Thursday, July 15, 2010

Family dramas

So as I mentioned in my return-from-the-dead post yesterday, I've been watching Big Love. While it was a bit of a slow start, I'm quite impressed with the series. It isn't as good as the other HBO flagship series like The Wire or Deadwood, but it is totally worth watching. For the unfamiliar with the premise, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a dedicated father and husband who has lived the American dream, rising from dirt poor origins to become an entrepreneurial success, owning two big-box hardware stores large enough to compete with Home Depot. He is earnest, honest, handsome and everyone's stereotypical image of the all-American dad.

Also, he's a polygamist.

That much, I'm sure everyone has gleaned from the show's publicity: Bill is married to Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nikki (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), with whom he has seven children and one more (at the end of season one) on the way. The three wives each have their own house, which all share a common backyard. Bill divides his nights between them, and they all eat meals as one family.

The brilliance of Big Love is the way in which it builds our sympathy for Bill and his family, and establishes the anti-polygamist Mormons as bigoted and narrow-minded. Bill and Barb et al live modern lives in beautiful homes with all the amenities of the twenty-first century, lives set in contradistinction to the Mormon fundamentalist polygamist community headed by patriarch and "prophet" Roman Grant, played with chilling sleaze by the ever-amazing Harry Dean Stanton. The traditionalists live veritable premodern lives on the "Compound," a dusty and ramshackle sprawl set well apart from the Utah suburbs Bill inhabits.

The creepy, cultish fundamentalists, from whom Bill can never entirely disassociate himself (second wife Nikki is Roman's daughter), provide an ever-present reminder of the inescapably misogynistic and exploitative nature of polygamy. When we first meet Roman, he has just affianced himself to his umpteenth wife Rhonda, a fifteen-year old who seems serenely blissful at the prospect of marrying the septuagenarian "prophet." That Roman takes it as his god-given due to exploit Rhonda's obvious youth and naïvety makes the skin crawl, but then we also realize that Margene, Bill's youngest wife, is little more than a teenager herself, and is as slavishly devoted to Bill as the women of the Compound are to Roman and the principle of plural marriage.

At any rate, I've watched season one and am into season two. In my general sketch for a book about HBO, I have a chapter titled "Family Dramas," and vague notes about focussing the chapter on The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Big Love. As is the nature of such outlines, I had little idea what I wanted to write when I jotted it down—but it seemed appropriate to talk at some length about those series and their subversion of the American nuclear family mythos.

One season into Big Love, I'm starting to get some traction, though I'm a ways off from putting together anything of substance. The starting point I'm currently working from is the way in which television has influenced and indeed facilitated the popular conception of the nuclear family. Though American conservatives tend to root many of their arguments against such bêtes noir as gay marriage in their assumption of the nuclear family's innate naturalness, it is in fact a relatively recent concept. The "nuclear family" became a normative concept during the early years of the Cold War, concomitant with the growth of suburbia and television's rise to prominence as the primary medium of entertainment (a rise itself facilitated by a newly affluent white collar suburban middle class, who bought television sets at an exponential rate in the mid-late 1950s).

So without belabouring my point (which is itself admittedly somewhat speculative until I manage do some proper research on it), our popular conceptions of "family" owe as much to television as anything else. And HBO's family dramas offer trenchant critiques of blah blah blah, etc.

ANYWAY ... that being said, what I'm finding interesting right now is that the genre of "family drama" is actually quite rare on television. There really haven't been all that many. Seriously—think about it for a moment and try to come up with a list of one-hour dramas that have focused primarily on one or more families. It's a more difficult question that you would initially think, isn't it?

Now take a moment and list all of the television comedies about family you can think of. Ah, there we are! Perhaps the question should be to try thinking of all the sitcoms not about family in one fashion or another. Even when they're not focused on biological families per se, sitcoms are almost invariably about families of different stripes—be they the friendships of Friends, the barflies of Cheers, or the workplace families of a host of other shows.

So here's my two-part question to my small but devoted readership: (1) What one-hour family dramas can you think of? (2) What gives? Why is comedy the primary medium for investigating family relationships?


