Friday 24 November 2017

Couchsurfer: Family affairs

As the nation prepares to consider the possibility of different forms of marriage, Emily Hourican looks at the evolution of family dynamics on screen

Sofía Vergara
Sofía Vergara

Families have always offered rich pickings for sitcoms. And no wonder. The narrow physical confines of a house along with the close emotional ties, off-set by the endless potential for confrontation, historical grievance and puerile jokes, are TV gold. From I Love Lucy through to current US hit series Empire, in which the family of Lucious Lyon merrily tear each other apart to get their hands on his music empire, families are to sitcoms what young love is to pop songs.

And of course, through the decades, they have acted as both mirror and window, soaking up society's new norms and reflecting these back in all their many forms. Take The Brady Bunch - despite being a soft-focus, even cheesed-up version of family life, when it first aired on TV, running from 1969 to 1974, this was ground-breaking stuff. Because hey, instead of showing one big happy family, it showed two big happy families, mixed together in a way that we now call 'blended'. Coming after years of Father Knows Best and The Waltons, the antics of the Brady Bunch seemed modern, unconventional, exciting.

Then there was more boundary-pushing with Diff'rent Strokes, in which two African-American children are brought to live with a rich and kindly white man and his biological daughter, in a penthouse that confused Irish audiences for years, because how could an apartment have an upstairs?

The 1990s was the great era of dysfunctional families - presumably mining Tolstoy's principle that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" - and dominated by the long-running, hilarious Married With Children. This thoroughly subverted the notion of the wholesome All-American family complete with cheery Mom and Pop, instead showing Al Bundy as permanently disgruntled, with a domestic set-up that included his lazy, feckless wife Peggy; stupid, slutty daughter Kelly, and bookish son Bud. Then came Arrested Development, in which Michael Bluth tries to run the family real estate business after his father is sent to prison for white-collar crime, while juggling the impossible requirements of his spoiled and eccentric family. From these, we moved into the era of families-who-weren't-families - a particularly urban dynamic wherein friends became God's way of apologising for actual family, of which Friends was certainly the most famous, closely followed by Sex and The City and Will and Grace.

Now, the narrative has moved on again, tackling same-sex unions and adoptions, even the odd menage-a-trois. The New Normal, which recently finished its first series in the States, deals with a gay Californian couple who have a child through a surrogate; Sean Saves The World is about a gay father and his teenage daughter, while The Fosters, produced by Jennifer Lopez, stars a lesbian couple and their three kids. And then of course there is what you might call the daddy of them all, Modern Family, on screens since 2009 and which counts America's First Family, the Obamas, as fans.

The plot revolves around three interrelated family units: one heterosexual, one gay with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, and a third involving a sixty-something man - Ed O'Neill, formerly Al Bundy - and his younger, voluptuous Colombian wife, played by the fabulous Sofia Vergara, pictured. Basically, "one big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family," as the strap-line goes.

Shot in mockumentary style that allows characters to talk both to each other and straight to screen in apparent video diary clips, viewers get a 360-degree angle on their frustrations and hang-ups. The result is a show in which domestic dysfunction reigns supreme, and the gay couple are by no means the odd ones out.

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