Some Television Families (1978)
| 2022 Introduction: In
1978, when I was 18 going on 19 and a 2nd year student at Melbourne State
College (an institution for training teachers), I prepared and submitted my
first long, serious essays for publication – not that any of them managed to
appear in print anywhere. (In the event, my first official
credit, dated January 1979, was a shorter book review.) The following piece is
one that I worked up (with encouragement and assistance from my teacher, Tom
Ryan) out of an assignment for a Television Studies unit. My surviving
notebooks (see below) attest to the enormous amount of research I did for it:
watching, pen in hand, basically every episode of The Waltons, Family, Apple’s Way, The Sullivans, Eight is Enough and The Jimmy Stewart Show (!)
broadcast (usually on repeat rounds) on TV over a period of several months.
These were, of course, pre-VHS days – hence the need for biro and paper.
It gives me a special thrill to present the texts of ’78 here on my website. They display my dutifully immersive but genuinely excited readings in (basically) the new-fangled Freudo-Marxist and semiotic theories that were all the rage at the time in film and media studies – complete with rehearsals of ideological interpellation, the return of the repressed, the occluded off-screen, the Symbolic Order, a feminist critique of patriarchy, and other gems of wisdom – but I today happily stand by many of the specific insights that I arrived at concerning these TV series I so furiously and fastidiously watched. (Equally ‘trendy’, but also personal, was the rather pessimistic view of the nuclear family I expressed; for a later development, see “Families and Friends”.)
It is intriguing for me, looking back, to realise that, while cinema was always for me the realm of intricate style and form, my TV analysis amounted to a discussion almost purely of plots, characters, recurring elements, and quoted dialogue (the only ‘scene analysis’ was of opening credit sequences, because I re-saw them so often!) – which is, indeed, still the case for the vast majority of TV criticism, remaining (in my opinion) a methodologically underdeveloped area. It is also striking to me – and my film writing of the time mostly followed suit – that I began here with an Australian program (The Sullivans) and then immediately transited to USA case studies presumed as representative of Western culture as a whole; and that the influence of reading Robin Wood was so strong on me at the time that I unconsciously adopted his habit (that I eventually found maddening) of constructing essays from pedagogical lecture-plan lists of topic-points, elements and generic characteristics (something Wood did in virtually every piece he wrote). But finding one’s “voice” (as writing-teachers love to say) often requires a detour through such mimicry. For another, very different blast from my formative days of ’78, see my “Greimasian” study of Tashlin’s Artists and Models.
“Don’t turn my life into a TV show!”
“Home is where they have to take you in.”
– The Jimmy Stewart Show
“If it’s going to hurt your mother, then it’s easier not to talk about it.”
– The Waltons
Ceased to Exist?
The Sullivans: Terry (Richard Morgan), the teenage son of Grace (Lorraine Bayly) and Dave (Paul Cronin), is reported missing in action in New Guinea – perhaps dead. An orphan, Geoff (Jamie Higgins), is adopted into the family. Against the threat of a loss to the family, a tragic lack, is placed a balance: a restored, unified family, made whole through the addition of a new son.
Terry’s wife Carolyn (Toni Vernon/Geneviève Picot) lives with the Sullivans. She attracts the attention of Billy, a soldier on leave. Grace, Dave and their daughter Kitty (Susan Hannaford) impress upon Carolyn the “correct” code of behavior: the convention that a married woman should not be friendly with a man while her husband is absent. Carolyn defies their moral proscription, but soon comes to see the error of her judgment. “You were right, he loves me”, she confesses to Grace, and writes a letter to Billy telling him they must not meet again.
These two plot lines from The Sullivans (an Australian production popular from 1976 to 1983) suggest some of the concerns of television family shows. The family suffers, but never faces an irreplaceable loss. Nothing can ever tear the family irrevocably apart. While war rages on other shores, the family back home is the one solid, permanent social unit. The behaviour of its members is rigidly codified, bound by conventions and dictates uttered by them as the natural viewpoint on life, common sense knowledge.
Juliet Mitchell, referring specifically to Britain, has remarked: “In the period 1940-1945, the family as we present it in our dominant ideologies virtually ceased to exist”. (1) Whatever the degree of truth that her observation holds in relation to Australia in the same period, this much is clear: The Sullivans seizes history, rewrites it, constructs not the collapse of the family but its rock-solid unity. This reconstruction of the past in the name of the family is important today, because it is in the service of something that the criticism of film and television has had to confront more and more in recent years: ideology (or, in Mitchell’s formulation, “our dominant ideologies”).
