Madeline Boughton used to watch TV shows about families with her own family. Together, she and her family pointed out moments that reminded them of their own family. And they related to the values the show presented, like loving and caring for your family.
But that’s where the connections stop.
The way a viewer like Boughton sees it, family-centric television shows like “Modern Family” and “Full House” are modeling themselves after families as a means of trying to connect with viewers. But the families seen on TV aren’t necessarily a true representation of families in the United States.
Since television’s injection into American culture with shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy,” television has offered examples of what the modern American family is supposed to look like. And shows about families have been popular, too. For example, “Modern Family" had more than 12 million viewers per episode during the past two seasons. The season premiere that aired on Sept. 21, 2011, was the highest-rated ABC premiere in six years.
Although directors and producers may try to model their shows after what they believe is the modern-day family, most times exaggeration and an unwillingness to stay realistic make TV families a shell of normality.
Sixty years of families
Families on television started out showing a “utopian idea” of the family, said Bob Thompson, a media studies professor at Syracuse University. Shows like “Leave it to Beaver” (1957 to 1963), “Father Knows Best” (1954 to 1960) and “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 to 1966) often depicted perfect families that fed into the idea of the American dream as they showcased nuclear families with white picket fences and maybe a pet or two, Thompson said. Though it wasn’t popular during its years of broadcasting, “Leave it to Beaver” is still remembered as a portrait of the idyllic family life.
“It was an image of the perfect American life,” Thompson said. “It was a very specific ideal. Families were more perfect on TV than they were in real life."
By the 1970s, TV families strayed away from an idyllic life. Shows like “One Day at a Time” (1975 to 1984) and “Alice” (1976 to 1985) presented single-parent families that didn’t represent the cultural norm at the time. But it was a way to reach another part of the audience, Thompson said.
It was “All in the Family” (1971 to 1979), though, that changed culture “in one fell swoop,” Thompson said. Unlike shows before its debut, “All in the Family” featured a dysfunctional family that cursed, screamed and argued with each other. “It was one big, loud, all-screaming-at-each-other family,” Thompson said.
The believed social norms that had been seen in TV shows of the previous generations were flipped on their head.
There was a revival of sorts during the early 1980s, as shows like “The Cosby Show” (1984 to 1992), “Growing Pains” (1985 to 1992) and “Family Ties” (1982 to 1989) brought back idyllic family lives: nuclear family, suburban home and positive attitudes. The late 1980s got edgier with shows like “Married with Children” (1987 to 1997) and “Roseanne” (1988 to 1997), where families were unconventional, dysfunctional and where the shows' themes went in a darker direction, Thompson said.
Thompson said some shows, like “The Simpsons” (1989 to present), were created to be “not ‘The Cosby Show’ ” and to show other elements of family life. The family in "The Simpsons" is meant to represent a typical, blue collar family living in America, making it another example of a modern-day imitation of families.
Within the last two decades, there’s been a mix of ideal and dysfunctional families. Thompson said “nice families” popped up on shows like “7th Heaven” (1996 to 2007), where the family is headed by a pastor, and dysfunctional ones are seen more commonly on productions like “Modern Family” (2009 to present).
“Modern Family” is one of the most revolutionary shows of its age, Thompson said. It attracts a young crowd — and stays true to family values despite the nontraditional families, including a same-sex couple and an older man married to a young woman, Thompson said.
Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist, said TV shows are windows into previous generations.
“As time has gone by, there is more variety in the kinds of families that are depicted on television,” Lieberman said. “Thirty years from now, people will wonder which (families on TV) were more families like.”
Taking cues from life
Lieberman said writers often take seeds from true-life experiences and plant them in their TV scripts. Sometimes a show's plot will take an unanticipated turn to avoid delving into deeper issues particular to the writer’s experience, she said. TV show characters, like mothers or fathers, are always exaggerated because the writers are taking cues from their own parents, who they observed when they were younger, she said.
But experts don’t see a lot of life in the art of TV shows. Ben Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa, said shows don’t represent life. Instead, they only offer a reaction to exaggerated family circumstances, he said.
“It makes us recognize not ourselves, but something within ourselves that forces us to watch,” Peters said.
Thompson said perfect families — like those from “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” (1969 to 1974) — were “ridiculously out of touch” with family life. And shows like “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show” had good role models, but rarely was there anything that viewers related to, except for a few minor details, like social situations and reactions seen by the characters, Thompson said.
“It’s not like ‘The Brady Bunch’ was teaching them how to do a family,” Thompson said. “It was just showing (us) what a happy family was.”
But Thompson said that shouldn't be blamed on the writers. He said people in general don’t want to watch a television show about everyday life. They watch TV for an escape, he said.
“We don’t go to those shows for accuracy,” Thompson said. “It’s not like we’re watching these shows and they’re teaching us how to be families. But we’re watching these shows and puzzling together the world of what families are.”
Life imitating art
Still, Lieberman said that whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, people will take cues from what they see on TV and apply it to their lives.
She gave the example of actor Charlie Sheen. His now-deceased character on “Two and a Half Men” (2003 to present) presented "bad behavior," but some viewers would imitate him in real life because he was presented as cool and hip, she said. This can happen across many TV shows, Lieberman said.
“Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” she said, “because it’s much more powerful when you see these things on the screen.”
Because writers draw from their own experiences when scripting a show, they’re releasing their ideas and memories. By contrast, viewers are taking in these expressions of family life for the first time. That can cause a great impact on the viewer.
“When you put it in a movie or television show and you exaggerate it in a different way, to be funny for example, that has a bigger impact on the person watching it than the person who’s writing it,” Lieberman said.
Boughton understands how people can relate. She recognizes situations she’s been through and can spot similarities between her own family and the one seen on TV.
“With some of these shows, I kind of feel a little bit jealous because I’m like, ‘Wow, my family does the same exact thing, so we should have a TV show, too,’ ” she said.
These family TV shows remind her of the importance of family, she said. That’s the message she takes from the various depictions of family life on television.
“Even through the comedy, at the end of most of these episodes, families still love each other,” she said. “Despite our problems or funny scenarios or difficulties, we’re still a family and we love each other.”