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Cleavers to Lohans: The Downhill Slide of the American TV Family

It used to be kids in TV families who caused the problems and the parents who solved them. In the brave new world of reality television, parents are the problem.

by
Katherine Berry

Bio

June 2, 2008 - 12:08 am

There was a time in American television when parents and children alike would gather in front of the TV to watch Leave it to Beaver or even The Cosby Show, programs that affirmed the importance of the family structure and reminded us that loving parents can guide their children through even the worst of childhood’s problems.

Those days are long gone, baby, as viewers were reminded last week when Living Lohan and Denise Richards: It’s Complicated made their debut. Gone is the notion that parents are problem-solvers, or that parents — in the plural — are even the norm. In their place Hollywood now offers the new “reality” of divorced mothers who, while claiming to love their kids, actually cause the majority of their problems in life.

Have we reached a new low in the decline of the American family? Or has Hollywood completely lost touch with the concept of what family life is like?

In their infancy, family sitcoms offered only slightly idealized versions of the lives we all wanted to lead. If today Ward Cleaver seems a bit stodgy, he wasn’t back then. Our fathers dressed in suits and ties to go to work just as he did; they returned home to closet themselves in their dens with their pipes and newspapers, emerging in time for the family to eat dinner, a time when mothers and children would recount their days’ trials and triumphs.

Parenting, like housework, was left largely to hose- and heel-wearing housewives, at least until the dinner dishes were put away. Children knew that was the moment Mother meant when she’d said, just as June Cleaver had, “Wait until your father gets home.” Then, a post-dinner cup of coffee in hand, Father assumed his role as head of the household to mete out punishment or deliver advice, all before the prime time family television hour started.

Even in later years, when Women’s Liberation severed the chains that had kept moms tied to sink and stove, television parents remained firmly in control of their families and functioned as a unit.

Think, for instance, of the Brady Bunch episodes wherein Carol brought coffee or a hot toddy to Mike’s den to discuss the children’s latest antics: how to reinforce Jan’s self-esteem during her latest effort to step out of Marcia’s shadow; Greg’s need for privacy and a room of his own as he transitioned from boy- to manhood; Peter’s punishment for breaking Carol’s treasured vase when he defied her stricture against playing ball in the house.

In those days, when most American families had only one television in the home, TV networks knew they had to appeal to the entire family, and that viewership depended largely on getting adults interested in a program. Thus shows portrayed parents as wise and clearly in control of the household, their focus on helping their mostly well-behaved children through whatever goofy situation they’d gotten themselves into.

We loved them for that, too. We grew up thinking of June Cleaver, and later Carol Brady, as substitute mothers: women like our own moms, but just a bit more patient, a bit more understanding. We, as children, often took their advice to heart in our own lives, and our parents benefitted from that.

As American lives changed, so did family sitcoms. Whereas censorship rules had previously prohibited shows featuring a divorced parent (hence why Steve Douglas on My Three Sons was a widower, and Susan Partridge of The Partridge Family a widow), that rule eroded as divorce became a frequently common fact of American life. When Ann Romano left her husband and moved with her girls to a dingy apartment in Indianapolis on One Day At A Time their lives mirrored those of many of the show’s viewers. Women who felt, like Ann, they’d always been someone’s daughter, wife or mother were increasingly starting their lives over and striking out on their own careers, establishing their own identities, albeit still with their children in tow. It’s no coincidence that, with the typical American family structure changing, the story lines of the sitcoms depicting those families changed, too. Gone were the days when storylines stemmed from problems encountered (or caused by) the children. In their place came plots dealing with more parent-oriented themes: depression, economic struggles, dating again after a divorce. The kids’ problems became more serious, too. Who can forget when Ann Romano confronted Julie about taking “the Pill” only to find out she wasn’t actually on it, that she just wanted boys at school to think that she was? Or the episode when Julie brought home a man twice her age much to her mother’s horror, then asked her mother “You lonely, Ma? You want him?” The full-handed slap in the face that Ann delivered in response was heard in millions of American homes where other parents had experienced similar moments of uncontrolled rage and ensuing shame. Still, the message of the family sitcom remained the same: a loving family will somehow work through their problems and come out stronger for it. That same message — minus the preachy moralism — fueled The Cosby Show as it set out to demonstrate that families with educated, professional working mothers can be just as strong as those of bygone eras. The show’s success reaffirmed one other thing about family sitcoms, too: American viewers still wanted shows that, at the end, left them feeling good about their own families. When Rupert Murdoch introduced The Simpsons, many thought it signaled a new low in the portrayal of the American family. Gone was the smoothly- run household headed by wise parents raising sweet-natured and only occasionally rebellious children. The Simpsons gave us, instead, two bumbling and often negligent adults frequently duped by headstrong and often bratty kids.

