The 1990s and the new millenium
II. THE NON-TRADITIONAL FAMILY AND THE EXTENDED FAMILY
Just prior to Roseanne coming onto the scene, Full House (1987-1995) hit prime time Fridays, and introduced a very loose definition of extended family members as major characters (Internet). This evolution of the sitcom family, paralleling the growing extended American family, may have played a part in the show’s instant success, which quickly climbed to being a number 1 television market leader. The show focused on the Tanner family. Family being used loosely, due to it being comprised of both blood and non-blood related individuals, who resided under the same roof. It not only emphasized the non-nuclear and extended family, but also a further distortion of gender roles of the traditional 1950s family, such as the home versus professional obligations. Full House also continued the single-parent/ single-family concept which Jackie, from Roseanne, had begun to entangle and bring to light within the television sitcom.
Danny Tanner, portrayed by comedian Bob Saget, was the head of the Tanner household (Brooks 381). A single father, who’s wife had passed away suddenly, Danny had been thrust into single parenthood, which was becoming a popular rising phenomenon in American culture at the time (U.S. Census). Though this sitcom emphasized single-parenting, the nuclear family had been present prior to the death of the mother, this being noted in frequent dialogue between all cast members (Internet). As the single father of the home, he inherited both the responsibilities of the mother and father. Originally employed as a sportscaster and later promoted to morning news anchor, Danny was the chief finance supplier for the family. Additionally, Danny Tanner, both out of constraint and part personality, embraced the duties which had been set by the wives of the 1950s. His particular specialties were cleaning, cooking, and maintaining a proper and organized home. It was a rare occasion to find an episode without Danny Tanner reorganizing an already organize room, dusting the shelves, or emphasizing the importance of cleanliness to his daughters.
Rather than inviting a feminine influence to help him, not only with the “wifely” duties he had inherited, but to aid him with his three daughters, Danny invited his brother-in-law, Jesse Katsopolis, more commonly known as ‘Uncle Jesse’, portrayed by John Stamos, and Joey Gladstone, a close friend of Danny’s, portrayed by Dave Coulier (Brooks 381). Danny’s intention for inviting his brother–in-law and friend to live with his family was to help Danny with the girls. However, the objective wasn’t necessarily met to the expected standards. More often than not, the episodes revolved around the two “father figures” as the source of many of the comical problems. Problems included employment, relationships, and accidentally misguiding the Tanner girls by unknowingly giving them poor advice or help. This though still created a loving and strong family environment for the American audience to enjoy.
Jesse Katsopolis and Joey Gladstone were employed as well, both sharing the traditional male/husband roles. With one a musician and the other an actor, financial support was infrequent at times, shifting much of their support in the “wifely” duties arena. Both attempted to share in the motherly tasks which were needed around the home. Some of these tasks included the “talks” with the girls which fortunately for the audience, but unfortunately for the daughters, many times resulted in loving yet awkward situations.
Unlike Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, Full House took the viewer to not only the location of the home, but frequently included the television station which Danny was employed at, the schools and day care centers which centered around the children of the show, the miscellaneous employment locations of Uncle Jesse and Joey, as well as the random parks and other fun places Danny and the other adults took the children to.
Also unlike the 1950s sitcom the show was taken out of the small, all white neighborhoods context and was placed in San Francisco, a city of many ethnicities and numerous cultures. Many friends of both the adults and the children were frequently minorities, including co-workers of Becky and Danny and Michelle’s best friend, Teddy.
The daughters, D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle were the heart of the show. Actresses Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Mary Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen portrayed the daughters for the entire duration of the show. The topics which the girls brought before the comical and unprecedented set of parental units, had evolved to coincide with the times. These topic included guns, drugs and teen sex. Often times the single father parenting came to light as the girls dealt with these topics. One memorable quote for Danny Tanner to his daughters was “HEY. I don’t yell, I guide” (Internet). These three girls had little to no feminine influence, until Becky Donaldson, Danny’s morning co-host, began dating Jesse. Their dating eventually led to the couple’s marriage. Once married, the couple did not move out of the Tanner household. Rather they reconstructed the attic into a small apartment, where they lived and eventually raised their family. With being the only woman of the household, Becky began shifting the total male influence of the show to a more feminine atmosphere for the girls as they grew and entered the adolescent stage of their lives. Not only having close relationships with the three Tanner girls, but Jessie and Becky continued the close relationship with their own children. Separating the Katsopolis family from the Tanner family became the first sense of a traditional nuclear family in comparison to the families of the 1950s. However, this small nuclear family was only a segment of the larger extended, non-traditional family of the Tanner household.
Full House began a popular trend of showing single parent families and the struggles that came with the position, thus aiding the issuance of the “Era of Friends”.
The renowned sitcom, Friends (1994-2004), was a break through for popular television (Brooks 377). The show was comprised of six adults, all close friends, who completely broke the traditional concept of the television family. Compared to the families of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, only two of these friends were blood related. The remaining friends were a compilation of friends and roommates who slowly became a clique of close best friends. Though very little blood relation, and all being close in age, they seemed to have adapted the traditional roles of the traditional family.