Ideology, as understood today, does not indicate conscious beliefs or opinions, something able to be summed up in the platform of a political party. Rather it corresponds to, in Louis Althusser’s words, “a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts)”. (2) Values do not appear as a particular way of seeing things, but the only natural way, universal and accepted by all. It is this invisible appearance of ideology that creates the urgent and necessary task for criticism to unveil it, make it visible – a process of demystification.
The aim of such criticism is not to imagine the ludicrous scenario of television producers locked behind closed doors plotting the enforcement of bourgeois ideology upon the masses of brainwashed viewers. It is, rather, an attempt to locate the collective discourse that we are all caught up in, that we all utter. It needs to be remembered: The Sullivans does not speak ideology – ideology speaks The Sullivans.
The family is the centre of what has been called the Symbolic Order – according to Maud Mannoni, “the ‘world of rules’ and the ‘symbolic relationships’ into which we are born and to which we learn to conform, however much our dreams may wish for a disorder or a counter-order. The ‘familial constellation’ into which we arrive as strangers to humanity is already part of it”. (3) The Order is founded on the Name-of-the-Father – not the actual living father but his function, his place within patriarchal society as authority, bearer of the Law, creator of language, fixer of meaning.
Television fictions about the family attempt to reinstate the Name-of-the-Father as stable, fulfilling to all, eternal ... in the face of a reality (eg., the feminist movement) that asserts the contrary. The American series I will look at here, Apple’s Way and Family, construct the image of a family – but the image is cracked, unable to cope with the problems it encounters. A key contradiction arises: within ideology, these shows are concerned to delimit roles, the rightful place of fathers, mothers, children ... yet this is disavowed, the characters are presented transparently as individuals, in the process of discovering “self” – the illusion that people are essentially outside the influence of society and history, beyond the Symbolic Order.
A useful analogy suggests itself. The narrative of these family programs is like a hysterical patient, unable to bear a state of contradiction. It represses what it does not want to face. But the repressed returns as a bodily symptom, the problem fights its way back to the surface. The text (in a semiotic sense) of these shows – the dynamic site where meanings are produced, ordered, placed – is full of such symptoms which are the sign of a problem. That problem addresses itself to us: it demands a recognition of ideology.
Apple’s Way: Decent Capitalism
The American series Apple’s Way (first broadcast February 1974 to January 1975, running for two seasons) constructs a particular sort of family, with a specific cultural appeal: wish fulfillment, nostalgia for a stable, rural society. There is a mood of Frank Capra-style fantasy that hangs over it. The Apples have moved from the intolerable big city to Appleton, Iowa. It is a large, extended family: Mum, Dad, Grandfather, two sons, two daughters.
More than anything, the Apple family is the domain of the father, George (Ronny Cox). During the opening credit sequence of each episode (it went through several iterations, but remains essentially the same), we first see George at his architecture work desk. He looks out on his family in the garden by the prominent water wheel, rings a bell to gather everybody’s attention, and eventually moves to join them for an outdoors meal – or they all pile onto a horse-drawn wagon, cute dog included. Work and play are balanced and made harmonious in a cycle (the wheel) extending across three generations. The Law of the Father – encompassing an entire lifestyle – has been handed down, and is still fulfilling for all the individuals within the family. (Curious fact: the costume designer for the series was Patricia Norris, who not long after worked on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven [shot 1976, released 1978], a very different vision of American Pastoral.)
In terms of what the series gives its audience, this is an appeal to a profound nostalgia: when the father was the boss of the family, and his own boss at work. The show’s title evokes both a property (a way named after and owned by the Apples) and a life cycle (George Apple’s way of living). But it is idyllic, somewhat dream-like, distanced from our own situation as viewers. Apple’s Way thus tries to hide this gap, ignore the distance. The bridge of wish-fulfillment is an instantaneous short-circuit.
The action of virtually every episode revolves around George. A problem arises, in either the family or the community. He is the one who steps in, balances the conflicting sides and restores order. Even in an episode where the theme centrally concerns his wife, Barbara (Lee McCain) – going on strike at the sports store in support of another woman discriminated against in promotion – he resolves the situation by selling perfume for a day, to prove that male and female work roles are interchangeable.
This brings up one of the most curious aspects of the series. Barbara is virtually redundant within the family, George combining both paternal (discipline, guidance) and maternal (gentleness, understanding) roles – as these are generally understood in a cultural sense. In fact, Barbara comes across as a rather impersonal and unpleasant character, and she always bows out of a problem by leaving the thinking to her husband: “You know the way”. In her place, George’s father Aldon (Malcolm Atterbury) provides inspiration and the wisdom of experience. He is the living embodiment of tradition: the past that is treasured and whose example is followed. An entirely male/patriarchal lineage!
