Who Stole The TV Family?

There are many fine mystery programs on television these days but probably the biggest television mystery is this:  whatever happened to shows about traditional families?

You’ll no doubt remember that when the Morally Challenged Poobahs of the Left were doing their Sherman’s March through American Culture back in the sixties and seventies, we were frequently told that such programs as Father Knows Best, and Leave It To Beaver, were sinister in their dishonesty.  Real families, we were told, weren’t like that.  They were oppressive matrices of insanity.  Real fathers not only didn’t know best, they didn’t know nothing.   When they weren’t abusing their children, they were enslaving their wives by forcing them to (gasp!) cook dinner—yes!  dinner!—and take care of children and make a home for their spouses and offspring and heaven only knows what other unforgivable atrocities.  Those real families were bad and those old shows were bad for not telling the truth about them!

A Seething Cesspool of Oppression and Hatred

So instead we got shows like All In The Family and One Day At A Time in which the—no doubt exaggerated—family ideal of most Americans was replaced by the images of paternal abuse and happy-ending divorces that peopled the imaginations of our creative elites.

And yet—strangely enough—shows in which more or less wise fathers more or less led more or less intact families–The Cosby Show, Seventh Heaven, Home Improvement–continued to be smash hits.

When Home Improvement was about to go off the air in 1999, I happened to be in LA to pitch a movie.  Sitting in a coffee shop reading the trade paper Variety, I came upon an article declaring that, even though Home Improvement was still popular and had won many awards, television executives had decided they would no longer do shows about intact families.  It had nothing to do with the market for such shows which, obviously, was still large.  They just weren’t doing them anymore, that’s all.

Now, of course, Seventh Heaven—a show not only about an intact father-led family but about a family led by a Christian minister, for goodness’ sake!—continued successful until 2007.  But when you look at the TV landscape today—with a few borderline exceptions—the happy, traditional family has been largely erased from the scene.  Indeed, one show—How I Met Your Motherdeceptively uses a traditional sounding title to mask the fact that it’s about the hook-up culture.

Now this may be the result of an evil plot by the left to erase the one institution that stands between them and their dream of the state-dominated individual.  I certainly wouldn’t put it past them.  But even if that’s so, there may be something else at work as well.

Not very long ago, I sold a mystery script that centered around a very traditional family.  It featured a woman who had won the adoring love of her husband and children by dedicating her life to caring for them and their home.  When I handed in the first draft, the producers and executives—four Hollywood men—praised it very highly.  But then they said—and I’m not making this up—“It’s not realistic.  There are no modern women like that.  We wish there were.  But there aren’t.”

I know from happy experience that this is wildly untrue.  But I also strongly suspect that these four men were speaking honestly from their own experience.  They can’t imagine any sort of world but theirs.

It would be a shame if the limited and, dare I say unwholesome and unfulfilled, lives of a small cadre of people in a single city were setting the paradigm for an entire nation’s entertainment.

I hope all my fellow Dads had a Happy Father’s Day!

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  • K

    My experience is that the survivors of unhappy marriages and broken families are over represented in the creative class. Which may explain their reaction to pro family themes.

    What’s harder to understand is while TV is always in a rush to lecture us on how to live our lives, often using role models to illustrate good social hygiene like anti-racism- sexism-homophobia, they refuse to do the same thing with the family.

    At least Hollywood seems to have done some good work in this area. e.g. Incredibles, Spy Kids.

  • RES

    How many of the folk in the “creative class” had miserable childhoods and couldn’t wait to shake that small-town dust off of their heels? Surprisingly for imaginative individuals, as AK pointed out, they can’t imagine other families being happy … and will do their best to ensure nobody else can imagine that either.

  • Joe Doakes

    You’d have more luck selling a reality TV idea of an ignorant and arrogant producer making movies no one wants to watch, then having some wholesome entertainment on my TV that isn’t 10 to 20 years old.

  • Steve

    Why would we want TV shows about tradition family values when we have much superior shows like Wife Swap.

    Um… yeah.

  • Paul Cargile

    Hollywood needs a competitor.

  • NavyMom

    I believe the only thing close to a traditional TV family today is the ABC sit-com, “The Middle”, starring Patricia Heaton of “Everybody Loves Raymond” fame. It’s a gentle family comedy about the trials and tribulations of a two-parent middle-income household in Indiana. The show features a loving relationship between Mom and Dad as they navigate the lives of their sweet if slightly odd three kids. ABC has renewed it for another season. My family and I love it.

