Television rights of passage
From ''Murphy Brown'' to ''Friends,'' TV's most memorable family events
It has been said, ad nauseam, that TV unites the country into one big family. Proving that point most persuasively are the endless weddings, funerals, and births we’ve attended, beginning most notably with the synchronistic arrivals of Little Rickys Arnaz and Ricardo. Fractious Thanksgiving meals aside, we’ve waded through TV’s endless family gatherings to pick the most memorable. All we can say is, thank God we weren’t expected to send gifts.
Bouncing Baby Bunker (Dec. 22, 1975) It’s no surprise that All in the Family gave us TV’s noisiest birth — all that yowling from Gloria (Sally Struthers), all that bickering between Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and Meathead (Rob Reiner). But that it also gave us the most convincing (short of ER) is a testament to this sitcom’s verisimilitude.
Murphy’s Little Bundle of Controversy (May 18, 1992) The arrival of single mom Murphy Brown’s (Candice Bergen) tot became a political hot potato (er, potatoe) for Dan Quayle and a ballyhooed benchmark for pop culture. By blaming a fictional character for America’s ”poverty of values,” Quayle not only set off a flurry of headlines (”Quayle to Murphy Brown: You Tramp!” screamed the New York Daily News), it gave half-hour comedies unprecedented political weight.
Surrogate and Triplicate (Oct. 8, 1998) Only Friends‘ ditzy Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) could surmount so borderline incestuous a plot: Woman becomes surrogate mom for brother’s triplets! It’s a credit to the show’s whip-smart writers that such a ludicrous premise also proved poignant.
Lizard-Lickin’ Good (May 7, 1984) The 24.2 million households that tuned in to see the intergalactic offspring of a reptilian Romeo and human Juliet in V: The Final Battle weren’t likely to forget the result: Squalling baby morphs into tongue-flicking reptile! Spine-chilling — and a nifty precursor to The X-Files.
It Came from Outer Space (Oct. 15, 1981) TV’s kookiest birth? Easy: the hatching of Mork (Robin Williams) and Mindy’s (Pam Dawber) 225-pound ”toddler” Mearth (played by Williams’ comic mentor, Jonathan Winters). Inspired casting, yet the stunt couldn’t save the ailing series: Eight months later, the sitcom went nanu, nanu.
A Fay to Remember (Dec. 17, 1969) The sight of ukulele-playing Tiny Tim and his go-go dancer bride Miss Vicki tiptoeing down The Tonight Show aisle attracted Johnny Carson’s second-highest-rated Tonight Show (his ’92 sign-off is first). The marriage didn’t fare as well: One daughter (Tulip, natch) and three years later, Tiny and Vicki split. And was it any wonder? As the late erstwhile musician told EW in ’92: ”I came very close to marrying someone else. Three days after [Vicki and I] announced the engagement, I asked Miss Iris to elope with me. She said no, so I married Miss Vicki instead.”
Much ‘I Do’ About Nothing (Oct. 28, 1974) America was as eager for the desperately-seeking-marriage Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) to tie the knot with Joe (David Groh) as she was. Fifty-one million — more than those who watched that year’s World Series or Nixon impeachment hearings — tuned in to see the bride hop the D train in her wedding dress. One of the first examples of appointment TV didn’t lead to happily ever after, however; as in the real world, where climbing divorce rates were then front-page news, the duo would soon split.
The Princess Bride (July 29, 1981) Once upon a time, 750 million people worldwide RSVP’d to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. We weren’t disappointed: From the Cinderella-esque horse-drawn carriages to Di’s voluminous silk gown, viewers — including an estimated 55 million Americans who rose at 6 a.m. to watch in real time — got a taste of what fairy tales are made of.
Love in the Afternoon (Nov. 16 and 17, 1981) Thirty million attended the long-awaited nuptials of General Hospital‘s sudsiest supercouple, Luke and Laura (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis, left). The event was so pop-culturally pervasive, people who’d never watched a soap felt they owed the Newsweek cover couple a toaster. The frothy highlight? Elizabeth Taylor’s campy ”Curse you, Laura and Luke!” cameo.
Shotgun Wedding (May 15, 1985) As Dynasty‘s Amanda Carrington (Catherine Oxenberg) and her Moldavian prince Michael (Michael Praed) exchanged vows, a band of terrorists opened fire, leaving Alexis (Joan Collins) and the wedding party for dead. Only the show most associated with Greed Decade excess could have pulled it off.
Tears for a Clown (Oct. 25, 1975) We aren’t the first to single out the passing of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Chuckles the Clown. And there’s a reason for that: The untimely demise of the cranky kids’-show host (trampled by a circus elephant) and the hilarious inappropriateness of Mary’s funeral behavior add up to the funniest TV death ever — and the blackly comic forerunner of…
Pushing the Envelope (May 16, 1996) Who but Seinfeld cocreator Larry David could concoct so deliciously heartless an exit: the death of Susan (Heidi Swedberg), fiancée of eternal commitment-phobe and skinflint George (Jason Alexander), from licking one too many cheap wedding-invitation envelopes? Better yet: In the episode’s closing credits, George wastes no time letting actress Marisa Tomei know he’s a free agent: ”I’ve got the funeral tomorrow, but my weekend is pretty wide open.”
Rated PG (Nov. 24, 1983) Explaining death to preschoolers was the unenviable task of Sesame Street‘s writers after Will Lee — shopkeeper Mr. Hooper since the show’s inception in 1969 — died of cancer. In the end, they opted for the direct approach. The news is broken to Big Bird by new shopkeeper David, who assures the saddened Bird, we’ll ”make sure you’re okay.” By airing the episode on Thanksgiving, when parents would be home, Street made sure their young viewers would be okay, too.
Short and Sweet (March 21, 1991) The grisly plunge down an elevator shaft for L.A. Law‘s ruthless rainmaker Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) came as a total shock to the show’s regular fans. These days, with every hangnail a hyped sweeps event, that’s notable.
The Longest Goodbye (Nov. 24, 1998) NYPD Blue took a page from Camille in the death of Det. Bobby Simone, keeping the pathos alive for five episodes. In his inimitable style, writer and cocreator David Milch married poetic imagery (odd, pigeon-filled dreams) with gut-wrenching emotionalism. The payoff: a ratings rebirth for the veteran cop drama.