George also works for the local newspaper. In his position as assistant editor, he emphasises time and again the role of free speech in a democracy. His controversial articles slam such emerging characteristics in the community as aggressive sporting competitiveness, and a charity drive based on prizes and rewards for children. He criticises the development of a corrupt capitalism, in which the amount of profit is in surplus of what the community needs.
But to assert that Appleton is the home of decent capitalism – what on earth can this possibly mean? What precisely is the social structure being evoked here? At the heart of Apple’s Way is the founding contradiction I have already described. The series pretends that the community is a group of individuals, freely consenting to work in co-operation, creating an economic equilibrium that is fair and just – no surplus profit, no exploitation, no unemployment. This is a Utopian society, which does not require Law or its subsidiary arms, such as the police. In fact, it is virtually a pre-society – akin to the fledgling, pioneer life depicted in many Westerns.
But, at the same time, the family is presented as the centre of a social system, in which the community created and sustained by local tradition (elderly citizens are regarded with great esteem) is synonymous with America itself, upholding the institutions of the Law.
In a sense, Apple’s Way tries to bridge this contradiction between a small pre-society and the social order of the nation. It does so by creating an intermediary term: Religion. This is a transcendent code, emphasising spirituality; judgment is deferred in this world, and passed onto the greater Law, the greater Father. The study of ideology in film and television criticism has so far ignored this vital element in the symbolic system of values and myths. Attention has been drawn by many analysts to Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for instance, which very clearly deal with the structures of political power within an Oedipal framework of paternal authority – the son gaining access to his father’s power by making a woman submit to the Law (Notorious , North by Northwest , The Birds ). But this approach cannot account for a melodrama like John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945) in which the supposedly abnormal woman – the excessive, murderous, desiring woman – herself manipulates the power of the Law. Her influence can only be subdued by the transcendent Law – she is “left to Heaven”; that is where her crime, her sin will be dealt with. The ideology in all this has yet to be confronted and precisely determined.
Let us consider “The Flag” (season 2, episode 9, directed by David Moessinger, written by Joseph Bonaduce), which places the family unit within a political context. The narrative set ups a situation opposing the so-called American Dream with its glorious patriotism to the radical critique of this myth by an emerging generation. But the opposition hardly exists. The dominant ideology has George and Aldon; radical politics has a handful of pretentious, teenage students who mouth shallow clichés about the Top Ten radical causes.
The narrative begins, ironically enough, with George’s editorial demanding an overhaul of the old school revue, “Uncle Tom’s Cavalcade”. Discussing it with a group of students (his son Paul [Vince Van Patten] among them), he inspires them to produce something “with 1974 written all over it”. He persuades the retired owner to reopen the Appleton Little Theatre (emphasising the theme of tradition, the present revitalising the past and vice versa). Since the play is to retain a patriotic theme, Aldon donates the flag he has uncovered while looking through his old boxes: “It’s got history and real meaning”.
The students think something different. The episode gives us an offensive caricature: political statement is associated with rebellious adolescence, and thus typed as naïve and exhibitionist. “There can be no cheers for the red, white and blue – this is a fascist state!” They decide to call their play “Amerika on Trial – you know, spelt like the radical papers”. In line with the male/female logic of the show, the student who leads the others into the heights of anti-patriotism is a bespectacled, intellectual-looking girl. Significantly, it is Paul who begins to have doubts about the production, and especially the “shock theatre” ending: burning Aldon’s flag.
Aldon is deeply upset when he finds out. “They are spoilt, irresponsible brats!” – and the viewer has little option but to agree with him. George keeps Aldon from coming to blows with Paul, stating: “I’m committed to what they’re doing, though I disagree violently”. Meanwhile, the police have begun to harass the students involved. When George confronts them, they stop, but the police chief promises to jail them all if the flag is burned. George complains, “But you have no legal grounds ...”. The cop’s response: “I’ll book them on anything. I fought in the war”. Again history, experience and maturity are played off against the parody of student politics.
Finally, as a token of balance, George agrees to be in the play. He will be the ultimate “Amerikan on trial”, after which the flag is burnt. The episode then treats us to the most extraordinary example of myth-making I have yet seen on television. During the (abominable) performance of the students, we are constantly returned to the image of George slowly, silently dressing up in his costume. Only parts of his body are seen, to keep us from identifying what he is wearing. The banal “testimonies” of oppressed women and blacks in the play are intercut with his somber journey to the side of the stage before he steps on for his part. The effect of all this is to ennoble George, and confer the greatest significance and seriousness upon his role – qualities conspicuously lacking from the episode’s presentation of the students.