Stephen said...

I came up with three family-dramas off the top of my head: Brothers and Sisters on ABC, Parenthood on NBC and good ol' Seventh Heaven, but I guess that could also be classified as a show that's main thematic element is faith, Christian faith in particular.

I think the reason that we see so many more sitcoms about family life rather than dramas is because generally, everyone has some issues with their families, whether they feel they aren't able to relate to their parents, a divorce has occurred, they don't get along with their siblings. These issues don't cast the family in a negative light, by any means, but people don't generally consider their family a wholly positive entity.

Casting familial problems in a humourous light makes them easier to accept, and I think watching shows like Modern Family, All In the Family or (god forbid) House of Payne not only gives people an emotional anchor, the feeling that other people out there, even if they are fictional, experience some of the same problems they do, as well as makes these problems easier to digest if they're portrayed in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Daniel Martin said...

Hi Chris,

I too got around to watching Big Love recently. In fact, I'm just finishing the first season. We made a strange choice to watch The Sopranos (also finally getting around to it for the first time) and Big Love consecutively, and I've been struck by some very odd similarities. Both families seem desperate to hold onto some kind of normalcy despite external, criminal pressures that they are also intricately produced by. While I find both series incredibly thought-provoking, I still wonder why the family drama in each needs to be structured by criminal activity. Certainly, there are differences, but the constitutive structure in each drama reinforces a sense that the "alternative" (for lack of a better word) family dynamic always emerges both within and without the Law.

Regarding your question, would Picket Fences from a long while back count as a family drama? I don't remember much about the show.

queen B said...

I jotted down a short list of family dramas that I remembered: My So-Called Life, Eight is Enough, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, I'll Fly Away, thirtysomething, Life Goes On, and of course, Family.

A lot of nighttime soaps have been family dramas, too. Would you count Dirty Sexy Money, Dynasty, The Colbys, Falcon Crest, and Dallas?

It's a weird mishmash, I know--period pieces, the absurdly wealthy, and a lot of them are old shows. And none of them are represent anything remotely close to my family.

I'm gonna have a longer think about your second question...

Chris in NF said...

Stephen: I think you're right about audiences preferring families being funny rather than serious. It's sort of a truism that all families are crazy or bizarre in their own way; I imagine we don't like seeing family issues presented in a serious light, as this is something we all deal with on a daily basis anyway.

Also, I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that one-hour dramas are plot-driven and sitcoms are character-driven ... hence the bias toward procedurals like cop, courtroom, and medical dramas.

Daniel: First, good to hear from you. How's things?

Second--Picket Fences! Good call. My own list right now includes Brothers and Sisters, Gilmore Girls, and Dirty Sexy Money ... and thanks to Stephen's reminders, Parenthood and Seventh Heaven. My gf suggested Friday Night Lights, which I also think is a valid entry, though it edges into the High School genre (though if we consider "Friends" a family-based sitcom, as I suggest, does the highschool drama then qualify as alternative family? If so, does Buffy qualify?)

Chris in NF said...

B: your comment came in as I was responding. Good list! I'd certainly count those nighttime soaps. And soap operas generally hadn't occurred to me -- they're always about family, aren't they? Which then leads to the question, why are we comfortable with daytime family drama but not primetime?

D.H. Nevins said...

This is an interesting topic. I’m coming up empty when trying to think of family dramas that haven’t already been mentioned. The tight-knit community of carnies in the HBO series Carnivale (including a highly dysfunctional family of Hooch dancers) and any families that are followed in today’s myriad of reality shows are my only contributions here.
As for your second question, it all comes down to ratings and demand. Your typical family comedy generally appeals to a wider audience base than a family drama. A comedy, if relatively clean, can be enjoyed by the whole family together. Additionally, if it’s based on common themes, like typical family antics, a viewing family can all relate and enjoy the jokes in the show with each other. This leads to a wide audience base, and allows for use of a prime time window.

