We Aren't Family

This AP article on the decline of the “family sitcom” mostly re-states what’s been stated before: once an inescapable part of every network’s lineup, the family comedy — meaning not necessarily a show about a family, but a show that kids will want to watch with their parents — doesn’t really exist now except on cable. (The Bill Engvall Show isn’t a particularly good example of the genre, yet it’s managed to snag a number of writers with impressive résumés, including Michael Leeson, co-creator of The Cosby Show, mostly because these writers specialize in family sitcoms and the networks don’t do them any more.) Of course, family shows of one kind or another will never really go away, not while Brenda Hampton stalks the land, but you don’t see many prime-time shows that really, truly want children to watch them.

Sometimes I think that one reason for the collapse of the family comedy has to do with the increased sophistication of the adult audience. I don’t agree entirely with books like Everything Bad is Good For You that argue that television is incomprably better than it used to be, but it’s true that audiences today are less tolerant of obvious exposition, characters explaining what just happened, straightforwardly linear storytelling. We will always love clichés, but today we want shows to do a better job of disguising those clichés. But children are different (for one thing, they’re smaller); they’re not unsophisticated, but children need more signposts, more explanation of what’s going on — either that or something that just throws story out the window and indulges in pure fun, like some of the more popular kids’ cartoons.

Family shows flourished when there was more convergence between the storytelling in kids’ shows and the storytelling in “grown-up” shows; adults could watch Full House with their kids because its storytelling wasn’t all that different from the average kid-free network sitcom. (Night Court, say, had pretty much the same kind of storytelling as Full House, right down to the sappy speech at the end. Dan Fielding just happened to make more dick jokes than Kimmy Gibler.) Today, adults’ storytelling expectations are different, not necessarily better, just different. This is one thing that’s hurting the multi-camera sitcom in general, since it’s hard to come up with new ways of telling stories in that format. But it’s also hurting the “family” format specifically, since there’s a larger gap between the types of stories kids expect and the types of stories their parents expect.  Hence most of the “family” comedies migrate to the kids’ cable channels where they’re not really “family” shows at all — they’re intended to be watched by kids and not much of anybody else. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s different from the type of show that an entire family, all ages, can watch without any particular family member getting really angry and wanting to leave the room.

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