The switch is that George is wearing a Nazi uniform. He compares the students’ attitude to the fascism they are criticising, and concludes that one leads to the other: “Hatred is the first step”. Then he moves to burn the flag, and the students stop him. In a final monologue to the audience that has come to see the play – and to us – George clarifies the moral: “These kids care more than they know ...”. It’s a matter of letting them get the bad influences out of their system. He relates a time from his own youth, when he left America for a number of years. Finally, seeing it again after all that time, he realised “what the flag means to me – is home”.
The family is thus acknowledged as the emblem of American society – though, in this context, it registers as a quite transparent assertion, the criticism of America advanced within the narrative amounting no criticism whatsoever, indeed the annulling of any possible criticism.
“The Outsider” (season 2, episode 12, director Ivan Dixon, writer Joseph Bonaduce) avoids political considerations, replacing them with religious ones. Adherence to Law is substituted by Faith. The enemy to the system is not fascism (as performed by the students in “The Flag”), but atheism. However, the issue is not quite that simple. In the episode, a wealthy citizen’s will stipulates that a church be built on the park he had donated during his life. The town council (including George, who puts up the architectural plans) is delighted – until the infamous “professional atheist” shows up in his caravan. He takes the matter to court: there can be no collaboration between Church and State.
The council shoves George up to the caravan to convince this fellow to withdraw the action. But what a marvellous stalemate: George cannot, for what the man is upholding is a basic tenet of the constitution. To add to the dilemma, there is a scene that establishes the close affinity between the two men: their integrity, sincerity, professional drive, intellectual interests (they swap philosophical arguments). George reluctantly has to agree with what the man is doing.
Where can the episode go from here? Precisely nowhere. But, in the final scene, the new church is holding its inaugural service. Two central strategies are involved.
1. Narrative evasion. George tells an anecdote from his childhood: “Dad taught me – when you can’t change the taps, change the pipes”. So the land is reclassified as not being part of the park, and the church is built. It is at this moment that the atheist is simply ousted from the drama. We never see his protest, or his giving in, or anything at all. The episode cannot handle his presence beyond this (frankly incredible) plot contrivance.
2. In the final scene, it becomes clear that the battle represented in fact signifies another confrontation, that of family/non-family, which in turn signifies normal/abnormal. The atheist lives in a caravan with his son. No stable home, and especially no mother (her absence is not even referred to). George lets Paul think for himself; the atheist’s son recites his father’s philosophical positions as if brainwashed. In the final scene, the son walks into the church and sits beside Paul – meaning that he has finally come under the influence of a real family: the Apples, and their “way”.
We saw in The Sullivans the central role of a code of behaviour, defining the sort of relationships that are accepted and conventional. Apple’s Way tells us much about this code of behavior in an American context. “The Engagement” (season 2, episode 6, director James Sheldon, writer William Bast) shows us Aldon wanting to remarry, this time to his beloved Martha. This, in a number of family dramas, registers as an unspeakable violation of dominant codes (Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation , starring Barbara Stanwyck, providing a most striking example). Why should this be so? Certainly it has to do with a particular conception of sexuality in Puritan-influenced, Western society: infantile sexuality is deemed obscene (see The Exorcist , or the furor over Pretty Baby ); so, too, is the continuance of a physical relationship into older age (Avanti! ). Such disgust probably relates to the fact that sexuality is here detached from procreation, i.e., the continuance of the social order; and exists only for itself as the expression of love/desire (amour-érotisme as Ado Kyrou called it). This is an excess unacceptable within the family.
Aldon’s excess is interwoven in the narrative with the chaos of a local youth group, no organisation or discipline leading to the casual destruction of the hall and facilities used. George steps in to manage the group. He suggests an engagement party to be held for Aldon and Martha. The teenagers at first reject the idea as ludicrous, but come to like Martha: “We can dig her”. But by the time the party comes around, marriage is no longer a prospect. Aldon announces: “It will be a long, long engagement”. Both Aldon and the teenagers return to enforced normality, accepting conventional constraints on their freedom. The Symbolic Order can be described as the sum of its taboos.
Paul in “The Winning Season” (season 2, episode 8, writer Jim McGinn, director Alexander Singer of A Cold Wind in August  fame) also comes to see the common sense in his father’s prohibitions. He is the school sporting hero, and, even with a leg injury, intends to play in the big game. The episode links Paul’s sporting self-image with his emerging virility. A girl rings him up to promise: “After you’ve won the game, we can get together”. Like George Bailey (James Stewart) in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Paul sees his chance to “lasso the moon”, a success bound up with erotic possibilities.
