The 5 Most Realistic TV Show Families of All Time
Whether we're watching The Simpsons, The Sopranos, or The Duck Dynasties, we can't help but find ways that TV families mirror our own home lives. I don't have a studio audience laughing uproariously every time I deliver my catchphrase ("You got it, Jude!"), but I don't need a laugh track to relate to the families on cornball sitcoms. That's because every one of those shows has a kernel of realism to them if you look hard enough.
The Cosby Show Had the Most Realistic Kids
What You Remember:
If you know anything about the '80s sitcom The Cosby Show, it's probably that the mom was a lawyer, the dad was a doctor, and the whole family had an unhealthy obsession with lip syncing to blues standards.
What You Forgot:
Despite all the wealth, intelligence, and sophisticated jazz music that the Huxtable parents had to offer, the Huxtable children developed into intensely mediocre adults who didn't pick up much more from their parents than their love of motley sweaters.
There are 3,000 different textures in this picture.
Let's put it this way: Bart Simpson is credited as the poster child of slacker wiseassery, but he also has a genius sister, a killer sense of humor, and two not-bright parents. Bart Simpson is more of a comedy nerd's version of wish fulfillment than a realistic portrayal of American childhood. Parents got you down? Don't you wish you could put them in their place with a hilarious one-liner written by comedy's greatest minds? Of course you do.
"You'll be sorry when I'm old enough to create the perfect insult within a comedy construct."
I only bring up Bart Simpson because when The Simpsons beat out The Cosby Show in the battle for Thursday night ratings, the conventional wisdom of the time was that the irreverent, less-rich Simpsons were a better representation of everyday Americans. I disagree. The Huxtable kids were developed by Bill Cosby, a person who had experience raising real teenagers, and it showed, in that his TV kids didn't follow the kid tropes we're used to seeing on TV. You know the ones: If there are three kids, you need a pretty one, a tomboy, and a wise guy. Or maybe a bimbo, a genius, and a criminal. One bad, one good, one weirdo. Vary that formula however you want, but not too much, because audiences love a familiar pattern when it comes to sitcoms.
Cosby took that trope and played with it. Do you remember looking at your parents and blaming them for every stupid thing going wrong in your life? If you don't, you've blocked those moments out, because accusing parents of ruining the entire universe as we know it is a classic teen move. Cosby let his fake TV kids look just as stupid as the rest of us. This is the high-achieving, good-grade-getting Vanessa appreciating her parents:
And here's the low-achieving, bad-grade-getting Theo equally bombing at talking:
Cosby got that the privilege of childhood is bumbling your way through bad ideas until your brain starts to straighten things out for you. But unless you got really unlucky in the gene department, your parents are three steps ahead of what you're thinking, because they've already been there. The Cosby Show didn't have the nerdy genius child character because kids are almost never smarter than their parents. They didn't have the stock dumb kid character because real people are more interesting and complicated than what they get on their report cards. After eight seasons, none of the Huxtable children lived up to the expectations and hopes that their hardworking middle-class parents had for them. In fact, it was a running joke that every one of them would end up back in their parents' home as moochers for the rest of their lives.
That's the lesson of The Cosby Show: No one gets to micromanage their kids toward success. In other words, Bill Cosby nailed the central millennial problem even as millennials were getting born.
I Love Lucy Was Insanely Groundbreaking
What You Remember:
If I say "Lucy," you're probably going to picture either a clownish-looking woman rapidly stuffing her face, hat, and off-camera orifices with chocolate or fragments of a 3.2 million-year-old hominid skeleton. Probably that first one, though.
Believe it or not, this is actually Lucille Ball. (Too soon?)
Television was barely even a thing when Lucille Ball perfected small-screen physical comedy for the masses. And her real-world husband, Desi Arnaz, was no slouch, either. Together, the two of them practically invented everything we know about sitcoms, from the live studio audience to the concept of reruns to multicamera shots. Lucy also perfected the transition from pretty B-level movie actress to bona fide comedy star.
