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Family Viewing 

At the movies and on TV, the changing face of American domestic life

Wednesday, Feb 22 2006

By any sociological yardstick applied in the 1950s and early 1960s, when boomers were spawned by the millions in spanking-new nuclear families, the two-plus-two domestic unit I grew up in was a model of normality. No divorce, alcoholism or abuse lurked in our closet. My parents were two hard-working people en route to the middle class, doing their best to raise their kids for better futures than they’d been able to command for themselves. Like most families of the pre-therapy era, ours came unburdened by any emotional or psychological vocabulary. I knew no one whose folks sat up nights mulling whether their offspring’s self-esteem was up to snuff, or whether the family was “communicating” adequately. They were all too busy putting food on the table and getting on our cases to mind our manners, and I for one cared about that less than getting the silent treatment. In my family, displays of strong feeling were discouraged and, when they burst through anyway, were put down to moodiness, and those expressing themsent to their room. Silence was my enemy, which may be why I never saw a quiet space I didn’t want to fill and why the inner workings of families came to seem to me at once seductive (because they were out of my reach) and full of mystery (because I didn’t understand how they operated).

I’ve never been persuaded by the argument that writers come from more defective families than most. If you’ve read Raymond Carver or V.S. Pritchett, or have seen your share of independent movies about small-town proletarians suffering in quiet desperation, or just talked to your friends, you know that we’re all woefully incomplete people with our own psychic holes to fill. The difference is that writers get to put their neuroses down on paper, and with hindsight I’m convinced that the don’t-ask-don’t-tell school of emotional discourse that prevailed in our house led circuitously to my analyzing storytelling for a living, with a marked preference for alarming tales of domestic life gone wrong. Although my many career shifts seemed at the time to just happen, in retrospect it was no accident that I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on images of family in television entertainment. Or that I jettisoned an academic career in cultural studies, which appeared to me a dry negation rather than an embrace of the magic of stories, to become first a TV reviewer and then a movie critic for the alternative press.

But long before that, before we even had a television, I was reading and moviegoing my way into a lifelong yearning to plumb the mysteries of family life, which boiled down to the difference between my own prosaic family and that of my mother’s best friend — a noisily expressive clan who bickered and fought but loved to be around one another because they enjoyed a climate of unconditional acceptance. (If our family was Ordinary People, theirs was Fanny and Alexander.) At age 12, entering my sad-sack phase, I walked around with a copy of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss clutched to my nonexistent bosom, for no more literary reason than that its enchantingly tragic heroine, Maggie Tulliver, had dark hair like mine and an older brother who was as willfully inaccessible to her as mine was to me. I was a sucker for Dickens’ sentimentally polarized families too, reveling in Tiny Tim’s poor-but-honest parents in A Christmas Carol even as I grieved for the neglected offspring of the charity freak Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. While other kids wept over the fate of Old Yeller at the movies, or drooled over the doe-eyed pooch in Lady and the Tramp, I soaked up the protective human love in which these lucky hounds basked. And while my girl pals pined for Snow White to get her prince, I hoped the daft girl would see sense and shack up in that cozy cottage with the Seven Dwarfs, a much less uncertain fate than setting up home in some drafty castle with a tall, dark stranger she barely knew. I suffered through the terrifying kiddie B movies that played Saturday mornings at our local fleapit (wishfully named the Ritz) only because my older sibling gruffly deigned to have his sleeve clutched when maggots took possession of dead bodies. And I will always remember Moby-Dick not for the set piece when the whale shot up the head of steam that did in Gregory Peck, but because it was the one and only time my dad took me, just the two of us, to what was then known as “the pictures.”

click to flip through (4) Dysfunction through the decades: The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Dysfunction through the decades: The Magnificent Ambersons

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When we finally got our own TV, I glued myself to the jolly American shows that peppered the early BBC schedules — I Married Joan, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Lassie — and marvel at their chipper togetherness, which jibed not at all with my own amorphous unease. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, television, the quintessential domestic medium, got busy fashioning a benign, if utterly fanciful, image of American domesticity (Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet) that reinforced postwar prescriptions for a perfectly consumerist, middle-class family. It couldn’t last: By the time I began my own academic study of television families in the late 1970s, that giddy complacency had already given way — in the face of rapidly accelerating rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse, and the long-overdue demands of feminists for equality at home and work — to a pervasive unease that expressed itself in comedy series like All in the Family and One Day at a Time, in fractious and fractured families where single parents were legion and kids declared war on their elders. Meanwhile, a golden family past bathed in nostalgia was popping up in shows like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, to assure viewers that things hadn’t always been this bad. The remedy for the distressed families of the present was no longer a better fridge or washing machine, but a few sessions with a sage psychotherapist. That dreary prime-time genre, the TV movie, sprang up to medicalize the supposedly new pathologies of domestic life: the teenager who won’t eat because her parents are fighting, the child molester who was abused himself, the alcoholic mother whose kids run off the rails — there was nothing a devoted therapist or social worker couldn’t cure with time and patience. By contrast with the troubled hearth, in comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and dramatic series like Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues, the go-to environment for happy ersatz families and warm primary communities was the workplace. That this, in the age of corporate homogenization, was yet another wishful fantasy has been brilliantly satirized in the series The Office, which makes short work of the notion that workplaces provide the nurturing environments so lacking in many households. Maybe that’s why this wildly inventive show, in both its British and American incarnations, has remained a cult phenomenon, while the anemic Friends — with its comfy doofus-and-dits clan suspended in limbo between home and work — was a smash hit for years.

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