Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Family Sitcom Cycle from 1968-1972

The 1968-1969 season saw the return of a genre that had been largely absent from the networks for much of the Sixties, that of the family sitcom. I myself have always defined a family sitcom as any sitcom in which the focus is on a family and the humour on the series derives from typical family situations. While some might be tempted to define I Love Lucy as a a family sitcom after the addition of Little Ricky, I would not, for the focus of the series remained on Lucy and Ethel's crazy schemes. By the same toke, while both The Addams Family and The Munsters focused on families, the humour did not derive from typical family situations (indeed, the humour derived from the fact that the Addamases and the Munsters were not typical families).

By 1968 American network television had been dominated by two, interconnected cycles of sitcoms. One cycle was towards what Sherwood Schwartz termed "imaginative comedies" in his book Inside Gilligan's Island. These were comedies which either had fantastic premises (a mortal man married to a witch in Bewitched and astronauts thrown back in time in It's About Time) or regularly employed fantasy elements in their episodes (Schwartz's own Gilligan's Island and The Monkees are examples of this). Another cycle concurrent with the one towards imaginative sitcoms was one towards spoofs or parodies. This cycle somewhat overlapped with the one towards imaginative sitcoms, in that often times the spoofs and parodies utilised fantasy elements in their episodes. The perfect example of this is Get Smart. A parody of such spy dramas as the James Bond movies and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it naturally featured elements of science fiction in its plots from time to time. Other spoofs and parodies that aired during this era were F Troop, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, and The Hero. Between the many imaginative comedies and spoofs of the era, there was little room for family sitcoms in the mid-Sixties.

Of course, it must be pointed out that family sitcoms were not entirely absent from American prime time in the mid-Sixties. My Three Sons, having debuted in the Fifties ran throughout the decade and into the Seventies. Debuting in 1961, Hazel, based on the newspaper comic strip of the same name, ran until 1966. Please Don't Eat the Daisies, based on the Jean Kerr book and 1960 Doris Day movie of the same name, debuted in 1965. Centring on the Nash family, it also incorporated some of the zaniness of other sitcoms in the period (in one episode the children thought their father was a spy--it included a guest appearance by Robert Vaughn of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). It ran two seasons. Debuting the following season, Family Affair was a bit of an anachronism. While the family was rather atypical in structure (Uncle Bill, a bachelor played by Brian Keith, had to care for his nephew and nieces), it could have easily aired in the Fifties. The children not only obeyed their Uncle Bill without question, but even placed him on a pedestal. The show also avoided any controversy or anything suggestive, to the point that the deaths of the children's parents was almost never brought up! Perhaps because it offered a very idealised, even unrealistic view of family life during a period of social unrest and societal change, Family Affair ran for five years.

By 1968 the imaginative sitcoms and spoofs had run their course. Many of them had already went off the air, while those that remained were not receiving the ratings they had once had. It is perhaps reasonable, then, that the networks would return to a tried and true genre, the family sitcom. That having been said, the family sitcoms of this era differed in some ways from those of earlier eras. Traditional families in which there was both a father and a mother were exceedingly rare. Most of these shows followed the formula of Bachelor Father and My Three Sons, in which a single parent is raising children on his or her own. Even when there was a father and a mother present on the show, the family might be far from traditional. As most are well aware from the theme song, The Brady Bunch featured a man and a woman who had both been previously married and had children of their own, perhaps making it the first American series to feature a "mixed" family.

As to why single parents predominated the 1968-1971 family sitcoms, I rather suspect that it was the simple that divorce had dramatically increased in the Sixties and, as a result, there were more single parents. Of course, at that time divorce was very nearly a forbidden subject on prime time network television. It is perhaps for that reason that every one of the single parents in this era (and before that, for that matter) were referred to as being widowed. In fact, it is possible that the climbing divorce rate played a role in the creation of The Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch represented an increasingly new phenomenon, in which previously married parents would remarry, each spouse bringing their own children into the new family. Of course, since divorce was a tabbo topic on network prime time television at the time, Mike and Carol were referred to as having been widowed.

Many of the family sitcoms of the era also differed from previous family sitcoms in that they often combined other genres with that of the family sitcom. An example of this is Nanny and the Professor, in which the nanny to Prof. Everett's children is portrayed as having psychic, even magical abilities. To a degree Nanny and the Professor resembled earlier imaginative sitcoms such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, although the focus of the series remained on the family and the comedy on the series usually emerged from typical family situations rather than Nanny's abilities. Another family sitcom which combined genres was The Partridge Family. Based very loosely on the career of singing family The Cowsills, The Partridge Family centred on a family who was also a band (every member of the family having a part). The TV show featured a song in every episode, much the same way as The Monkees once did. That having been said, it was a very different show in that the comedy generally emerged from typical family situations (at least, typical for a family band).

Despite the fact that most of the family sitcoms of this era differed in structure from earlier family sitcoms, the majority of them were very much like them in spirit. They were anachronisms much as Family Affair, in which the children were well behaved and the plots were very basic. Despite the fact that most of them dealt with single parents, then, the various series were very much a throwback to the family sitcoms of the early Fifties and the Sixties.

