do with determining how to attend to the needs and desires of those you love without sacrificing your self-respect and sanity…but in the meantime I intend to ponder this “modern family ” dilemma from the vantage point of being stuck in “the middle” of it all.


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2 Responses to “ The Return of the Family Sitcom ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on January 8, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    You’ve strengthened my resolve to watching The Middle. I don’t like Patricia Heaton, so I was predisposed to dislike it, yet the previews looked excellent … and then somehow I failed to record it the first week, which led to me just not watching it. But I’m intrigued by a family sitcom that isn’t just anti-family sitcom (as with The Simpsons), but that struggles with its characters, rather than making it Tanner family-esque

  2. Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    I’m with Jonathan on my resistance to The Middle, although I did watched the first few episodes before eventually deciding to “wait it out” to see how the show came together creatively. Being freed from association with Hank did the show wonders in my mind, and I think I’ll return to it eventually (especially with the show likely getting a second season renewal today).

    As for Modern Family, I have some broad critical issues with the show (largely in terms of how it designs itself structurally), but I can’t deny that stories like the one you discuss, Sharon, are extremely well executed. I may believe the show needs a higher degree of difficulty to really connect with me, but I think I take for granted how easily the show made Cameron and Mitchell identifiable to the show’s broad audience – a lot of that is Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, but their stories (see: Costco) have worked even when episodes as a whole have not for me.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Cougar Town (which has evolved, as you note, into an extended family quite well at this point in its run).