  • Daybrother

    I worked in the music industry for a number of years. Mostly in bands and jingles. A band I was a member of in the 80s recorded for A&M. One day we had a meeting with a feature film co about appearing in one of those horroe flicks that bands are always showing up in. Since there were no other members of the band available, I went with our manager. During the meeting a music producer was introduced as the musical director of our spot. Besides his interest in opioids, he wanted to have us basically record one of our songs, re-written by him and the co, to reflect a sound that had absolutely nothing to do with us. The film guy, who called the meeting, wanted us to appear as a completely different bunch of people than we were. We passed (even after they offered me an acting contract I wasn’t qualified for) but my take home lesson was that most of the folks in Hollywood want to make films about themselves. It really doesn’t matter what reality is, they have a perception of characters and people that reflects their childhood and subsequent life. Kind of chilling if you thinki about it.

  • http://whiskeys-place.blogspot.com whiskey

    Andrew — this is a function of TV being aimed exclusively at women 18-34. The CW audience, in other words.

    I’ve got something I’ll put up in a few days (assuming a family member gets out of the hospital and I have time) — basically TV has become massively female-skewed. And women detest the idea of a traditional family and traditional men.

    The unabated popularity of vampires, sexy-dominant Alpha A-holes who are old but look young, and can keep women forever 16, no inconvenient aging, kids, career, etc. ought to say something.

    It is not really the creative class — it is the audience that advertisers want (young women) and their own attitudes. As for the lack of traditional women — yes the folks you spoke to are correct. Outside of strict Mormons, you just don’t find them. At best you will find nice, decent and intelligent women who had a parade of serial monogamy with Alpha A-holes, and “hitting the wall” of declining attractiveness self-consciously “settle” for men they have little desire for in their mid to late thirties. Female Hypergamy run riot.

    You can see this reflected in every single fantasy/soap opera — consumed by a young female audience it features endless revolving hook-ups with the new “sexy/edgy” couple centered around “forbidden love” (i.e. proxy for middling attractive woman snags an uber-Alpha).

  • Pam McC

    My husband & I see ourselves and our children as just your average, everyday American family. Just like Navymom, we love “The Middle”!
    I can’t tell how many times we have said, “Hey, that’s us!”, whenever we recognize a situation going on in that TV household. My husband likes the fact that the Dad isn’t a bumbling idiot like they usually portray on TV (if the Dad is present at all).
    I do agree with Whiskey on TV being skewed towards women. There are plenty of shows on that would never interest anyone with testosterone in my house, but don’t sell all of us females short. There are a lot more of us out there that love a good male oriented show like “Justified.” And it’s not just because Tim Oliphant is cute (doesn’t hurt, but not necessary).

  • SeeingDouble

    No, whiskey, what you describe is the remaining audience for TV thanks to concurrent execs’ decisions.

    The conscious decision made by programmers going back to the late 60s and early 70s alienated traditional audiences en masse out of a desire to reform the networks in their own liberal, elitist image. CBS decided to cancel all of its regular-folk shows when they were still in the Top 10 (Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction). Yes. There are other such decisions, even recently when CBS drove Touched by an Angel and Murder She Wrote off the air by continually shuffling their time slots. They cut off their noses to spite America’s faces in an effort to give it a facelift pleasing to them, even if it alienated proven, traditional audiences.

    Were such decisions not exhibited when TV audiences were much broader, you’re argument would have a leg to stand on. But they did, so it doesn’t.

  • http://www.lcweekly.com Margaret Evans

    Okay, I’ve written a long, thoughtful comment twice now, and it keeps disappearing. This is only a test…

  • Josh

    Where do you get this notion that because the left rejects the idea of the family it want’s to replace it with the state? The State would then just be a stand in for the family so if we reject the family on the grounds that it’s oppressive then we obviously reject the state on the same grounds. Wanting national health care or gay marriage isnt wanting to be de-individualized by the state. How do you even make that connection? It’s amazing that a conservatives notion of freedom boils down to nothing more than a choice between health care providers. That’s stunning. Seriously, where do you guys come up with this stuff? Why would liberals, who traditionally push for a less authoritarian and more permissive, pro-choice, society want to be controlled by the state? You really need to re think this. And please don’t invoke this session of congress. I had a recent debate whith someone over Joe Lieberman’s political ideology. If you think that Joe Lieberman is a liberal or speaks for liberals you don’t know what liberals really are because Joe Liberman is not a liberal. Dennis Kucinich is a liberal. Bernie sanders is a liberal. Joe Lieberman is not a liberal anything. Well maybe a liberal ass. When it comes to civil liberties liberals arent any different than libertarians hence why so many back Ron Paul.