But the family puts a strict curb on such adventuring passion. Great fame and success offend the natural modesty this family requires of its members. Children must learn their place and stay within its limits. Paul cannot become more of a man, as it were, than his father. When he steps onto the field to start the game, he suddenly converts to George’s viewpoint. “Is it worth it?” he murmurs and, to the astonishment of the crowd, walks off. George talks to him alone, and acknowledges a newly acquired maturity: “It took more courage for you not to play”.
Apple’s Way is full of problems – issues that are evaded in the narratives’ sleight-of-hand. This is especially obvious when the focus of an episode narrows in the final scenes. In “The Candy Drive” (season 2, episode 7, writer Hindi Brooks, director Marc Daniels), George wages a campaign against the local manufacturer who is using a charity drive to advertise his own products. George’s children learn the appropriate moral lesson, and the last moments show us the family reunited, stable. Beyond the home, the bad capitalist has not been reformed, and is still a persuasive force within Appleton. But the show tries to make us forget this troubling fact – by not reminding us of it. Here, the family, rather than being the centre of society, is a refuge from it.
The most disturbing image the series gave us occurs in its very final episode, “The Price” (season 2, episode 15, writer Earl Hamner Jr, director Moessinger). A personal pact of trust with another town resident leads George to withhold evidence from a police investigation. He is jailed for this breach of the Law. As in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), prison is, for this Good Family Man, a veritable descent into Hell – the nightmare sitting underneath the façade of secure, daily existence.
George’s personal code of trust, respect for another’s wishes and sticking up for one’s principles no longer fits into the rules of the social order. The drama cannot resolve this contradiction. The episode does not end by arriving at a moral lesson – only a question, a problem it is unable to deal with. What a way for Apple’s Way to go!
Family: The Frame Cracked
First, the title. Not A Family, signifying a generalised family within society; or The Lawrences, a particular group of individuals. The choice of title suggests the idea of family as that social unit which exists independently of specific instances. This immediately separates it from Apple’s Way, which pretends the family unit to be a spontaneous, natural formation within pre-society. The possibility exists for a drama that reflects both on other family shows, as well as on the social position of the family. Family, sadly, never realises such possibilities.
This is a pity because, in many ways, it is one of the most impressive programs on television (it ran for 5 seasons between 1976 and 1980), consistently displaying a regard for nuance, fine behavioural detail and close character interaction (Mike Nichols was its chief Executive Producer, and Jay Presson Allen was its creator). One cannot find characters as vividly created as Buddy (Kristy McNichol, who also featured in the main cast of Apple’s Way) or Willie (Gary Frank) in the other series under discussion. Cathy (Patti Cohoon-Friedman), the adolescent girl in Apple’s Way, is healthy, sportive, social ... and finally submissive, quite blank. John-Boy (Richard Thomas) in The Waltons inspires all with his insight and writing abilities; even more than the father, he is the centre of the family. Since he is also the narrator of the series, which unfolds as his memoirs, he is inflated to an almost divine status of wisdom and liberal virtue. In contrast, Buddy is alive, spontaneous, full of contradictions; and Willie is an aspiring novelist who is not likely to write his first novel, arrested in a state of painful immaturity.
Family begins by establishing with startling clarity the norms of the middle-class family – gender roles included. The credit sequence is worth looking at in detail.
Action/Denotation: Doug (James Broderick) drives to work – Kate (Sada Thompson) kisses him goodbye – she moves inside – takes off her cardigan – walks past the piano on top of which rest the family photos.
Treatment/Connotation: Expansive, driving music played on horns – fluid movement (crane plus zoom) from the car leaving, to Kate entering the front door. Even her everyday posture oozes confidence.
The importance of this connotation is in the message of affirmation it conveys, the rightness of the norm. A set of oppositions are presented – not in a state of conflict but apparent harmony: outside the house/inside the house; Doug’s public work/Kate’s private housework; chores/leisure.
Let us look now at the characterisation-effects of the photographs presented in this opening sequence.
1. Kate: her face is on a plate, symbol of her care for the house, and placing her within its limits.
2. Doug: in a rectangular frame in contrast to Kate; his expression is straight, uncomplicated, “down the line”.
3. Willie: head bowed, half cloaked in shadow; he is deep, sensitive, troubled.
4. Buddy: at a slight angle to the lens, signifying tension, an eagerness to throw herself into growing up.
Buddy and Willie (in background) – laughing, embracing; the photo indicates their closeness; and shows another, healthier side to Willie.