At this time, the mid-1990s, divorce, marriage and lifestyles were redefining themselves. Compared to the 1970s, 10% fewer individuals would marry. In 1994, only 61% of the population would be married. Of the remaining 39% unmarried individuals, 9% were divorced, unlike the 3% divorced in 1970, only 7% would be widowed, improving from the 9% in 1970, and 23% of individuals would never marry, compared to the 1970s, where at that time, 23% of individuals would never marry. In addition, the average age of those individuals marrying had increased from 21.3 years old to 25.6 years old (Census). With marriage under such scrutiny and “reform”, the relation it created with the American people was to be expected. By joining a group of friends and creating a family role for each of them, Friends began tackling the social issues and stereotypes of America.
Chandler Bing, portrayed by Matthew Perry, had a tendency to inherit the father figure of the show (Brooks 378). He was often times the calmer friend of the group, and more responsible of the men within the sitcom. He was also the individual with the steadiest income, though it was a frequent joke about his employment as an executive, specializing in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration, a job which none of the friends understood. Later he did chance his employment and moved to advertising and public relations, continuing the more popular idea of changing careers later in life.
Monica Geller Bing, portrayed by Courtney Cox Arquette, was the palpable mother of the sitcom (Brooks 378). She was also employed, and over the sitcom’s ten seasons held positions in several restaurants as a waitress or chef. However she more than welcomed the responsibilities of the traditional mother in addition to her job. Cleaning, cooking and organizing were her passions in life. Even after marriage, the “wifely” duties and responsibilities took precedence over the relationship many times. In the series finale of the sitcom, Monica cries over how well she led the transformation of her friends into clean and organized people, who would never place a glass on a table without a coaster.
Joey Tribbiani, portrayed by Matt LeBlanc, easily undertook the role of the child (Brooks 378). Though living in his own apartment, he relied on Monica’s refrigerator for food and often times her couch for comfort. He was slow in learning and catching onto anything, as in the time when he attempted to learn French. The end result was the character being utterly confused and suggested as mentally incapable. In addition to being a slow learner, Joey Tribbiani often times found himself in trouble, such as the Thanksgiving in which he unwittingly got his head stuck inside the turkey, Monica was saving for dinner later that day. His choice of employment was acting, making his forgetfulness and often lazy attitude contradict the necessary attributes he needed to actively pursue his career.
Rachel Green, portrayed by the popular Jennifer Aniston, also assumed the role of the child (Brooks 378). Her “adult-childhood” however was different than Joey Tribbiani’s. Rachel Green moved out of her wealthy parents’ home and financial stability in the pilot episode of the sitcom, after leaving her fiancé at the alter. She had no concept of responsibility and accountability, with her only marketable skill being shopping at Bloomingdales. Over the course of the following ten years, Rachel would grow and learn to live on her own, retain a job, and eventually raise a child. By the end of the series, Rachel Green had jobs offers from the top clothing retailers in the world, which led the plot of the series finale and her moving to France.
Ross Gellar, portrayed by David Schwimmer, and Phoebe Buffay, portrayed by Lisa Kudrow, assumed the roles of the extended family members (Brooks 378). Financially stable and responsible, both individuals lived by themselves as well as lead distinctively separate lives in addition to the lives of the “core” family members. Many times situations and events in the lives of these two were stories and tales the two individuals relayed to the rest of the “family”, rather than experiencing the actual events in the sitcom. Nevertheless, these two characters continued to carry a sense of extended family into the family/ group of friends. The unusual nature of this relationship is Ross being Monica’s true brother, acts more as an advisory third party many times, rather than her brother. However his sense of protection for his younger sister, is still present, as in when he found out about Monica and Chandler, and making sure Chandler knew never to hurt his baby sister.
The interaction between the characters was both comical and loving, as many of the sitcoms of the 1990s. However, the atmosphere of New York City enticed the fast pace of the show and the continual active atmosphere of the events which went on during the episodes. There was never a dull moment, with events such as movie stars shooting a film nearby, trips to the beach, adventures on mass transportation, and interactions with eccentric strangers on almost an episodic basis.
Similar to all television shows and the sitcoms of the 1950s, much of the show was set in only a few places. For the sitcom Friends, it was one of three primary locations; Monica’s apartment, Joey’s apartment or the coffee café. However, unlike the sitcoms of the 1950s, Friends frequently went from one end of New York City to the other, and many times across the country, and for a wedding across the Atlantic. The show often visited all six friends at their places of employment, including Ralph Lauren Headquarters, NYC’s history museum, and several theaters and television studios.
Not only was the show ground breaking by the individuals and the roles each character undertook, but the topics and presentation of the topics were ground breaking.
It was typical to have conversations on sex, pornography, incest, transvestites, and impotence. For an example the following is the conversation when one of the friends asked the group if they’d have to choose between either sex or food;
Chandler: Seriously. Answer faster.
Monica: I’m sorry, sweetie. When I said “sex” I wasn’t thinking of sex with you.
