From All in the Family to Family Ties, from The Hogan Family to The Addams Family, from Family to Parenthood, TV is obsessed with moms, dads, and kids in every combination possible. We speak of TV genres — the cop show, the Western, the lawyer show, etc. — but family shows transcend the concept of genre; they mirror their audience. And they’re older than television itself: Some of the first TV family shows were just adaptations of radio family shows, like The Goldbergs and The Life of Riley.
There have been small changes in family shows over the years, of course. For instance, there used to be more of an age gap. You’d look at Danny Thomas in Make Room for Daddy and think, How did this middle-aged guy get the lissome Marjorie Lord? And how did Fred Gwynne and Yvonne DeCarlo produce Eddie Munster? These days, TV families seem to reflect the baby-boomer demographics of their audience more closely. Parenthood‘s Ed Begley Jr. and thirtysomething‘s Ken Olin probably watched Ozzie & Harriet and Leave It to Beaver when they were boys.
Some series that weren’t family shows have proved to be family shows anyway: In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary’s coworkers provided the support system a family usually supplies. The island castaways formed a family in Gilligan’s Island. Taxi drivers were a family for Taxi driver Judd Hirsch; barflies are a family for Ted Danson in Cheers.
Parenthood is a state-of-the-art family show, with a big, multigenerational cast. Its serialized plots are often as simple as Leave It to Beaver‘s — Begley’s kids come down with chicken pox; William Windom teaches his grandson the value of good sportsmanship. But Parenthood‘s boomer parents fret over their decisions more than Ozzie and Harriet did; they’re awkward authority figures who grew up thinking you should constantly question authority. The perpetually crestfallen Begley is especially good at looking surprised whenever his kids obey his commands.
Still, for all its artful ambivalence, Parenthood is pro-family, unlike the media sensations The Simpsons and Married?With Children. In these knowing but jaded shows, a family is something to escape as soon as possible; in the knowing but optimistic Parenthood, a unified family is something to yearn for and work at. It is a show to watch with the whole you-know-what.