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Great family dramas, told over generations
Throughout TV's history, the family drama has evolved and expanded, shifting along with the culture. It's responsible for some of television's most indelible creations. Read on for 16 of our favorites, listed in chronological order.
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The Waltons (1972-1981)
The show that proved TV drama didn’t need gunslingers or starships to grab your attention, CBS’s The Waltons took the action back to the Great Depression and explored three generations of a family living in rural Virginia. It ran for nine seasons, and while occasionally running into the realm of the treacly or the romanticized — especially when viewed through contemporary eyes — it nonetheless painted an appealingly idyllic family portrait.
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The radical mundanity of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick’s thirtysomething remains, even to this day, a rarity for network television. Exploring the lives of baby boomers in their 30s and their experiences with marriage and divorce, work and parenthood, it built on The Waltons by further stripping the conventions of TV drama to the basics of character and conflict. The generation-specific privileges and anxieties contended with by the series’ ensemble could be grating, but more often, the show was tenderly insightful in its look at growing up and old.
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I’ll Fly Away (1991-1993)
A short-lived gem of a show, I’ll Fly Away was astonishingly direct in its take on racial politics for early 90s network TV. The series was set in the South in the 1960s, its ensemble headed up by an Atticus Finch-like DA (Sam Waterston) and his housekeeper Lilly (Regina Taylor), who takes on a maternal role in the family after the matriarch dies. I’ll Fly Away is a sweet if naturalistic look at families patching themselves up and coming back together. But it becomes something more exciting — if a little idealized — as it pays special attention to Lilly’s increasing involvement in the civil rights movement and the inseparable link between politics and family.
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The Sopranos (1999-2007)
The Sopranos was as much a game-changer for the crime drama as it was the family drama. Inspiring countless knockoffs and emerging as a cultural touchstone, David Chase’s mob series introduced viewers to a family defined, in many ways, by their typical American values: the immigrant roots, the rise to wealth, the suburban ennui. Its allure of mob drama provided the surface for a rigorous and at times uproariously despairing dissection of the anguished American patriarch.
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Once and Again (1999-2002)
Herskovitz and Zwick’s other entrant on this list was certainly less explosive than thirtysomething, but may have actually been a bit richer. ABC’s domestic drama featured a fiery romance between Sela Ward, playing a single mother, and Billy Campbell, and grew into a more holistic family chronicle over time — with Evan Rachel Wood, particularly, establishing herself as an adolescent standout.
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Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s distinct approach to dialogue provided an entirely new parent-child dynamic for TV, one in which mom was as much friend as parent and where conversations about pop culture classics like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory could be as intense as “the talk.” Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel were both raw and hilarious, and Kelly Bishop — as the third-generation Gilmore — infused the series’ study of motherhood with consistently surprising complexity.
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Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Alan Ball’s groundbreaking HBO series added sexual and racial diversity to the popular family drama, a genre that — even at its most creatively inspired — had previously been a most homogeneous domain. But that only begins to speak to Six Feet Under’s influence and power: The Fishers were a beautifully realized clan of love, envy, pain, and longing — real for what united them and realer still for how they set themselves apart. The series’ ending montage is an especially moving and iconic vision of family.
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Big Love (2006-2011)
Against all odds, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s polygamist drama mined some of TV’s most poignant ideas about love, faith, and family. The show was always wild and multi-faceted — and, mostly in its fourth season, severely uneven — but at its core was a unit of four spouses and their nearly dozen children. Unafraid to move in surprising directions, the show increasingly took on topics of patriarchy and deviancy, and — perhaps perversely — managed to make us care about all sides of a marriage formed within an abusive tradition.
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Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
You've probably heard it before, but we'll say it again: FNL is not a gritty sports drama about a high school football coach and his young players. Rather, the beloved series remains centered on the Taylor marriage and how the Taylors related to the family of the town of Dillon. Marriages are always hard to get right in TV — happy ones, even more so — but thanks to the expertly calibrated work of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, and the frequently stunning writing that kept them both interesting and content, Friday Night Lights provided a family to fall in love with and cherish.
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United States of Tara (2009-2011)
Diablo Cody’s spiky Showtime half-hour began as an unusual family comedy that was tonally all over the place. By the end of its brief run, it ranked among the bleakest and most distinctive family dramas to ever air on TV. Under Jill Soloway’s stewardship in season 2, United States of Tara evolved into a poignant exploration of a family living through mental illness. Toni Collette’s turn as Tara ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking, a DID-diagnosed mother whose children — played by Oscar winner Brie Larson and Atypical’s Keir Gilchrist — needed to learn to develop around her.
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Jason Katims stayed in the family arena after Friday Night Lights with Parenthood, a loose adaptation of Ron Howard’s movie of the same name. A big ensemble drama lacking in the salacious, harrowing, and/or bizarre circumstances characterizing much of the genre at the time, the show was an affecting, nimble drama with the same compassion Katims brought to FNL. The series was buoyed further with the powerful performances of Lauren Graham, Mae Whitman, and Peter Krause
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John Wells has served as showrunner on several iconic dramas — The West Wing and ER among them — but Shameless has emerged as a sneaky success story for the prolific producer. Based on the UK series of the same name, the Showtime drama can be wildly funny or painfully dark depending on the week, but it’s always weighted by an acute understanding of the traumas that linger and joys that never drift away in the Gallagher family — and its focus on poverty distinguishes it from the rest of this class.
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The Americans (2013-present)
How can a Cold War spy drama make this list? Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ deliberate, meticulous period piece started as more of an action series than a family drama, but with one big mid-series revelation — we won’t spoil it here — The Americans unveiled itself as a probing meditation on domestic cultural values. The series is sharply attuned to the dynamics of marriage, interrogating them with galvanizing intelligence, and also to the way ideology informs and molds the way we raise our children, fall in love, and build a family.
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The Fosters (2013-present)
This Freeform landmark started off introducing an interracial same-sex marriage and a pair of foster kids and hasn’t slowed down a bit in the years since. The unapologetically progressive series regularly tackles questions of adoption, race, sexuality, and trans identity, giving voice to an assortment of marginalized communities and throwing them into one big, gloriously messy family stew. The show is indeed messy, sometimes leaning too heavily into melodrama, but it has a heart and a belief in the resilience of family that matches its vital activist art.
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Jill Soloway’s breakout tragicomedy was an instant awards juggernaut and became the show that put streamer Amazon on the prestige content map. Currently, the series rests most emphatically as a wise and uncompromising contemporary family portrait. When Pfefferman patriarch Maura reveals herself to be transgender, it creates identity quests for the rest of her children — quests that are as self-absorbed as they are emotionally resonant. Soloway, who also wrote for Six Feet Under and U.S. of Tara, imbues this series with an autobiographical touch — and in its specificity and melancholy, it shows.
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Queen Sugar (2016-present)
The TV family drama has, like many genres in the medium, been a predominantly white affair. But that's only one reason why Ava DuVernay’s gorgeous, lyrical, and at times strikingly political OWN series has managed to occupy such significant cultura real estate in the short time it’s been on the air. The Louisiana-set drama only gets better with each passing episode, its intimate exploration of the Bordelon siblings and their extended family both stirringly of the moment and enticingly timeless.