TV Sitcoms’ Most Boundary-Breaking Families


Despite a shaky start, we have high hopes for The New Normal, which officially debuted last night on NBC (tonight, the series’ second episode will air in its regular Tuesday time slot). As discussed in our fall preview, we felt the pilot a touch too didactic and the characterization teetering on offensive, but we’re hoping these things even out because the show’s talented cast, inclusive premise, and promise for sitcom-defying weirdness promise to far outweigh the bad. If you’ve followed TV news the past month, then you’ve probably heard about the backlash from One Million Moms, and then of course the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate’s decision not to air the show, behavior not entirely unusual in the scheme of TV sitcom history.

When networks have introduced “new normals” in decades past, the initial response wasn’t always warm — nor was the execution always perfect. But bit by bit, the sitcom has evolved, eroding the notion that a family can only look one way, and we hope the pattern continues. Click through for an abridged looked at some of these most boundary-breaking families, from the Ricardos on through the Lear era, and to the “anti-family” shows of the late ’80s that cleverly left us fumbling for a firm handle on what it means to be “normal” anyways.

I Love Lucy (1951-57): The Ricardos

Lucy didn’t completely overturn traditional family gender roles, but in comparison to subservient June Cleaver, she was a beacon of feminism and hope for unsatisfied housewives everywhere. Despite the fact Ricky always remained the head of the household, Lucy challenged him at every turn and was always dreaming (and scheming) to break into the biz.

The show is also notable for being the first to depict a biracial married couple (a premise CBS execs initially rejected), as well as addressing the fact that they… have sex! As the story goes, Ball’s actual pregnancy was admitted into the storyline under the stipulation the show couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” The execs also called in a priest, a rabbi, and a minister to vet the scripts for the arc. Mary Kay and Johnny was actually the first show to deal with pregnancy, but Lucy’s delivery was a watershed moment, garnering more than 44 million viewers — the most any show had earned up until that point in TV history. You can watch Ricky break the news of Lucy’s pregnancy to… himself, via song, in the clip above from the episode “Lucy Is Enceinte.” The moment it dawns on Ricky that he is going to be a father (see his jubilant “It’s me!” around 2:50) is still equally hilarious and touching today.

Julia (1968-71): The Bakers

Many will recall Amos ‘n’ Andy (1951-53) the first television series with an all-black cast, as an important moment in TV history, but not for entirely positive reasons. It was heavily protested by the NAACP, who wrote that “every character is either a clown or crook,” which in conjunction with resistance from nervous advertisers, led to the cancellation of the show and the near-disappearance of black characters from television for roughly a decade. Then things began to change in the mid ’60s with the arrival of Bill Cosby in the critically acclaimed I Spy (1965-68) and sitcoms’ first African-American lead actress, Tony Award-winning Diahann Carroll, who played a single working mother on Julia. The show was initially met with controversy, namely for its lack of a male father figure and for setting the story in a white upper-middle class world at a peak time in the civil rights movement. In a 1998 interview Carroll said she was repeatedly asked to defend the believability of the premise on press tour and that she was called a “sell-out” for the role, agreeing that some of the criticism was warranted. But she also championed the show for its initiative to break down prejudices and portray African Americans in a positive light, and argued that there was room for many type of black experiences on television.

While Julia shied away politics, it wasn’t completely race blind. In fact, an entire episode deals with the ethnicity of Santa Claus (see above clip).

The Brady Bunch (1969-74): The Bradys

In many — OK, most — ways, The Brady Bunch was the complete opposite of boundary-breaking. The show managed to play ignorant in the midst in one of our country’s greatest periods of revolution, and contrary to popular belief it actually wasn’t the first sitcom ever to depict a blended family (see The Danny Thomas Show and My Three Sons). And it wasn’t a hit either. But in retrospect, and due in large part to syndication, The Brady Bunch is considered a great cultural reference point for one of the most disorienting realities of the time: American families were breaking up. While blended families in sitcoms before it were the result of a parent’s death, Carol was a divorcée (although the show was never allowed to acknowledge it). Reportedly, creator Sherwood Schwartz came up with the idea for the series when he learned 20-30% percent of families had added at least one step child to the nuclear mix. He of course, took that statistic to the extreme when he created the eightfold Brady clan.

