From The Brady Bunch to Family Guy: The American Family on TV

Since its inception, television has attempted to show us how the typical American life looks. From some of the earliest shows; like Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, and the Dick Van Dyke Show; we were shown the close-knit traditional family. It was symbolic of the 1950 and early 60’s. There was working dad who always smiled upon coming home at 5PM. There was mom (or wife) who stayed home and cooked, cleaned and took care of the household.

There were some little ones who were into baseball, soapbox derby, and frogs (or dolls, tea parties, and dress-up). Struggles were minimal, at least those shown on air. This is how the American family existed, in the real world, at this time, for the most part. If there were troubles, they were kept behind closed doors. Couples didn’t go to therapy, kids respected their parents (at least in the public eye), and what you saw wasn’t always what was real.

Then came the 1970’s. It was an era of change. America was riding the waves of the sexual revolution. Women sought equality. Kids grew their hair long and listened to different music; music that their parents didn’t like (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS…). As for television, the representative for the decade, as it pertained to the American family, was The Brady Bunch.

The Brady Bunch gave us the pipedream and unattainable expectations of nirvana, utopia, and complete bliss, all under one household; one household with six children, stepparents, and a live-in maid. From watching this show, we were supposed to believe that the traditional American family never yelled at each other, never even raised their voices, was extremely respectful, could all share limited bathroom space; again with six children/teens, and had a full time maid. Mom and dad never had an argument that couldn’t be resolved before bedtime. Dad, the architect, came home each night at 5PM and ate dinner with the entire nine-member family (the maid was family).

How realistic was this? Did anybody ever grow up under these conditions? Maybe on occasion some of these scenarios were truthful, but more often than not, this was dreamtime. This type of family could only be seen on television. It wasn’t real. Maybe that is why the show has endured on lived on through the years. It is a part of Americana. We always want to see ‘the other side’ where ‘the grass is greener’.

In the 1980’s we were given The Cosby Show. This gem was a huge hit with both critics and fans. But was it accurate? The dad was a doctor, the mom was a lawyer, and the children never did anything more dangerous than attempt to get an earring. They lived in a magnificent home, but the income they had to be pulling in would easily afford it. In this show, the children were very similar to the Brady kids but the parents were vastly different.

Bill would yell (in a friendly way) at Theo or Vanessa when they did something wrong; whereas Mike Brady just spoke like one of the founding fathers at a political rally (“Greg, if you just think about your choices; you will know what is right and what is wrong”). The kids tested the boundaries of what they could get away with. The parents dealt real punishments. This was a bit more realistic, but still…what 17-year olds would sing synchronized song and dance numbers for their grandparents? It was a stretch.

In the 1990’s we were thrust into the world of Roseanne. This show, much like Cosby, was a massive hit. But unlike its predecessors (Brady and Cosby), it didn’t steer clear of the danger zones. They weren’t afraid to tackle hot topics like drugs, alcohol, feminine issues, teen sex, and so on. The parents weren’t wealthy, they didn’t have a clean house, and the kids were kids in that they experienced a wide range of emotions, problems, and everyday events in the life of the American youth.

The show attempted to portray them all. This is the show that gave it to us like it really is. The mom was a loud-mouthed, vulgar, person; but she loved her family. She just didn’t show it the same way that Carol Brady did. This show opened up many eyes to how life was for many normal American families. Like it or not, this is realistic, not for all, but for most.

Then we hit the new millennium, the new decade, the new time. We now have Family Guy. Even though it is a cartoon, it is very family oriented. It may not be suitable viewing for all families, but it is something that all open-minded people should watch, if for no other reason, it is one of the funniest shows of all-time. As for the way Family Guy portrays the American family, it kind of gets it right but adds a twist.

Family Guy is less a representation of family in the 2000’s than it is a caricature of it. They take a normal, everyday issue, like teen acne, and devote the entire episode to it and exploit it. The acne is even personified and brought to life as a living, breathing, entity. Granted, this is something that only animation can do, but, even if Family Guy was a live-action sitcom, it would still find a way to do the silliness that it is known for. The animation just allows for over the edge moments.

Is Family Guy an accurate and a realistic depiction of the traditional American family? It is in that it is modern with its approach. The show doesn’t know the meaning of the word taboo. More and more families today are similar. Parents (female) date younger men, drugs are openly and honestly talked about, sex is something that parents ask the kids about for advice, nobody is a ‘child’ anymore; even kids are adults (just look at are ‘teen idols’ of the day). For our ever changing and ever growing up world, Family Guy is very accurate. True, it is extreme, but so are many American families today.

We’ve progressed a long way from Lucy, Andy of Mayberry, and the Bradys. For better or worse, we aren’t likely to be heading back there anytime soon. But there’s always Nick at Night when we hunger for the simplicity of yesterday’s life…and that’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.

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