5. Nancy (Meredith Baxter Birney): hard, clear lighting; but a hint that the blankness of her “angel face” hides neurosis. She is the last to be shown, and out of order (logically it should be as the eldest child, between Doug and Willie), indicating that she is somehow apart from the rest of the family.
Family is the chronicle of an enlightened, middle-class household. This is an important premise upon which the show unfolds. Its key elements are as follows.
1. Kate and Doug are both very intelligent and sensitive parents. He is a lawyer; she is studying for a music degree.
2. The artistic aspirations of Willie are encouraged over the need to get a job.
3. Willie and Buddy can be very close without being ashamed or embarrassed. He celebrates her first period (the threshold of womanhood) by buying her a dress.
4. Wealth and security: Buddy is able in one episode to give gifts of money to a poor woman she observes shoplifting. An ironic exchange between Willie and a black person makes the family’s class position clear: “You’re rich” / “No, we’re comfortable” / “Comfortable don’t match with poor”.
However, this situation also carries tension: Doug stands for respectability and economic security. In contrast to Kate, he grudgingly defers to Willie’s “search for self” – an (as yet) unproductive quest. The same problem arises around the presence of Nancy. Ostensibly she is beautiful, stylish, the epitome of bourgeois glamour and sophistication. But she is shown to be the most immature. She is divorced, and lives apart from the family – but still on the premises. She is neither in the family womb, nor capable of entirely severing herself from its protection.
The opposition of Nancy/Buddy is the most fascinating thread in Family, and the element that tends to push it towards an implicit critique of the family structure. As Buddy enters her Oedipal or Electral drama within the home – her placement in the social order that resolves the question “who am I?” – she should end up confident, mature and attractive. But the possibility hangs over the show that she will in fact end up like Nancy – all of these things gone wrong. The scriptwriters are well aware of this tension: “I only understood you when I stopped wanting to be you” / “Stopped?” / “Yeah, I mean the looks are great, but who needs the complications?”
In “An Eye to the Future” (season 2, episode 11, writers Michael Barlow & Hindi Brooks, director Glenn Jordan), Buddy sends her CB radio boyfriend a photo of herself – in fact, a picture of Nancy. The boy, presumably scared off by such perfect beauty, cuts communication. The relationship is restored when he receives a photo of the real Buddy. The moral is constantly made explicit throughout the series: be yourself. But this is, to say the least, a problematic concept. The contradiction is precisely: what is the self if not what is, at least to some degree, shaped within the family? And the visible result of that socialising process is Nancy and (to a lesser extent) Willie, both seemingly frozen at a point of immaturity.
Put another way, the contrast of Buddy and Nancy gives us the theme: don’t strive for greatness and glamour, be content with the joys of the everyday. The irony here is that, first, Nancy can’t help being beautiful, she was born that way. In fact, we never see her do much at all – it is the society around her that turns her into the object of voyeuristic pleasure, as made clear in “Someone’s Watching” (season 2, episode 15, writer David Jacobs, director Richard Kinon). Second, whatever neurosis has gripped Nancy, certain elements of it potentially originated within the family.
Family is curious in that there is no sense of community, that this is one family among others within a society. Buddy is seen only occasionally at school, and her sole friend outside of it seems to be Audrey (Louise Foley). Willie has no friends whatsoever. Rarely do Doug and Kate entertain neighbours or acquaintances. The undertone to this is peculiarly modern. The suburban family is an isolated unit, cut off from others like it – and, by extension, lacking the shared tradition possible in a community. In this way, the series reflects a growing, sociological sense of the family unit’s atomisation within suburbia – a common theme of American cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s (including Mike Nichols’ work).
We thus note a marked comparison to Apple’s Way. In one episode of Family, Kate becomes very upset about the family silver that has been stolen. Finally she realises that, by this idolisation (and idealisation) of a traditional past, she is evading the problems of her children in the present. This is part of the series’ ambivalence. On the one hand, being about the modern family, it records the displacement of the traditional family within a community framework. On the other hand, within the family the roles are absolutely conventional, as shown in the discussion of the credit sequence.
In television family dramas, there is always a concerted effort – not necessarily successful, as we have seen – to resolve the conflict that is the mainspring of the drama. The early seasons of Family, the peak from which it later declined, use an alternative method. In “Rites of Friendship” (season 2, episode 10, writers Gerry Day & Bethel Leslie, director Glenn Jordan), Willie meets an old friend, Zeke, but cannot cope with the realisation that he is gay. Willie refuses any involvement: “I’m not sure I want to understand”.
