Do families seen on the small screen reflect the families of today?
Within the last two decades, there’s been a mix of ideal and dysfunctional families. Thompson said “nice families” popped up on shows like “7th Heaven” (1996 to 2007), where the family is headed by a pastor, and dysfunctional ones are seen more commonly on productions like “Modern Family” (2009 to present).
“Modern Family” is one of the most revolutionary shows of its age, Thompson said. It attracts a young crowd — and stays true to family values despite the nontraditional families, including a same-sex couple and an older man married to a young woman, Thompson said.
Dr. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist, said TV shows are windows into previous generations.
“As time has gone by, there is more variety in the kinds of families that are depicted on television,” Lieberman said. “Thirty years from now, people will wonder which (families on TV) were more families like.”
Taking cues from life
Lieberman said writers often take seeds from true-life experiences and plant them in their TV scripts. Sometimes a show's plot will take an unanticipated turn to avoid delving into deeper issues particular to the writer’s experience, she said. TV show characters, like mothers or fathers, are always exaggerated because the writers are taking cues from their own parents, who they observed when they were younger, she said.
But experts don’t see a lot of life in the art of TV shows. Ben Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa, said shows don’t represent life. Instead, they only offer a reaction to exaggerated family circumstances, he said.
“It makes us recognize not ourselves, but something within ourselves that forces us to watch,” Peters said.
Thompson said perfect families — like those from “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” (1969 to 1974) — were “ridiculously out of touch” with family life. And shows like “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show” had good role models, but rarely was there anything that viewers related to, except for a few minor details, like social situations and reactions seen by the characters, Thompson said.
“It’s not like ‘The Brady Bunch’ was teaching them how to do a family,” Thompson said. “It was just showing (us) what a happy family was.”
But Thompson said that shouldn't be blamed on the writers. He said people in general don’t want to watch a television show about everyday life. They watch TV for an escape, he said.
“We don’t go to those shows for accuracy,” Thompson said. “It’s not like we’re watching these shows and they’re teaching us how to be families. But we’re watching these shows and puzzling together the world of what families are.”
Life imitating art
Still, Lieberman said that whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, people will take cues from what they see on TV and apply it to their lives.
She gave the example of actor Charlie Sheen. His now-deceased character on “Two and a Half Men” (2003 to present) presented "bad behavior," but some viewers would imitate him in real life because he was presented as cool and hip, she said. This can happen across many TV shows, Lieberman said.
“Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” she said, “because it’s much more powerful when you see these things on the screen.”
Because writers draw from their own experiences when scripting a show, they’re releasing their ideas and memories. By contrast, viewers are taking in these expressions of family life for the first time. That can cause a great impact on the viewer.
“When you put it in a movie or television show and you exaggerate it in a different way, to be funny for example, that has a bigger impact on the person watching it than the person who’s writing it,” Lieberman said.
Boughton understands how people can relate. She recognizes situations she’s been through and can spot similarities between her own family and the one seen on TV.
“With some of these shows, I kind of feel a little bit jealous because I’m like, ‘Wow, my family does the same exact thing, so we should have a TV show, too,’ ” she said.
These family TV shows remind her of the importance of family, she said. That’s the message she takes from the various depictions of family life on television.
“Even through the comedy, at the end of most of these episodes, families still love each other,” she said. “Despite our problems or funny scenarios or difficulties, we’re still a family and we love each other.”
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