Today's TV families are reassuringly dysfunctional - just like real ones

TV families were once impossibly perfect. Now they have a healthy dose of weird

15 October 2017 - 00:00 By tymon smith
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William H Macy in 'Shameless' with kids Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney.
William H Macy in 'Shameless' with kids Ethan Cutkosky and Emma Kenney.
Image: Supplied

Family. For many years American television created versions of the family ideal that were meant to make us aspire to be more like them - our actual families may have been more dysfunctional than a square peg in a round hole, but those on TV were there to remind us of what we should be aiming for.

As Ronald Reagan - high priest of family values and perfect holiday gatherings - was once rumoured to have said, it was better for the US to strive to be like the wholesome Waltons than the idiosyncratic Simpsons.

However, after years of offering fantasies of unobtainable family bliss for real families to try to emulate, television has in recent years begun to accept the reality of the poet Philip Larkin's version of family relationships:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.


From the dysfunctional relationships of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to the fantastical but identifiable insanity of the families battling for ascendancy in Game of Thrones, the small screen has offered us a variety of visions of the idea of family in the post-nuclear, post-Christian-conservative age.

While shows like Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat offer traditional but slightly quirky alternative American versions of the old-school idea of the family unit, others in your streaming queue offer a far more complicated and different view of where the family as an idea has got to.

I'm not talking about shows where groups of disparate characters not linked by blood are presented as an alternative family unit, or about the hyper-real shenanigans of celebrity families like the Osbournes or that unmentionable K-word show.

No, I'm talking about the slightly exaggerated but totally relatable family dysfunction of recent television:

• The sexual identity crises of the Pfeffermans in Jill Soloway's transgender comedic drama Transparent - based on the creator's own experience with her father who came out to his family as transgender after her mother's death;

• The zany working-class, hard-as-nails but strong-as-steel bonds of the alcoholic, sometimes criminal but always striving and there-for-each-other Gallaghers in Shameless;

• The economic and sociopolitical realities and obstacles challenging the varied identities of the members of the struggling but loyal family the Bordelons in Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar;

• The dark secrets that tear apart the seemingly privileged lives of the Rayburn family in the humidity and steam of the Florida Keys in Bloodline;

 • Never mind the over-the-top soap opera that is the life of the absurdly named Lucious Lyon and his family in Empire;

• Oh and let's not forget the satisfyingly melodramatic family bonds of the twins and adopted brother in the hugely successful This Is Us;

• For a perfect portrayal of fraternal tensions you need not look much further than the McGill brothers in Better Call Saul;

• Finally there's the exaggerated otherworldly nuttiness of the grandfather/grandson team on Adult Swim's Rick and Morty.


All of which proves that, like families in the real world, television is trying to get to grips with the new realities of how we lead our lives as best we can with those we love in the age of multiculturalism, social media, celebrity and materialism.

We can seek a space that's more accepting of difference and individual identity as necessary parts of the salad dressing recipe that is, and will always be, family.

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