  • Natalie

    Maybe it’s really a commoners/elites thing. See if this makes sense: people with a lot of power want to keep it, and often sincerely believe they are doing good by becoming more benevolently powerful. It seems like both liberal and conservative commoners, those who join grass roots organizations or write letters to the editor, are philosophical and think about the individual, and only get involved in political action out of strong conviction. I think elites from both conservative and liberal backgrounds tend to take more of a “nobles oblige” approach, not to mention the heights their ambition can take them to. No powerful government official wants to be legislated into obscurity. Except Ron Paul.
    From a conservative commoner’s perspective, it seems it’s really the “liberal” elites (in gov’t., NGO’s, business, media) who bring about change to the left. We see the Nanny State forming all around us, calls for mandatory public preschool, more entitlements recipients than tax payers.
    Maybe from a liberal commoner’s perspective, it’s all about the “conservative” elites. You see us Policing the World, you see the Patriot Act, you see the revolving door between Monsanto and the Federal govt.

    I think liberals during and after the sexual revolution supported changes which broke down the family, and the power elites are happy to step in and run our broken lives with state power (I’m talking trilateral commision level people here, the Gateses and such). Since regular liberals would hate to admit that returning to stable traditional families would make people healthier and improve the economy, they seem to tend to support having the government step in and help people, on a case-by-case basis of course.

    Conservatives seem to fall to the temptation to support state power when they become eligible for medicare, or if they farm on a large scale, or if they are blindly idealistic about legislating morality or good manners (if something is bad, ban it). I often want to chide supposedly conservative people for falling into this trap, because conservatism ought to operate on principle of subsidiarity (ooh! look that one up, it’s awesome).
    One exception to all this, I do see liberal grassroots folks trying to use the judicial system to get what they want. Now that is nightmarish state power–taking away policiy decisions from elected representatives and giving it to lifetime-appointees.

  • Natalie

    By the way, as a 30 year old with a happy marriage, 5 kids, and a frugal lifestyle, I can attest that there are almost no TV shows written with me or my friends in mind. The Duggars are probably supposed to serve as a modern-day sideshow, but my mom calls me over to see how lovingly they treat each other and my kids think we should use their buddy system and get a bus. As a practicing Catholic seeking true wisdom, I decided years ago we should cancel cable. It’s like Brave New World is coming true, and my whole extended family belongs on a reservation. We don’t go in for the Feelies.

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  • David


    You wrote a movie about my wife? Now THAT is something I want to see!

    I have a lovely wife and 3 daughters. She has dedicated her life to supporting and nurturing us. She homeschools the kids, she buys locally grown and organic natural foods, nothing processed. We are very active in our protestant church (sorry we are not mormons whiskey).

    I SAY that I would LOVE to see your movie about “woman who had won the adoring love of her husband and children by dedicating her life to caring for them and their home.” But in reality I don’t need to. It is exactly what I live every day at home.

    God Bless you & your work Andrew.

  • Greg

    Try Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. Both display a range of families, but there is a lot positive there. Coach Taylor and Adam Braverman are both smart, attentive fathers and have very stable families. Adam, on Parenthood, is such a good father that his siblings and even his father come to him for guidance with their own families. Like I said, there are a range on both shows, so you do have broken marriages and single parents, but they are often compared unfavorably to the stable marriages at the center. The common link may very well be Jason Katims, who runs both shows and, I believe, developed both properties for television.

  • ted

    What’s a “Hollywood”?

  • Bonnie_

    Actually, “Medium” is the best family show on television….that I can’t watch with my kids. The themes are far too adult for the under-fifteen set, but the family of Allison and Joe Dubois is one of the best portrayals I’ve ever seen of a loving, struggling, wonderful family. Joe Dubois (played by handsome Jake Weber) is a great dad and husband. He’s brilliant, he’s loving, he gets exasperated, he never stops being a parent. Short of “The Incredibles,” I’ve never watched a better family dynamic than “Medium.”