All in the Family (1971-79): The Bunkers

After a flight of saccharine, race-blind sitcoms before it (Andy Griffith, Green Acres, Father Knows Best, etc.), Norman Lear’s adaptation of the BBC’s Till Death Us Do Part brought political discourse to the family sitcom landscape and bared some of the most hot-button, TV-unfriendly issues of era, including homosexuality, the economy, and racism. Set in the context of generational divide, Archie Bunker’s liberal daughter and son-in-law played foil to his bigotry, along with his neighbors, who went on to make TV history in their own right (more on that to come). Although Archie Bunker is a controversial figure, many believing he was too sympathetic, the show is notable for transposing the generic father-knows-best type with someone flawed and who conveyed the semblance of real, and often complicated, emotions.

The Jeffersons (1975-85): The Jeffersons

Lear’s second All in the Family spin-off moved the Bunkers’ neighbors to upper-crust Manhattan and offered a less sanitized view of a successful African-American family than the aforementioned Julia. The show’s patriarch, George Jefferson, often dealt with racism, while his own epithets and unabashed opinions drew comparisons to a certain former neighbor in Queens. Critics of the show felt that it lacked true black culture and that the characters were still stereotypes in the vein of Amos ‘n’ Andy, but The Jeffersons is still regarded as a watershed for addressing the complexities of racism from a perspective that had never been shown on TV before. It’s also worth noting the show was the first to depict a biracial married couple in which one spouse was white and the other black (the clip above shows Tom and Helen Willis confronting a bumbling racist white judge who had just disinvited them to his awful tennis club).

One Day at a Time (1975-84): The Romanos

Although it wasn’t the first to feature a divorced female lead (The Lucy Show’s Vivian Vance earns that title), this second-longest-running Lear sitcom is regarded as the first realistic portrayal, dealing with single motherhood and the challenges that come with a ne’er-do-well ex-husband who won’t pay child support. The show lost its allure in later seasons when Ann Romano’s daughters grew up, but it’s still groundbreaking for taking on birth control, premarital sex, teen suicide, and other controversial issues from a female perspective. Take, for instance, the above clip, in which Ann slaps her teenage daughter when she discovers her canoodling with her 42-year-old boss (which, incidentally, serves as a reminder that TV should never revive that ridiculously happy “To be continued” voiceover guy — kind of kills the impact of the moment).

Good Times (1974-79): The Evanses

As discussed, complaints about The Jeffersons and Julia have often centered on the assimilation aspects of the shows, i.e., a black family thriving, but in a white-dominated neighborhood. Conversely, Good Times (a spin-off of Maude, yet another boundary-breaking show by Lear) focused on a black family living in the segregated housing projects of Chicago (until it changed directions and moved to Mississippi in Season 4). The show unraveled at the end, succumbing to stereotypes, specifically the increasingly airhead antics antics of J.J. Evans, yet the early seasons are notable for tackling some of the most difficult aspects of urban poverty, as well as universal family problems, like teenage rejection (see above).

Soap (1977-81): The Tates and the Campbells

Like the trajectory of The New Normal backlash, Soap received a fair amount of protest from moral institutions before the pilot aired (most from churches that were worried about its sexual nature due to an inaccurate review from Newsweek that claimed the show featured a sexual act in a confessional). Sponsors and affiliates dropped, while other stations moved the show to a later time slot. In the end, Soap opened to mediocre reviews, yet great numbers, and went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed shows in TV history (check out the first 60 seconds above and you’ll instantly get the appeal). A direct riff of the soap opera, Soap is credited for paving the way for family parodies like Arrested Development and more openly gay characters in the wake of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas.

The Cosby Show (1984-92): The Huxtables

Cosby was simply about an affectionate (not to mention musically talented) family and the relatively low-key yet entertaining drama of their everyday lives, as perfectly illustrated in the little scene above where Cliff tries to persuade Rudy to eat her vegetables. This might not sound “boundary-breaking,” but in contrast to the Lear era before it, this was something new entirely. The show also played a huge role in ushering in the career-oriented mother on TV. While Cliff was still the family patriarch, his relationship with his wife was depicted as equal. Clair was a strong, successful attorney who contributed to the family as much as he did. All these distinctions make Cosby the beginning of a new type of family sitcom that toned down the political rhetoric and amped up the heart.

