Many a Gen Xer grew up on a steady diet of heavily laugh-tracked sitcoms. Flashback to 1987, I am in my room surrounded by pinups torn from sundry teen magazines featuring the likes of Michael J. Fox and Kirk Cameron. How could you not fall for the devilish and still kind-hearted Mike Seaver. The Seavers, along with the Keatons, and also the oddly blended Tony Danza/Judith Light family combo, gave us what I like to call “family-light.” Sure, there were more serious moments—they tackled topics like underage drinking, birth control and anorexia. That “very special episode” tag an indicator that the canned laughter might be somewhat less prevalent during that particular evening’s show. Yet still, these sitcom families managed to turn even the tougher moments into opportunities for wistful lessons and self-reflexive remembrances.
So let’s look at what they got right…One thing is for certain, go back a decade in television history, to the 70s version of a sitcom, and the prevailing family theme fits snugly into a traditional, archaic mold: Father = head of household, Mother = dutiful keeper of said household, the children left to watch and learn. Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, Archie Bunker—‘nough said. The eighties tread new ground; granted, not as emphatically as they could have. But they at least played around with the mold. Jason Seaver worked out of the home and thereby took on his fair share of the parenting/household keeping—more than would be expected of a man back then. Ditto for Who’s the Boss. Tony Danza in an apron made many a mom swoon. The men of such 80s shows launched a veritable sensitivity movement. While the woman pant-suited it up and trail blazed their way into that working mom zone.
What else did they get right…The actual emphasis on “family.” That’s not to say on the traditional concept of family, but rather on the fact that some sort of bond, some emotion, some inherent love kept every one of the characters orbiting around the same sun. They sat down to dinner together; they sang together; they took vacations together. They exhibited a oneness that suggested “this is a family”—regardless of what that family looked like.
Finally, there was always that takeaway. Certainly, this goes toward the fact that each half hour was pretty much its own separate entity, its own separate lesson and therefore, open-endedness really didn’t work well for this genre. But that takeaway was key. As corny a reminder as it might have been, it was a reminder, nevertheless. When Elyse Keaton followed her folk singing dreams and ultimately remained true to herself: takeaway. When Angela gets fired and unable to find a job to her liking, is encouraged to take a risk and start her own ad agency: takeaway. When Carol Seaver’s boyfriend (as portrayed by a very young Matthew Perry) dies as a result of drunk driving: huge takeaway. You left the showing knowing that you got something out of it, and it had a funny way of sticking with you, at least for a little while. When it comes to these iconic 80s families, well, that’s my takeaway.
Anne is a former English professor turned content writer. Holding a PhD in Literature, she spent almost a decade in academia putting that degree to use, until finally realizing it wasn’t exactly the best fit. A full-time writer for the past seven years, she’s learned a great deal about the numerous subjects she’s gotten to tackle, everything from real estate investing to the scarier side of online dating—sometimes more than she actually wants to learn. She can be contacted through [email protected]