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  • Mr. B

    The destruction of the family shows (and thus the family) started in the 1960s. I remember shows like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Nanny and the Professor, and the Doris Day Show. All of them were about single-parent families. While the shows seemed innocent enough, they set the stage for normalizing single-parent families as the norm. The disfunctional families were just the next step. Shows like Glee (I love the music) are another step; normalize everything and further demeaning conservatives and Christian/middle American values.

  • Pinky

    Andrew, if you want proof that liberals are gullible, you’ve found it. You’ll never hear a conservative say the following:

    “Conservatives want to bring back the 1950′s. Life isn’t like Leave it to Beaver any more. It was never like that.”

    Conservatives are well-adjusted people who understand that things don’t always work out for the best, but try to make things better. Liberals are still crushed by the failure of reality to live up to the standards of some (fairly silly) TV shows. There’s no arguing with people when they’re angry, and these people are angry all the time, exasperated that the world doesn’t measure up to their childhood fantasies.

  • Mom to 8

    I’m a Catholic homschooling mom of seven kids, with number 8 on the way. Between taking care of my husband, kids, and home, who has time for TV? If we do find time for a show we watch things like Dick Van Dyke and The Andy Griffith Show. I gave up on modern television programs long ago.

  • Jeffrey

    I can’t stand shows like “Leave it to Beaver”. The fact that there are people that want to take us back to preachy, annoying, cheesy, bland, and pedophilic shows like that that just represent the worst of the 50s frightens me. Live in the present, not the past. That mentality definitely doesn’t get people under 40, that’s for sure.

  • Jeffrey

    It is oppressive. Look at them. They’re robotic.

  • Jeffrey

    Morally challenged? Just because I don’t like Leave it to Beaver? Nobody under 40 should like garbage like that. Are all of you afraid of modern TV? Do all of you want to take us back to the 50s? I hope not.

  • Bourgoismithsonian

    And you’re a cultural chauvinist, who refuses to acknowledge that how others live their lives is none of your business to shape or care about, unless it affects you directly in a way that infringes upon your freedom and exceeds theirs; so if you can’t, like the rest of us reasonably intelligent people, shut your eyes and ignore television IF it bothers you or impacts your life in a way you feel is negative, you need to be rehabilitated for an addiction to media access, rather than trying to hijack and control whatever entertainment you deem to be centers of public influence. If you think everyone is unanimously marching off to hell, you’d better leave off and save your own neck. I, for one (regardless of what you may have read in VARIETY, of all places, in 1999, in your snug yuppie coffee house writing for the bloodsucking Hollywood industry of brainless commodity cinema), think this was not a decision to misrepresent or undermine the American family, nor to exclude and shun the most dignified, moral members of society. Rather, I believe this was realizing that a lot of women have jobs now, and don’t even know how to cook, while men (YES, MEN; HETERONORMATIVE MARRIED MEN WITH CHILDREN) are learning to cook their own dinners, and even their families’. They also recognized that any family that appeared like this in the 50s, 60s, or 70s (as appearance was the common object of behaving according to such stringently oppressive social rules), suffered the most grievous conflict and scarring under its nauseatingly placid face. Therefore, rather than frightening all of the families with real American problems and real human identities outside of their families into the brittle belief that such is strange and immoral, the decision was made to represent people who in general don’t know anything and have a lot of problems. Is this accurate to the average American family? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just an easy answer, because everyone just accepts it or moans about turning back the clock. Is it responsible for the way things are now? No, but your mindset largely is, in holding us back in the dark ages of cave wisdom. I’ll tell you one thing–PBS is the only non-cable television station worth watching right now. I don’t think it’s because they’re public; I think it’s because they’re scrounging NOT to be bought out by corporate behemoths and highly-affluent elite interest groups. And for all the garbage and advertising that goes on, I wouldn’t pay for cable, even if it were five dollars a month with taxes. Final word: if you look to television sitcoms for model behavior or validation of family life, you are in a sad, uneducated state, my friend. Humanity didn’t have television for most of its long, and varied life, and it certainly didn’t hit the pinnacle when it designed it.