From The Barones (Everybody Loves Raymond) to the Gallaghers (Shameless) there’s no denying that modern television has an obsession with atypical households. Our screens are consumed by a collection of families who lie, are envious and at times, actively seek to ruin each other’s lives.
Long gone are the days of The Brady Bunch, which depicted a family so polite to one another that they could be mistaken for strangers. The illusion of the ‘perfect’ family has well and truly been shattered in today’s pop culture with the likes of Charlie Schmidt (Two and a Half Men) and Gabrielle Solis (Desperate Housewives).
In 1992, George W. Bush Sr. stated during the presidential election that it was his goal to ‘strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. Bush was, of course, shunted by the contentious Bill Clinton, who proved himself to be the most dysfunctional of patriarchs.
And with that America, the home of television, chose its family.
While The Simpsons presents us with a white, married, patriarchal, heterosexual couple with biological children, they thwart the very notion of tradition. The ‘man of the house’, Homer, is completely incompetent, his relationship with his wife is tumultuous, the way he disciplines his son archaic and exaggerated. While hyperbolic and laughable, The Simpsons is relatable to middle class families. Homer is the everyman, the underdog, the beacon of hope that makes other families feel ‘normal’.
This is exactly the appeal of dysfunction.
Current television has extended even further from The Simpsons in terms of atypical, family life. We have officially ventured into the new and wonderful minority territory. These shows seek to normalise or expose the vast types of families that exist: a major plotline of Transparent has Josh, the son of a transgender woman, Maura, meet his almost-adult son – the product of a childhood affair with his babysitter. Shameless’ low-income patriarch, Frank, is a narcissistic alcoholic who brings chaos into his children’s lives.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about modern TV’s dysfunctional family is that most cases are nestled within the comedy genre. We think it’s funny to see people make the same mistakes as us, or make mistakes that we are capable of making. We enjoy seeing families fight as it brings to light that we all have issues. Having it presented to us in an accessible, comical way highlights the ludicrousy of a lot of the things families do to each other.
‘Normal’ has a different meaning now than it did forty years ago and we, as entertainment consumers, are wholeheartedly embracing this. Dysfunctional families are cathartic to watch. They are a reflection of an ever-changing society that, in turn, catapults us forward. They normalise, they integrate, they justify.
The truth is, nobody today wants to watch robotic families talk about the weather or sports or complement each other.
Unless it results in a fight.