The cycle began in the 1968-1969 season with the emergence of three different family sitcoms. Two of them focused on single mothers. The Doris Day Show underwent many changes in format over the seasons, but in its first season it was firmly a family sitcom. Star of stage and screen Doris Day played Doris Martin, a widow with two sons who lived on a farm with her father Buck (played by Denver Pyle). In format, it owed something to the rural sitcoms of the era (such as The Andy Griffith Show). The other show featuring a single mother to debut that season would be historic. Julia was the first American TV show to feature an African American in the lead role. It centred on Julia Baker (played by Diahann Carroll), a nurse whose husband had died in the Vietnam War. The show was very much in the mould of the light hearted family sitcoms of this and earlier eras. It never dealt with anything suggestive, political, or controversial.

While The Doris Day Show and Julia were somewhat typical family sitcoms, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir had something of a spit personality. Based on the 1947 movie of the same name, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir centred on Carolyn Muir, a widowed mother who rents a house haunted by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg. While its premise put it in the same genre as My Favourite Martian and Bewitched, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir could not make up its mind whether it wanted to be a zany imaginative comedy or a more quiet family comedy. Episodes would vary from imaginative plots in which Captain Gregg must face off against a ghost hunter to more family oriented plots such one dealing with Mrs. Muir's son Jonathan and his problems in little league baseball. In many respects, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir could be considered a transitional show, one marking a shift between two cycles (from one towards imaginative comedies to one towards family sitcoms).

Although it produced some well known shows (The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Courtship of Eddie's Father), this particular cycle was not a particularly prolific one. It produced three sitcoms in its first season, two more in its second season, and its three more in its third season. By its fourth season, the 1971-1972, the cycle had clearly run its course. That season saw the debut of only one more sitcom. Curiously, it was one which focused on a more or less traditional family. The Jimmy Stewart Show featured the famous actor as an older, small town professor and father of a young son, whose grown up son and family moves in with him and his wife. Even with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, it only lasted briefly. for one season.

It is difficult to say why this particular cycle towards family sitcoms began. It is clear that the imaginative comedies and spoofs from earlier in the decade had run their course, leaving the networks to fill time slots with something else. The family sitcom was an old, tried and true genre, dating back to the days of radio, making it a safe bet to please viewers. Indeed, the antiquity of the genre may have well have played its role in its revival. The Sixties were a time of social upheaval and dramatic changes in society. The sexual revolution was well underway, as was the Women's Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement had been ongoing since the late Fifties. The Vietnam War was well under way and was proving very unpopular with much of the public. In the Sixties, the news was often filled with anti-war protests and even riots of various sorts. With so much social unrest taking place, many viewers may have wanted to find solace in the idealised world of family sitcoms. Indeed, it is significant that almost all of these family sitcoms eschewed controversy of any kind, even to the point of ignoring current events (even though Julia Baker's husband had died in Vietnam, Julia never made references to the unpopularity of the war or protests against it).

As to why the cycle ended, that reason is easier to pinpoint. On January 12, 1971, a show debuted that would usher in a new era of sitcoms. Rather than ignore what was taking place at the time, All in the Family openly dealt with social problems and political issues, with a protagonist (Archie Bunker) who was conservative, working class, loud mouthed bigot. Although its ratings were nothing to write home about when it debuted, by the summer it was doing very well in the ratings. With its second season it was a bona fide hit. The success of All in the Family would create a cycle towards socially relevant sitcoms that would mark the end of the simple, quiet, idealised family sitcoms that had preceded them. Indeed, the family sitcom would not return until the Eighties, with the success of The Cosby Show. And even then, with but few exceptions (Full House is an example), they would never again be quite so idealised.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed your comments about family sitcoms. There was something special about them years ago, I grew up with Ozzie and Harriett and I Love Lucy. Both were great.

You mentioned Doris Day and "The Doris Day Show". I was her personal secretary during that time and after. Had been a fan since age 10 and was determined to get to know her. I finally made it - got to meet her, and know her and she asked me to work for her as her first personal secretary (before she always shared one with her husband, Marty Melcher). I even lived with her for well over a year and she is one Great Lady - fun-loving and a good friend.

My book:

An Indiana Girl's Sentimental Journey to Doris Day's Hollywood and Beyond

is due out in October 2007
from Hawthorne Publishing

I take the reader up close and personal as I take people "day at a time" bringing a Hollywood world now vanished to life.

You may want to visit my website also:

Another family sitcom I also enjoyed was Good Times - family was important in those days and oh, how I wish we could return to some of that again. Rarely watch any TV these days, except TVLand and old movies and the news. You can't beat the old TV SHOws!

Thanks - great story!

Mary Anne Barothy

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the comment, Mary Ann. Miss Day has always been one of my favourite actresses. My family watched The Doris Day Show every week and I have probably seen every one of her movies multiple times (particularly the ones she made with Rock Hudson). She's the sort of performer that we simply don't have anymore!

K. Severino said...

Ms. Barothy is not friend of Ms. Day's! Especially after having written a book that is an obvious betrayal of trust. Her book is no tribute to the special lady. Ms. Barothy was fired by Ms. Day and for good reason. Her book is a total travesty that resembles tabloid trash.
Do not waste your money on her book!