Growing Pains (1985-92): The Seavers (and the Micelli-Bower clan)

Although Dr. Seaver wasn’t a full-fledged stay-at-home dad (he ran his business at home), he made the decision to work from home so that his wife could go back to work. This in turn meant he took care of many household duties, like paying the bills and disciplining the kids (see above for a very special episode about a pornographic hotline). Who’s The Boss?, meanwhile, was technically about a live-in male nanny, but we’d be remiss not to mention its parallel shake-up in traditional child-rearing roles (although in this instance Angela, the high-power advertising executive and Tony’s employer, was the clear breadwinner).

Married With Children (1987-97): The Bundys

Its working title, Not the Cosbys, perhaps says it all. Like the aforementioned Soap, Fox’s first primetime project only gained traction in the wake of viewer protests, also known as the Rakolta Boycott, a direct reactions to Season 3’s “Her Cups Runneth Over” (which, as you might have guessed, dealt with breasts). The show’s ratings dramatically increased after the backlash, and today it’s considered a pioneering “anti-family” sitcom, in conjunction of course with Roseanne and a little family from Springfield that you might have heard of (and will hear more about below).

For some patented Al Bundy parenting advice, check out the clip above. This scene also reminds us that the show found a creative way to subvert the family dog archetype.

The Simpsons (1989-present)

The irony, according to early criticism, was that The Simpsons was more real than the sugarcoated live-action sitcoms before it. It may have been a cartoon, but the imperfections of the family were relatable. Of course, not everyone agreed. In fact, the early days of the show and “Bartmania” incited a minor nationwide freak-out. Schools, Bill Cosby, and even the president of the United States spoke out against the family’s “poor” morals and attitudes. And 23 years later, it’s easy to see that, indeed, The Simpsons destroyed us all.

Roseanne (1988-1997): The Conners

A working-class Midwestern family with a female head of household, the Conners didn’t look or talk like upper-middle-class families of sitcoms past. But the show didn’t cheapen itself by making its distinctions a point of comedy. Instead, it elicited laughs from the family’s banter and jabs, and their most human moments (see the adults get high in the clip above). As a result, Roseanne was a show that any family, regardless of class, could relate to, making the term “dysfunctional” seem less of a cruel attribution and more of a shared reality.

Murphy Brown (1988-98): Murphy and Avery

Since we just finished discussing the most groundbreaking “anti-family” sitcoms, it’s only fitting we turn to Murphy Brown, who Vice President Dan Quayle famously scorned during his 1992 campaign for “ignoring the importance of fathers.” Brown’s single motherhood has certainly been questioned over the years for its realism (see a loving riff in 30 Rock’s “Murphy Brown Lied to Us“), but regardless, the controversial plotline still stands as a moment of progress in pushing the boundaries of TV families, and we’d argue, a positive image of female empowerment that holds up well.

Arrested Development (2003-06): The Bluths

As this list details, Arrested Development certainly wasn’t the first sitcom to send up the traditional sitcom family, but it brought dysfunction to completely new heights while breaking all the rules — no laugh track, no stagnant cameras, lots of gags, quick edits, layers of call-backs and entendres not fit for the passive couch viewer, etc.

George Lopez (2002-07)

The first breakout Latino comedy since Chico and the Man, George Lopez featured an almost entirely Hispanic cast, and is lauded for its integration of Spanish without making the language the butt of the joke (see Ricky Ricardo’s accent). As critic Felix Contreras discussed on NPR, “George Lopez’s show was an example of not laughing at the Spanish and the culture, but laughing with it.”

Modern Family (2009-present): The Tucker-Pritchetts

While Modern Family wasn’t the first sitcom to depict loving same-sex parents (It’s All Relative made an attempt back in 2003, and a smattering of shows, including Friends and American Dad!, have featured minor story lines), it is the first to star a gay couple and significantly unpack their journey through parenthood (from the infamous Lion King entrance, as seen above, to Mitch discovering Cam named their child after his family pig, Aunt Lily). And while we don’t see Ann Romney accepting that job offer as Mitch and Cam’s wedding officiant anytime soon, we hope the overwhelmingly positive reception of the show is a sign attitudes are changing.

Up All Night (2011-present): The Brinkleys

Family Ties, Who’s the Boss?, and more recently Parenthood, are all notable for subverting traditional gender roles from the days of yore, but last year’s incredibly sweet Up All Night took things a step further by putting a bread-winning wife and her stay-at-home husband front and center. The show playfully riffed on the gender reversal, while also never making his new role in the family a slight to his masculinity. As the clip above demonstrates, remaining impenetrable to “new baby smell” is not just a woman thing.