The 1980s were the decade of family television.
Okay, to be fair, family TV is a concept that stretches back to the nascence of the medium. But, unlike previous decades, ’80s family sitcoms featured nuclear families strengthened by empowered marriages, a concept struggling to survive in 21st century television. My generation was raised on the Huxtables, the Keatons, and the Seavers. A decade of friend-based sitcoms later (Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and the eponymous Friends) and what kind of families are premiering on TV in 2013? Struggling single mothers, gay single dads, middle-aged divorcees wreaking havoc on their grown children’s lives, and The Goldbergs.
Why does television have to flash back to the ’80s to produce a good look at American family life?
To be fair, we do have Modern Family, The Middle, and Last Man Standing. But where are the power couples? Where are Cliff and Clair Huxtable, the working professionals who managed to raise 5 brilliant kids in a rather down-to-earth upper-middle -class household? Or Jason and Maggie Seaver, who cut a deal so dad could work from home and be there for the kids? What about Steven and Elyse Keaton who relished in the political-intellectual challenges posed by their son Alex? Even Roseanne, for as brutish a look at blue collar America as it was, featured a loving and supportive married couple that weathered some serious storms.
This year’s premieres feature MOM, a single mother going through AA with their own drug-addicted mother, Back in the Game, a single mother left penniless on her father’s doorstep for refusing to get a boob job, and a self-titled Trophy Wife trying to relate to her step-kids.
So much for female empowerment.
Matthew Gilbert at the Boston Globe ties TV’s trend towards multi-generational families to real life statistics: “The number of households with multiple generations has risen by 13 percent since 2008, and it’s still rising.” Playing off the Modern Family vibe, Tim Surette at TV.com praises Trophy Wife with the observation:
“Let’s be honest with each other here, family comedies have gotten pretty boring because who has a traditional family like the ones we usually see on TV (father, mother, son, daughter) anymore? Stepmothers and half-brothers are the new fathers and sisters, and what about all those kids from foreign countries that people are adopting? Where’s the family comedy that represents that?”
In other words, women’s empowerment has given way to sheer demographics. Divorce rates are high, employment is low, so become a trophy wife or start waiting tables. In either case, move in with your family and deal with it. Funny, right?
In a witty review of The Goldbergs on the Examiner, Rainne Mendoza Celespara smartly observed,
“Remember, the show’s target audience, more than likely, are the new grown-ups – the 80’s kids who are now in their early 30’s to their early 50’s, probably experiencing some form of mid-life crisis or bites of nostalgia and wanting to indulge in the past.”
Damn straight I want to indulge in the past! I had role models back then: professional moms and dads who supported each other and raised their kids together. My young mind crafted a vision of a strong marriage that could handle kids, careers and anything life threw its way. Today’s sitcom marriages, by and large, have been thrown away and its female leads and viewers are the ones paying the price.