I was recently flying back from Australia and had a good long time to appraise the genre of Family TV, by watching The Middle, Parenthood, Suburgatory, and Modern Families between halal chicken dinners (we flew via Abu Dhabi).
I was surprised to find out how different each series was, even though they were all part of (ahem) one big family.
The Middle is a sitcom that looks at the 'squeezed middle' from the perspective of the harrassed mother and father who can't afford what most of their peers seem able to give their children. They have obligations to both the older and the younger generation. They worry incessantly about the impact their own lack of material success will have on their children. They love and resent their choices. Obviously, the answer is that a loving family conquers all, despite problems along the way, pretty much because the alternatives (divorce, adoption) appear to them to be so bleak.
Parenthood is a family saga drama, featuring a patriarch and Sarah, Julia, Crosby and Adam, his children. Sarah is a single mother teacher, Julia is a corporate attorney, Crosby is a commitment-phobe dropout and Adam is the eldest, forced into conventional duty, but also denied it by having a son with Aspergers. It's based on a film, and could clearly run for ever as more children are born, more marital and material tensions surface and are dealt with by the family firm, and compromise continues to be the answer to everything. It's Corrections for TV.
Suburgatory is another sitcom, the unholy marriage of Desperate Housewives to My So-Called Life, with a spicing of American Beauty. A divorced father and his teenage daughter leave Manhattan for the suburbs and conduct a horrified but forensic anthropological investigation of what they find there. Will they or won't they go native? What have they lost by leaving the quirkiness, anonymity and discomfort of the metropolis for the snobbery, parochial competitiveness and insularity of the suburbs? What can they gain, apart from a bigger house? It's sharp and quirky, and the answer is always to regroup the family unit, however weird its constitution.
Modern Families is a third sitcom featuring three very different families: a gay couple bringing up a baby girl, a conventional heterosexual family with three children, struggling with all the usual boring stuff, and a Latino hottie married to an unlikely partner, doting on their overweight son. Each provides a counterweight to the other. Each episode focuses on a different theme, such as 'learning to let go', and plays out according to the internal dynamics of each family, showing how life lessons are both individual and universal. The three families plait together to showcase the rich tapestry of life, and other clichés. It nods to Desperate Housewives, but without the gothic elements of melodrama and murder — it oddly reminded me more of something like Sex and the City, because of the plaited connections between distinct bodies negotiating the same issues. It's also fairly sharp and funny, but the oddballs are both more caricatural and more memorable than the conventional family, which seems like a problem to me.
Verdict? From the perspective of 36,000 feet, and that mindless sense of desolate futility that comes from the long-haul flight (ah! all life is here, and its seatback is jammed in my face), I loved them all.
The one I can still remember most sharply is Suburgatory, perhaps because it's the cleanest juxtaposition of opposites (unconventional family unit finds itself in universe of conformity). It's also the most alternative, and potentially subversive, scenario. All the others default to the conclusion that conventional heterosexual families are ultimately the most accommodating and flexible units of human socialization, even if they nod to alternative family set-ups.
Suburgatory starts with and returns to the oddness of families, however constituted and wherever located. There's a lot more dramatic challenge in this — it's closer to the Pinter effect of irradiating minute details with acute psychological analysis than the Eastenders 'you don't have to be mad to live here but it helps' emotional Christmas pudding.
Funny how TV seems a better place to go for investigations of family life than film at the moment. Almodóvar has known this forever, but I'm only getting the point now. TV is ecumenical and plural, neurotic, melodramatic and attention-seeking, ephemeral, fragmented and partial, and above all it is episodic and endlessly self-reinventing. TV is a very peculiar medium, whose tensile properties mimic the tensions within and between families, like the novel (Dickens is its greatest avatar), but unlike film, which can only deal with a few of these highly disruptive tensions at a time.
TV, like the notion of the family, seems eternal and endlessly protean. On the other hand, TV was invented in the 1920s, the tail end of representation, and families are the foundation of human life. When you spend a bit of time looking at how the family is represented on the distorting mirror of TV (look! I can see myself — no wait, that's not like me! Should I be more like that? Oh god, is that what I'm really like?), you wonder which will outlast the other, the medium or the social organization it reflects?
Both seem ultimately threatened by the compartmentalizing properties of a medium like YouTube, which atomizes representation rather than aggregating it into the clumsy coherences of families or TV dramas about families. Clumsy and approximate they may be, but nevertheless both TV and families are fundamentally about relationships and connection. Plato's cave, the flickering images by which we are beguiled. The truth, apparently is outside, if we could only get there, but it's warm inside, and there's so much to watch!
As I watch my two children gradually sucked towards more and more time online, I sit and ponder. If the future of both families and representation is micro-dramas starring solitary individuals, watched alone, transmitted via satellites from cold, dead space, I'm out.
And now, terrified by my own nonsensical entropic thoughts, I need to go back to sleep, I'm, like, toadally lagged.