The penultimate scene evokes the expectation of a facile resolution. Willie races to the airport, exhibiting a miraculous change in attitude, to catch his departing friend. “We have a shorthand, and I’d like to get it back”. But this resolution is denied. Zeke is not convinced that Willie has truly come to terms with his problem, and simply walks away to catch the plane. The final scene shows Willie half-heartedly joining in a joke with the rest of the family. There is a sense that the family is a refuge from the real world in which Willie is still not yet mature enough to live.
Similarly, “Coming Apart” (season 2, episode 1, writer Hindi Brooks, director John Erman) details, with a surprisingly hard edge, the divorce proceedings of Nancy (played in this episode by Jane Actman, before Birney’s tenure) and Jeff (John Rubinstein, ex-Zachariah , also composer of Family’s sweeping musical theme). Their exchanges are bitter and direct: “No man in your bed could stand the artillery”. After the legal sessions, there is a scene in a restaurant in which Jeff offers a gift of jewelry in the hope of rekindling their relationship. The scene is cleverly played and directed to deliberately make us react against such an easy manipulation of the viewer’s involvement with the characters. Again, this facile drift of events is suddenly inverted when Nancy refuses to fall under the spell of Jeff’s seduction, and permanently ends the relationship. The final scene produces a crowning irony. Nancy confesses to Kate, “I’ll miss him ...”, revealing that the experience of the divorce has given her little further insight into herself; she is still equivocating over Jeff.
One of the most fascinating Family episodes is “Skeleton in the Closet” (season 2, episode 8, writer Leonora Thuna, director Erman). The title is eloquent, evoking those things suppressed within the family that assure its continuance. It is a pivotal episode in the development of the series. The central story is about strains within the family, while the subplot is about a lack outside the family – to which Buddy, in this case, comes to the rescue. From this episode on, the Lawrences function as a symbol of the ideal family, to which other people with problems come for refuge. It is Buddy’s friend Audrey who is about to “give herself” to a two-timing boyfriend, and Buddy who has to save her. It is Doug’s client whose marriage is breaking up. When the dilemma does concern the individuals of the family directly, the problem is not made very challenging or disruptive. Doug goes to a hotel with an attractive woman, but doesn’t even make it through the front door before he is again pledging marital fidelity to Kate.
The subplot of “Skeleton in the Closet” is introduced first. Shopping with Kate, Buddy sees an old woman shoplift. Kate hushes her up, justifying the action: “There are circumstances”. Thus infused with a social conscience, Buddy makes several attempts to give gifts of food and money to the woman. She refuses, her pride hurt, but eventually accepts. Buddy’s acts illustrate the ideology of bourgeois charity. Helping one person in need satisfies the disturbed liberal conscience; asking questions about why people get to be poor in the first place is an abstract, unnecessary endeavour. And Buddy, in her enlightened middle-class household, can do her good deeds as often as she likes. The final scene shows her getting fifty dollars from her parents for the old woman: “It’s nothing, just money”.
It is also significant that no other episode ever returns to this external character. It is commonplace that there is a startling discontinuity between the self-contained episodes of a drama series – it is an unstated convention we accept as viewers. But such conventions are rarely innocent. We are, in fact, conspiring in a precise ideological operation. Characters introduced for the purposes of one story are usually never seen again, and this is convenient in the sense that a particular conflict can be sealed off in one episode, and never recur with all its attendant problems – in marked contrast to the serial soap operas, where every problem is interminably dragged through every episode.
The central drama in “Skeleton in the Closet” is very different in its nature. Doug’s father James and “kid sister” Emily arrive, along with Emily’s stern husband, Charles. The family reunion is described by Doug as a paradise: “The family is together and all is right with the world”. This is quickly shown to be a delusion. Emily is slipping back into alcoholism, and Charles is about to leave her if she fumbles this “last chance”. Doug maintains a fantasy image of Emily because, in the past, their father relegated to him the job of raising her. “Doug has to see her as perfect, or he failed in the job I imposed on him”. This complex family situation is richly suggestive. James was a failure as a father, yet Doug strove to live up to his expectations, ruining the third party involved, i.e., Emily. She is unable to cope with anything, and lashes out at Kate: “You’re tiny, mean, provincial ...”.
Emily’s culminating stage of decline is a familiar, almost obsessive motif in Family: the regression into a childlike state associated with a “safe place” from the past – in this instance, the swings in the park. “I really loved the swing, and I didn’t want to get off”. Eventually, moved by Doug’s words (“I can’t watch you destroy yourself”), Emily cries in his arms and vows to seek help. At this point, she – and all the problems dredged up by her presence – are eliminated from the episode, and she is not seen or referred to in the closing moments. Her rehabilitation is assumed as a certainty. But this, as regularly in Apple’s Way, is a sleight-of-hand strategy that serves to shove the skeletons right back into the closet. The drama has evoked complex tensions with such power, however, that the evasion can hardly go unnoticed.
