Skip to main content


The Ideal TV Families?

By John W. Kennedy
January 27, 2003

The upheaval in U.S. society during the past half-century is nowhere better reflected than by what we watch on our television screens. In the 1950s, TV depicted the archetype white-bread wholesome American family in such shows as "Father Knows Best," "Leave It to Beaver" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Typically, Dad would leave the house in his suit and tie to go earn a living, leaving Mom in her dress and pearl necklace to supervise the youngsters. Any problems that arose during the day would be handled by Dad after a hard day at the office.

Today, the most talked-about TV families aren’t even on the major networks, yet they have become cultural icons–not because of their sweet nature, but due to their notoriety. The top-rated programs these days on HBO and MTV depict truly dysfunctional families: the Sopranos and the Osbournes. It’s been a long, winding path from the innocent families of yesteryear. Protagonist Tony Soprano frequently utters the f-word on the pay cable channel. As for the Osbournes, all the family members use the f-word in virtually every sentence, dutifully bleeped by censors because the reality series is on basic cable.

The show about a Mafia family has struck a chord since 1999. The fourth season finale last December garnered 12.5 million viewers, remarkable in that HBO is available only in 30 million homes (compared to 106 million households for the big four networks.) The September premiere of the fourth season attracted 13.4 million viewers, a record for HBO and indeed for any cable network.

Amazingly, seven books were published around the time of last season’s debut, trying to capitalize on its familial popularity, including The Sopranos Family Cookbook, The Psychology of The Sopranos and The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, which purports to explore "the many reasons why the show has connected so deeply with American culture and exposes the mysteries of life and faith that emerge just behind the curtains of baked ziti and Armani suits."

The weekly 30-minute "The Osbournes" episodes began airing last March. The series has adroitly transformed Ozzy’s image from a devil-worshipping heavy metal druggie into a bumbling middle-aged dad. The series scored cover stories in publications ranging from "Time" to "Rolling Stone." By April, "The Osbournes" were drawing more than six million weekly viewers, an unaccustomed figure for MTV. The program features Ozzy, wife Sharon, 17-year-old daughter Kelly, and 16-year-old son Jack in their Beverly Hills residence and elsewhere. The show has a cross-generational appeal to the typically youthful MTV audience, plus their parents who remember Ozzy in the 1970s, when he described himself as the "f---ing prince of f---ing darkness."

In his youthful performing days, the Black Sabbath vocalist bit the heads off a bat and a dove. Now, the flabby, tattooed 54-year-old Briton shuffles around the house guzzling wine and ineffectively dispensing advice about curfews and homework to his mohawk-haired son and pink-haired daughter, who gets her own tattoos without parental approval.

Why do TV viewers prefer an artificial family led by mobster Tony Soprano or rocker Ozzy Osbourne? The popularity isn’t a reflection of life imitating art. "Nobody thinks the Sopranos or the Osbournes are idyllic families," says Robert J. Thompson, communications professor at Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. "People don’t watch them because they are role models, but because they are interesting and they go places most of us don’t get to go."

"The whole basis of watching TV is to escape the drudgery of everyday life," says Stephen Winzenburg, communications professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. "The Sopranos and Osbournes fit that picture." Winzenburg notes that the Mafia family Sopranos commit murders that most people can’t commit without being punished. And many viewers find a middle-aged, tattoo-covered rock and roll star screaming at his teenage daughter fascinating. Thompson, author of Television’s Second Golden Age, contends that "The Sopranos" isn’t so much about mobsters as it is about exploring the neuroses of the American family. Although a mighty mob boss, Tony is a bumbling and emotionally troubled father and husband who sees a therapist. And he says the Osbournes aren’t that far removed from the Cleavers of "Leave It to Beaver." Thompson notes that the rest of the family threw a surprise birthday party for Ozzy, something straight out of the 1950s.

But TV families back then had limitations. Lucy Ricardo couldn’t even say the word "pregnant" in 1953 to describe the nine months leading to the birth of her son. Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate beds during the early 1960s on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The 1960s dealt with the changing American family in an indirect way. As the divorce rate began to explode in the decade, TV began showing one-parent families on such series as "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Courtship of Eddie’s Father," but invariably as the result of the death of a parent, not a dissolution of marriage. By the 1970s, TV showed single mothers in programs such as "Alice" and "One Day at a Time."

Before Archie and Meathead began incessantly yelling and arguing on "All in the Family" in 1971, families depicted on television tended to be idealistic representations of what everyone wanted their own family to be like. While the 1970s broke the mold, the 1990s shattered it, with "The Simpsons," "Married ... with Children" and "Roseanne."

Until the 1990s, television families, even the messed up ones, still exhibited a sense that the members cared for one other. But "Married ... with Children" changed that. "There wasn’t the sense that the Bundys cared for each other," Thompson says. "There was a sense that each character would be better off if not a part of this family."

Thompson says Americans watch family shows not to find insights on how to conduct themselves but to be entertained. "TV is not the best medium to display healthy, functional families," he says. "There’s not a lot of drama in it. People don’t watch TV for role models. Nothing would be left on the air if there weren’t bad role models. The evil of Tony Soprano makes the show interesting, and ultimately appealing."

But Winzenburg, author of TV’s Greatest Sitcoms, says television both reflects and shapes the changing definition of the family. For example, "Will & Grace," a show featuring a homosexual attorney and heterosexual interior designer as the title character roommates, depicts all sorts of unconventional sexual mores. "People watching think it’s OK to act the same way the characters act," Winzenburg says.

Winzenburg finds the most significant cultural shift on TV since the 1950s to be parents, especially fathers, who once had the respect of their children but now won’t punish their offspring for bratty behavior. Today’s TV parents–including the Osbournes–try to act as friends to their children instead of disciplinarians. Parents don’t even want to raise their voices, for that might jeopardize the friendship bond that has been established with their children. Subsequently, the father never follows through on what he claims the rules are and kids are raised with no self-control.

Thus, the second season of "The Osbournes" features Jack and Kelly, newfound celebrities in their own right, involved in more outrageous antics as they mug for the cameras.

On "The Sopranos," the fourth season ended with Carmela Soprano booting her husband, his wardrobe, and his golf clubs out of the house after learning of his extramarital affairs. Viewers will have to wait another year to see if the marriage can be salvaged. A fifth–and expected final–season will likely air in 2004.

The 1950s were simpler times in both real life and television life. Thompson finds "Leave It to Beaver" to be a brilliant show because of great pacing and a moral message at the end. A real ideal family will never again be depicted in a sitcom, Thompson believes, because there is no time to allow for character development since comedies must deliver rapid-fire quips.

"The Sopranos" episodes likewise waste no time on morality tales. "The Sopranos give the inappropriate message that it’s OK to be mean and hateful," Winzenburg says. "Loyalty is valued above morality. TV as escapism can teach us if used properly. But most of the dysfunctional families have no moral purpose. By the end of the show they haven’t learned anything."