Family dramas, however, are usually geared towards a more specific audience (adults), and therefore a smaller pool. Some exceptions would be Little House on the Prairie and the Anne of Green Gables mini-series. The family dramas that are written only for adults must also compete with other mature-themed shows, like psychological or medical thrillers, detective/cop shows, reality tv, sci-fi, etc. Each of these shrinks the available audience base and makes it more difficult for a family drama to make the cut, so to speak.

Fred said...

Chris would you place Simpsons in your family drama list? I've always felt that while Simpsons is set within the framework of a family, it really operates in the public spehere of life--the Simpsons as a family only ever seem to operate as one when forces in the public sphere threaten them, otherwise they more or less function independently of one another.

Also I see Bart as the poster child for anti-Oedipus. There's no siding with Homer by Bart. Bart also flaunts the logos of Homer, although Homer's logos (those wonderful pithy sayings by the bald headed man) are more a ironic commentary on American society and social mores.

But if your goal was to compare and contrast families, Simpsons sure has a boatload of contrasts, from Apu and Manjula, to Skinner and his mother, to Flanders' family, to the many other families Bart and Lisa encounter. Strangely, I've don't recall a gay family in Simpsons--maybe the Simpsons as a show are radical in appearance only.

Andrew said...

i would add the CW's distinct brand of teen family drama, like the OC, gossip girl, one tree hill, smallville. more high school-y than family drama, but they still all have parent characters which aren't relegated to minor roles, which always confused me considering their audience...

i'm interested in this sitcom/character drama/plot binary. that does seem deceptively simple yet oddly insightful, but two of the best shows might contradict:

the wire is clearly structured as an elaborate mapping of institutional failure on the scale of an entire metropolis, but its characters are what DRIVE the show. what do people talk about when they talk about the wire? omar. snoop. mcnulty. lestor. kima. bunk. daniels. bubbles. bunny.

(and you're probably thinking, 'what about ___???' exactly.)

on the other hand, is arrested development driven by its absurd plot or absurd characters? i would tend to think the plot comes first... a delicious pretzel of convoluted plot points sprinkled with salty characters.

and why do we prefer to watch families as comedy rather than drama? i'm not convinced that we want to watch them in light zany situations rather than "a serious light" because we have our our own serious family realities to deal with. quite the opposite, maybe it's because families aren't really that big a deal? sure, we all have our problems, and a particularly bad family can be hell, but the family pales in comparison to larger institutional issues, where a serial drama excels. sitcoms need a tight, confined 'situation' to continually riff on from every angle - families and alternative/workplace families provide that box. they don't provide the material for a larger drama, unless combined with let's say, the mafia. and maybe it's just me, but i cringe at anything to do with "mommy/daddy issues" anymore unless it's just for laughs.

and to fred: simpsons is not a drama (though i have choked up on a few occasions), and they have dealt with 'gay issues' on numerous occasions, often quite progressively for a network show on fox...

Chris in NF said...

Andrew, Danielle: it's interesting that you both mention HBO series as exceptions here, given that these days all of my television generalizations are tacitly opposed to what HBO does. It's almost always the exception -- and what it does to typical television genres rewrites the rules.

And Andrew, you're spot on with your observation about Arrested Development -- a show that is also an exception, and was good enough to have been an HBO series. ;-)

Six Pigeons said...

First off, a couple of 1-hour family dramas that have not yet been mentioned: Breaking Bad and Nip/Tuck. I think Weeds also deserves a mention, even though it is served up in 30-minute episodes.

I think many people consider plots based exclusively on family problems to be trite and/or mainly suitable for women/children/teens. The vast majority of the 1-hour dramas that have been listed here (Brothers and Sisters, Parenthood, Gilmore Girls...) have a markedly larger female viewership. The term "family drama" alone is enough to drive away a significant portion of the male viewership, much like the term "soap opera."

The exceptions that we see to this rule (Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, Breaking Bad...) are definitely family-driven programs, but they are more likely to be defined by their other dominant themes (mafia, plastic surgery, drug production) than by the term family. This allows an audience that would normally eschew such fare to partake without feeling less masculine in the process.