But this conflict of attitudes turns out to be no conflict at all. The younger woman wants to escape into a fantasy embodied by the apartment – “A princess in the tower, not a woman about to have a baby”. Her rejection of the norm is neither rational nor valid in the way it is represented to us. When her labour pains begin, her defensive façade cracks and she turns to Kate as the bearer of maternal wisdom and experience: “Please make the pains go away”. As she gives birth, she asks Kate to talk about her own children, prompting an extraordinary outpouring of motherly love: “Buddy is the child that will be me but better ...” – and so on, about all her kids.
In the framework of the series, Lilly’s problem is familiar. She does not know her Self, i.e., her place in the social order. Significantly, when Kate hands the child to a despairing Lilly (“I have none of the right feelings”), this is the reassurance she receives: “Don’t worry, the child will tell you who she is”. This is the ideal of a perfect – and perfectly Natural – union of mother and child that answers the question of Lilly and every character in the family shows: “Who am I? How do I fit into this world?” The subplot reiterates the theme in a lighter vein. Buddy makes a disastrous attempt at dyeing her hair; only to learn that – you guessed it – being herself is the best course.
Alongside the social values reinforced by the narrative, Family constantly returns to moments of irony and self-parody that, although always at the periphery of the drama, sometimes call into question the ideology involved. One of the most intriguing episodes in this regard, “The Little Brother” (season 3, episode 7, writer Gregory S. Dinallo, director Harvey S. Laidman), deals with Willie’s attempt to become a foster brother to a black boy. “His parents don’t know him. I’m more his family”. It soon becomes clear that Willie is attempting to fill the void left by the death of his wife. The boy tells him: “I’m not up to being your big brother”, and leaves town – but not before answering Buddy’s question about the unknown woman in the Lawrence family tree: “She was probably a hooker”. To her delight, Buddy gets an A grade for including this fact in a school assignment.
What is most significant here is that the boy is emphatically not placed in any family (especially this one!) as a resolution; he rejects the middle-class situation of the Lawrences; and casually exposes one of the skeletons in its closet. His presence seems to mock so much of what happens in the other episodes of Family that it suggests the scriptwriters are well aware of the ideological messages inherent in the drama, and occasionally allow themselves the liberty of calling these into question, albeit in a rather playful fashion. We need to be sensitive to such moments of excess that cannot be contained, and potentially provide a critical distance that serves to open up the way these series work.
“The Secret” on The Waltons in 1976 (season 4, episode 16, writers Claire Whitaker & Rod Peterson, director Laidman) sums up some of the central issues that arise from the consideration of television families. Jim (David W. Harper) begins to doubt that he was born into the Walton family, and his dilemma is precisely that age-old ideological question which Sigmund Freud located at the origin of the family romance: “Who am I?” Who are my true parents, and where did I really come from? His mother evades any discussion of the subject. John-Boy attempts to dispel Jim’s suspicions by showing him the official birth records.
But it is in those documents that a family secret is uncovered: Jim’s twin died at birth. The memory of it has been suppressed, because it is associated in the mother’s mind with a collapse of the family ideal. She wanted to give birth at home, as with all her children, but complications forced a futile rush to the hospital in another town – too late to save the child. The father of the Walton clan takes Jim aside and asks him to keep the secret: “If it’s going to hurt your mother, it’s easier not to talk about it”. The final scene shows Jim wordlessly, and before all the other members of the family, running to his mother’s embrace.
On one level, it is a beautiful moment, reminiscent of the denouements of Robert Mulligan’s best films: the resolution of divisive tension through a deep, unspoken bond of love. But, on another level, it is that very silence which disturbs: the situations never faced openly upon which an illusion of family unity is built.
Television families might appear at first glance simple to understand and discuss; a closer look reveals their deeper ambiguities.
1. Juliet Mitchell (1974), Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing and Women (New York: Vintage, 1975), pp. 410-411. back
2. Louis Althusser (trans. Ben Brewster), For Marx (London: Allen Lane, 1969), p. 231. back
3. Maud Mannoni (1967), The Child, His ‘Illness’, and the Others (Karnac Books, 1987), p. 271; the book’s “Glossary on Lacanian Terminology”, from which this definition is taken, draws upon previous commentary by Anthony Wilden. back
© Adrian Martin 1978