But if we cringe over Homer’s insensitivity and Marge’s failed efforts to establish an identity outside of motherhood, over Lisa’s overt contempt for her parents and Bart’s contempt for just about everything, we still ultimately receive the same message at the end of The Simpsons that every family sitcom before it has delivered: a family is a cohesive unit that is made stronger by struggling through its problems together.

What, then, are we to make of Hollywood’s latest depictions of the family as portrayed this week in Denise Richards: It’s Complicated and Living Lohan? When it comes to Denise Richards, who is attempting to reinvent herself after a nasty divorce from actor Charlie Sheen, no one really believed her claim that she needed to work to support her children. With a $40 million divorce settlement and nearly $10 million in tax-free child support coming over the next 15 years it’s clear that Richards is actually just interested in getting herself back in front of cameras. More importantly, at least Richards has been proclaiming to anyone who’ll interview the former Bond girl, she’s interested in letting people see the real her: “I want people to see what I’m really like and then judge for themselves,” she claims. “And then if they still hate me then, that’s their choice.” So what do we see? A woman who snaps at her hired help. A woman who can’t believe the DMV won’t remove her ex-husband’s name from her license based on her celebrity status even if she doesn’t have the proper paperwork. A woman who claims to be a good mom yet has not one but two nannies raising her children. A woman who spends more time with her 10 dogs, three cats and three pot-bellied pigs (for one of which she spends hours trying to find a breeding stud ) than with her children. Hell, she spends more time getting a spray-tan before her blind date than she does with her kids. If we still hate her after seeing all that? Well, as she said it’s our choice, but she’s certainly made that choice easy. Half an hour after Richards’ show we’re made privy again to the life of another celebrity mom: Dina Lohan. The very same Dina Lohan who freely admitted to partying with daughter Lindsay and then feigned surprise when Lindsay checked herself into rehab. That same Dina Lohan now stars in a “reality” show about her trials and tribulations as a mother/manager to youngest daughter, Ali. (Lindsay does not appear in the show.)This, she hopes, will convince people that the Lohan family is normal.

And what happens in the fledgling episode? After Dina rips through tabloids looking for mentions of her daughters she settles down to watch a video with 15-year-old Ali. What kind of video? An internet sex tape purportedly starring oldest daughter Lindsay. An explicit sex tape with mother and daughter watch with apparent glee as demonstrated when Ali tilts her head to get a better look at the action and says “Is that her?” with a smile on her face.

These shows, we’re told by Hollywood, are “reality programs” reflecting “normal” families. They are, network executives would have us believe, more accurate depictions of the American family than fictional families of old: the Cleavers, the Bradys, the Huxtables, even the Simpsons. But when did any of our realities include buying a $9,000 grill like Denise Richards, or sitting down with our youngest daughter to watch a porn tape possibly starring our oldest child?

Completely missing from these shows is the one thing that keeps us tuning in, year after year, to reruns of Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch and The Cosby Show, the same ingredient that has kept The Simpsons on the air longer than any other sitcom in the history of television. At the end of It’s Complicated or Living Lohan we are not left with the belief that a family, headed by a wise and loving parent, will somehow come through its struggles better off and stronger for having worked through them together. Rather, we are left shocked at the complete and utter absence of a true parental figure and certain that, somehow, any problems those families encounter are largely caused by the parents themselves. If watching these shows leaves us with that same warm, fuzzy and affirmed feeling that the sitcoms of old did, it’s simply because — by comparison — our realities look so much more sane than theirs.

Katherine Berry writes about current events and culture at Electric Venom.
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