Family Friendly TV

For as long as I’ve lived in America, ‘family-friendly-TV’ has been a buzzword, sometimes written with nostalgia, other times with contempt. It’s the clarion call for conservatives, the plaintive plea in mommy blogs. What can the kids watch? They ask over and over again, as if childless adults between the ages of 18-34 don’t exist.

I recognize that call. Every Friday night, after the usual Fox News talk shows, my father would silently relinquish the remote. This was our only chance to turn away from all the stars and stripes bluster of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

But the pressure when holding that remote control was immense. Consider the family history. Kissing in Disney Cartoons was peremptorily fastfowarded over. Rugrats was banned for many years because my mother couldn’t stand the way Angelica treated the babies. Finding a show that was both tolerable for us kids to watch and clean enough for my parents to approve of was a tricky dance. We always settled on Nick@Nite. It was always The Cosby Show. Or (with occasional caution) Fresh Prince .Or America’s Funniest Home Videos.   

I look back at those shows we watched as a family, Everybody Loves Raymond, among them and I’m struck by their utter lack of appeal among the media elite of  which I (strive?) to be a part. It was like the moment I realized that Reader’s Digest was a lame magazine. Though I’d read those tiny tomes from cover to cover since I was 7, a kid in high school quickly set me straight. My elitism knew no bounds, so I cast it aside.

Why is it then, that ‘family-friendly television’ and critically acclaimed favorites are at such odds with each other? Sitcoms like Cheers and Frasier were actually celebrated for their decidedly adult content. It wasn’t as if there was anything particularly lewd about either show, but the main characters were adults, unencumbered by cutesy onscreen children, and rife with their own, real adult problems. Groundbreaking shows like All in the Family and MASH  weren’t  family-friendly shows either. Are good shows and kid-friendly programming  mutually exclusive?

There are some that say Modern Family is the new family-friendly sitcom. But is it?  (And no, my skepticism, has nothing to do with the gay couple, Mitch and Cam, the two parts that make up the staidest, lamest couple on television today.) I’m thinking more of the numerous double entendres, the kids walking in on their parents having sex, Claire and her gay guys’ out, Gloria and Jay’s fear of Manny’s ‘bedroom habits’. It’s not really family friendly. And more to the point, I don’t think children would particularly like this show. There’s not much there for them. The single-camera, mockumentary style of filming requires a sense of irony that children just don’t have.

I’m more inclined to say that the little-show-that-is-coulding, The Middle, is actually more of the family friendly archetype. It’s about a white, lower -middle -class family in Indiana. No one is too overtly made up. There’s quiet humor, nothing too ornate, nothing too outlandish. You can’t smell the jokes a mile away like you can on its most obvious competitor, though they are on the same channel, Modern Family. And yet, I’m not a huge fan. (UPDATE: I’m now a huge fan.) Brick, the youngest son is a real hoot, as is the older brother, but I find the show vaguely depressing. I don’t want to watch a show where foreclosures exist and Patricia Heaton has that haircut. Yet, I suspect that it’s the kind of show my family would have all tuned in to watch together if we weren’t all in different places right now.

Why is that? Is ‘family-friendly television’  a concept that only resonates once you hit a certain age? Are kids the deciding factor? I wonder.



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