Chandler: It’s like a big hug.
Phoebe: Ross, how about you? Sex or food?
Phoebe: What about sex or dinosaurs?
Ross: My God, it’s like Sophie’s Choice.
Phoebe: Joey, if you had to give up sex or food, which would you pick?
Joey: I don’t know it’s too hard.
Rachel: Come on, you have to answer.
Joey: Okay… sex…No, food…No, uh, sex…No… food… I want both! I want girls on bread! (Internet)
Conversations also included topics to aid in the story lines of Chandler and his transgender father, Phoebe and her surrogate pregnancy with her brother’s children, and the off again on again, two weddings and a child relationship of Rachael and Ross. Issues brought forth by the ground breaking sitcom Friends brought to the table were never considered options during the 1950s.
There were issue similarities between the sitcoms of the 1950s and Friends however as well. One popular issue was pets. In the 1950s, the children would bring in dogs and cats and once in a while turtles as pets to beg the parents to allow them to keep them. Friends covered this issue as well, though adding a new twist to the traditional scenario. Ross brought home a capuchin monkey which loved and terrorized the family of friends.
The characters of friends used family as an environment to discuss actual family issues, thus we begin to see the replacement of the relative with the friends as family, which the sitcom Cheers slowly began, Friends popularized, and then Will & Grace immortalized.
Will & Grace
A sitcom which dared to challenge the status quo by splitting every rule and proper etiquette, broke onto the television scene in 1998 (Internet). Will & Grace starred Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, and Sean Hayes as the frenzied and vivacious group of friends, Will Truman, Grace Adler, Karen Walker, and Jack McFarland (Internet). This show not only broke the mold for family, but as well, the social and cultural standards which had previously been set by even the sitcom Friends.
At this time, cases were being heard across the country for gay civil rights. Amongst the cases included the 1996 case of Romer vs. Evans This case was in reference to an amendment to the Colorado State Constitution preventing any city, town, or county of Colorado to take any type of legal etc., action to protect gay civil rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the amendment. And on March 4, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Services, This ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court stated that all federal laws pertaining to sexual harassment also applied to same sex harassment situations (Wikipedia). With these and other important rulings, gay civil liberties were being examined and scrutinized in every possible situation. Thus, the possible explanation for the popularity of the sitcom Will & Grace.
To begin, we have Will Truman, the single gay man, who takes most of the responsibility for himself and his friends. His fatherly attitude often times calms, or to the least extent suggests reasons, the group of friends. Though cruising the gay bar and picking up guys was where he spent much of his time, he held a steady job with good income, and often times provided the father figure support for the group. One of the ground breaking issues Will brought to the sitcom and the family environment was closet homosexuality. Pretending to be straight, he began dating Grace in college. After meeting, who would be his best friend, Jack, Will breaks it off with Grace to explore his closeted sexuality.
Grace Adler, though at times eccentric, holds the feminine parental support for the group. Her ‘motherly’ influence parallels that of a young and learning mother. Unlike previous motherly images, Grace is a vibrant and many times self interested, ensuring her life happiness first before she attends to the others. Her lessons in learning to support a family of friends, help her grow and mature as an adult. After the rough year when Will broke it off to explore his sexuality, the two re-met and became best friends, in spite of their prior relationship.
Prior relationships, however are common ground for the pair of individuals who exude childishness. Jack and Karen are the best friends of Will and Grace. These two individuals, though adults, undertake childish roles. Simply by watching the way they act, the image of a child is easily seen. Their logic towards life and relationships often mirror their childish tendancies as well. Logic for Jack and Karen included alcohol and sex;
“You say potato, I say vodka,” “Ladies and gentlemen, fresh from 45 minutes of butt-robics, I give you my ass,” “Lesson for today: Though the eyes are the window to the soul, the zipper is the window to the underwear,” and “Well, howdy, domestic pardner” (Internet).
Both Jack and Karen rarely have consistency in their lives and are flamboyant and cling to their waning youthfulness. For them, Karen’s incarcerated husband and Jack’s sexually charge and flamboyant son, from an “oops” relationship, are the most consistency they have in their lives, besides Will and Grace.
The parental units, found within Will and Grace, grounded their friends. Many times, within the show, it was joked that Will and Grace were married, “sexless lovers” (Internet). Jack and Karen were constantly on the verge of continual youthfulness. However, unlike parental units who simply gave advise, Will and Grace received advice and support as well, though many times unconventionally.
Jack: Will, you’re going to be a great dad because for the past 10 years you’ve been a great one to me.
Will: Wanna stop for ice cream?
Will: Want to go to a bar and look at hot guys?
Jack: I love you daddy. (Internet)
For the duration of the series, the romantic relationships and friendship of the four friends was where the show found its core. Will and his romances, Grace and her white knights, and Jack and Karen, both with their boy toys. Most of the topics that this show brought to the American people helped these storylines along. Topics that were dealt with included homosexuality, same-sex marriage, same-sex parenting, and one night stands.
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Until next time,
Peace, Love and Pandas!