Think back a long time ago to a channel far, far away.
Think TV Land but to a time when those shows were on a primetime lineup. What always comes to my mind first is the ideal, middle-class family, and every episode, that family experiences some hiccup that is pithily resolved over the course of 30 minutes. Though there are many sitcoms airing that reflect America’s societal values in this same way, the families, the values, and the hiccups have changed in tandem with our society.
Families of the 50s
“Leave it to Beaver” featured quite possibly the most stereotypical family to ever air on television. The working father, the stay-at-home mom, and the two all-American sons, were (and still are) iconic. During its heyday in the 1950s, the sitcom was highly relevant as the ideal model for “The Joneses.” But compare this little bit of dialogue to a modern-day sitcom, and you can guarantee there’d be some backlash.
The argument here isn’t that “Leave it to Beaver” and its counterparts were awful shows (several of them were Emmy nominated). Rather, what is important to notice is how the messages these shows conveyed, either overtly or through subtext, reflected a general, societal consensus of what many Americans valued: a patriarchal household where gender defined societal, and familial roles.
The Evolving 80s
Here’s a fantastic list of some greats from the 80s. It was a crazy time for television. To not discuss the Cosbys here would be a disservice to the era, and it just so happens to be #1 on the aforementioned list.
The Huxtables stand out as the successful, upper middle-class family of the 80s. They have their ups and downs like any other family, and though we may not give it much of a second thought today, the central African American family was a huge deal for television. However, it had less to do with race and more to do with stereotypes. Let’s compare issues of gender for continuity
First, I’d like to clarify that I do not agree with the title of this video (rant would not have been my first word choice [or any word choice]). In focus now, not only is the issue of gender inequality being discussed, unlike the perpetuation of gender stereotypes that we saw in the 50s, but we also see that Claire Huxtable’s point to be made isn’t reflective of only black women but all women in general. The Huxtables broke the mold not only in family dynamics but also in race portrayal in society and the media.
The twinkling 21st century
I will not talk about “30 Rock.” I will not talk about “30 Rock.” I will not talk about “30 Rock.” Okay, I have to talk about “30 Rock.”
Before I lose your attention, consider this: “30 Rock” covered issues of race, gender, sexuality, family, and life in general from multiple viewpoints. And it did this in the glitz and glamor of good ol’ NYC. With the oversaturation of social media and the desire to be heard and, for some, famous, it’s no wonder a show about television did so well while on the air.
Though the show featured many characters, plots always revolved around single characters and their interactions with others, allowing viewers to invest in one character, much like how society teaches us to invest in only ourselves. And it did this to the point of even satirizing the immensely popular reality show model, where essentially anyone, and I mean anyone, could become a star.
Sitcoms are fun to watch no matter what time period they’re from, but looking at the most popular ones can tell us about what societies, and maybe even ourselves, value. They’re more than just a period piece. They’re a way for us to reflect on the legacy we’ll leave when we’re no longer here.
Here’s a cool TV timeline