Middle-class families imagine their stereotypical dinner-time routine as an intimate setting when parents and children might gather over a hearty meal to share funny stories of the day; for mine, as (I suspect) many others, dinner-time conversation is too awkward to be fun. I didn’t care about workplace politics. My parents weren’t concerned about my classroom gossip. Here’s my confession: we really didn’t have much to talk about. Instead, for my family (as I suspect it was for many others), our family-time was watching our favourite family sitcoms over dinner. In some ways, we were inviting the characters of those shows into our lives, to become part of our families, to replace our own (boring) dinner conversation with their (hilarious) adventures.
Since the 1940’s and 1950’s, the American family sitcom has presented an idealized version of the American middle-class family: a nuclear (or oddball) family, facing obstacles with a grin and overcoming them with reaffirmations of love.
Not surprising, therefore, that these images — from Full House and Family Ties and Boy Meets World — are inextricably linked to my generation’s definitions of love, family and Americana. And, from its inception, the sitcom has also been a covertly political tool, pushing our definitions of those very same concepts.
It’s news that cements the broadcast TV philosophy: ratings, not politics, will make or break a show. Mere months after Seth MacFarlane debuted his live-action sitcom, Dads, to overwhelming outcry from critics and Asian Americans for the racism/sexism/poor quality of its series pilot, Dads has been yanked from Fox’s Tuesday comedy line-up. And it wasn’t the backlash that did Dads in; it was poor ratings. Recent numbers show Dads scored a mere 1.3 on the Neilsen rating scale, which is pretty abysmal for a sitcom with its timeslot.