What You Forgot:
Primetime television wouldn't see another mixed-race married couple for 24 years, when The Jeffersons featured the Willises, a black woman and white man, as neighbors. The gap between the Ricardos and the Willises was so wide that six American presidents came and went in the span. The bulk of the civil rights movement started and ended before America saw another couple who didn't quite match skin tones on TV again. If you had planted a Christmas tree farm in 1951, the year Lucy and Ricky debuted, you could have harvested every tree, started over, and harvested every new tree before the Willises showed up in 1975.
Fun fact: This woman would later play Denise Huxtable's mother-in-law in real life.
Granted, Lucy and Ricky's marriage didn't have the same shock value as a marriage between a black person and a white person. Arnaz was Cuban, which meant that, in the law's eyes, he was of European descent, so white-ish. But not white enough for CBS, who wanted to pair Ball with a former co-star instead of her real husband, who had a thick Spanish accent and a conga fetish.
To prove that America would accept the marriage of a white lady and a Cuban man, Arnaz and Ball staged a vaudeville show that they took around the country ... and it killed. Because of the couple's success as a stage act and their white-hot sexual chemistry, CBS executives resigned themselves to casting Desi in the show. Not only did American audiences welcome the couple, but the episode featuring the birth of Ricky Jr. drew almost 72 percent of the TV viewing audience. In an age when Mexican-American children were encouraged to drop Spanish altogether to blend in with their white neighbors, the Ricardo household was as bicultural as you can get. In one episode, Ricky tells his son the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Spanish.
Even though Arnaz's ethnicity was played for laughs every now and then, he was usually the straight man of the team, with all-American Lucille Ball acting as the clown. The fact that we usually talk about I Love Lucy without even mentioning how OK everyone was with this ESL man and super-white Caucasian lady is the perfect testament to how good the show was.
Speaking of Caucasians ...
The Maid Was a Necessary Member of The Brady Bunch
What You Remember:
You've got this. You know this one. Widowed father of three boys hooks up with single mom with three daughters and they all move in together without so much as one "You're not my real dad!" or "You're not my real sister, let's kiss!" Which was why the show was so unrealistic by today's standards.
In a show that featured artificial turf in the backyard, no toilets in the bathrooms, and same-age unrelated teenagers who never made out even once, the strangest part of the show to me was the presence of a full-time housekeeper in a household with a stay-at-home mom. Carol Brady didn't have a job. Were her hands too fragile to do some laundry while she stayed home all day? Was that stupid shag haircut weighing her down so hard that housework was an impossibility?
What You Forgot:
It's what you didn't see on The Brady Bunch that necessitated the presence of Alice the housekeeper. Because what you didn't see was the hours of laundry work it takes to send six kids to school every day in clean underwear. Or the meal preparation, the grocery shopping, the constant flow of dirty dishes, the toilet scrubbing, the floor mopping, and the basic maintenance it takes just to keep a house full of people running. I say this as a working mom who has half as many kids as the Bradys, but zero as many clean kitchens at any given point in my day. I'm pretty sure that being OK with household imperfections is what Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem fought for us years ago.
Someone burned her bra so this woman could not hate herself.
The Bradys, on the other hand, existed at the tail end of an era when hiring household help was the standard for middle-income families because a clean house was everything -- everything -- to the status of a middle-income wife. In a recent book about the history of parenting, All Joy and No Fun, writer Jennifer Senior mentions how '60s moms kept their houses clean by sticking their babies in playpens for hours at a time, and everyone was fine with that. It was normal. No wonder the baby boomers ended up so messed up.
In case you're keeping track, I've insulted millennials and baby boomers so far in this article. Who's next?
The TGIF Lineup Was All About the Otherness of Neighbors
What You Remember:
From 1989 to 2000, ABC blessed Friday nights with more comedy than we've been able to process in the decades since. Full House! Family Matters! Step by Step! The Other Shows! The TGIF lineup was the last dying breath of family sitcoms that targeted families who had nothing better to do on Friday night than watch TV together before the Internet offered way better alternatives.
Little-known fact: In the past, every family had only one loveseat.
If you remember anything of the shows of TGIF (Thank Goodness It's Funny/Friday/Fannies), it's probably that they all centered on insanely functional families, and that scrunchies were the tits back in the '90s.
'90s hair: hurricane in the front, side horn on the top.
You might also remember that several of the shows featured a weirdo neighbor who charged his or her way into storylines and scenes like a bull in a china shop. Specifically, you might remember Cody from Step by Step, Kimmy from Full House, Roger from Sister, Sister, and Urkel from The Urkel Show.
What You Forgot:
Each of these shows went out of its way to verbally assault the characters who didn't belong in the household, even though they were children. In the TGIF world, neighbors were outsiders deserving of ridicule and disdain. In fact, all the oceans in the world couldn't hold the rage Danny Tanner had for his daughter's best friend, Kimmy Gibbler.
Then there's poor Steve Urkel, the lonely, hypernerdy child whose parents have rejected him so hard that he has no choice but to scrounge the Winslows' home for food and companionship.
The adults of the biggest TGIF staples treated their kid neighbors like subhuman monsters, delivering interactions that have just about zero counterparts in the real world. If Kimmy Gibbler's parents knew how the men of the Tanner household treated their daughter, they would have locked their daughter up tight. Grown men should know better than to verbally spar with their daughter's friends.
On the other hand, while the trope of the wacky neighbor has been around forever, the TGIF lineup was only exaggerating something that we all are thinking deep down: People who don't live in our own house are different. Their clothes smell different because they use different detergent. They do their meatloaf wrong. When you sleep over, their house noises are freaky. Do you remember the excitement of getting permission for a sleepover, only to be completely weirded out by your friend's house and wanting to go home in the middle of the night?
Our own families get on our nerves, but at least they smell right. Maybe "right" isn't the best word. Familiar. They smell familiar. And our neighbors, no matter how nice and normal and great they are, aren't us. They're them. Obviously, this doesn't explain the popularity of Steve Urkel or why that character became the breakout star of Family Matters, but I have a feeling that explanation is never coming.
The Whites from Breaking Bad Nailed Family Secrets
What You Remember:
All of it. It's all still in our hearts. For those of us still processing the life-changing behemoth that was Breaking Bad, our minds are stuck on Walt, Skyler, Hank, Jesse, and Badger. Which is fair, because those five were easily, hands down, without question, the most interesting characters on the show. Poor Walt Jr., forever relegated to the breakfast table and in the dark about just about everything going on around him.
What You Forgot:
Hell yeah, Walt Jr. was clueless about his parents and their meth-making, money-laundering ways. And that oblivious, painfully vacant look in his eyes is the exact one you would get if it occurred to you that maybe your own parents haven't been as clean living and honest as you once thought. Here's a fun experiment: Picture your own parents 20 years younger and having fun on a Friday night. Did a version of this pop into your head:
Did you only erase a few grays and visually plop your parents down in front of the TV, but on a way '90sier couch? Deep down, we know that learning painful family secrets is actually the third worst thing that can happen to us, right after dying and slipping out of the seat on the loop of a roller coaster. Whether we're talking about our parents or our in-laws or our kids, we'd love it if everyone spent the rest of their lives in a rigid box that matches our ideals and expectations. If you're a millennial and your grandparents are baby boomers, there's an amazing chance your parents' parents did drugs in the past. Just snorted their way through the '70s willy-nilly. Are you going to go out of your way to find the evidence? NO. Are you going to pretend I never made the above statement and also that no one in your family has had sex ... ever?
And if you think about it, the difference between finding your relatives' seedy pasts compelling or horrifying is distance. If your great-grandfather was a gangster who worked for Al Capone and murdered people point blank, it's a cool party story. If your dad is a gangster affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel, you might want to keep that information on the down low. It's not only scary, but embarrassing in decent circles. That's why we try to avoid family secrets when the family in question is close to us. We just don't want to know.
Kristi is an editor and writer for Cracked. You can find more from her on Twitter.
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