Parenthood aside, the family drama on current television is in dire shape.
Friday Night Lights was not, strictly speaking, a family drama, though few shows on television dealt with families as well. But sadly this past season was its last. As mentioned above, Parenthood’s creator, Jason Katims, was the executive producer for Friday Night Lights. The Taylor family was possibly the most believable family on television the past five years, and could in fact feature in a debate about the great families ever on TV. Eric, Tami, and Julie Taylor were so believable that it felt sometimes as if an invisible videographer had been deposited in their midst to record their everyday lives.
The superhero show No Ordinary Family was definitely family focused, but the Powell family was never particularly super, either as heroes or as a family. The CW, the successor network of the WB, has so far failed to develop the kind of family dramas the latter network excelled at, shows like Seventh Heaven, Gilmore Girls, and Everwood. The CW’s major contribution so far has been to cancel the potentially interesting Life Unexpected.
No show emblemizes the decline of the family drama more than Brothers and Sisters. It started off well enough four years ago, with a large cast of extremely talented actors, and for a season or two developed some reasonably interesting storylines. But the show quickly succumbed to its own conceits and I began to cringe when each episode would begin with what they obviously felt was the obligatory Walker group phone call. The Walker family dinners were just as bad, but thankfully decreased in frequency in the final two seasons.
The show was also hurt by an ever shrinking cast, losing both Rob Lowe and Emily Vancamp in its final season, and Balthazar Getty and Sarah Jane Morris the season before that. But the more serious problem was the weak writing. The show more and more frequently had to rely on melodrama and dark revelations about characters’ pasts to fill time. But never, not even in Season One, did the narrative seem as natural as those on Parenthood.
The final season of Brothers and Sisters was the most difficult to watch, most epitomized in the series finale, in which nearly every character was flung into either an engagement or serious relationship. The final several episodes of the season had been marred by many storylines, including one in which Nora Walker (Sally Field) is out of nowhere revealed to have a lifelong secret great love, with whom she is magically reunited. It felt as hollow as the rest of the story and few lamented the end of the show.
From various comments made by performers on the show, it seems clear that most of them realized that the show had reached the end of anything good it could achieve. The show had a great cast filled with many talented actors, most of whom we’ll see again shortly in one show or another. The failure came with the writing.
Why are there so few family dramas today? I honestly don’t know and won’t even attempt an answer, but it’s a question worth pondering. Do family dramas speak to TV viewers today as they did at one time? Or has society under gone a shift in which we prefer our TV drama to focus on relationships that are not primarily set within the context of a family? “Chosen families” have come to dominate television, with groups of characters forming bonds that no normal family can rival. Take the group of friends in How I Met Your Mother, where the friends have formed a group whose members are as fully committed to one another as anyone in a real family could be.
Certainly one reason there are so few family dramas might be that the networks want to target their series at a younger audience, especially people in the 17 to 34 age range. Perhaps the assumption is that people in that age range do not care for their relational dramas to be embedded in families.
All of which means that we need to appreciate the rare family drama that we do get. Shows like Parenthood are not being pitched in large numbers on any of the major networks. So far the time being, almost all of the families are going to encounter on TV will be in comedies. Television is a cyclical medium. Most likely we’ll see significant numbers of family dramas at some time in the future. But perhaps not.
The Western dominated television in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, but this coming season will see a grand total of one Western, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. But since families are more central to American life today than the Western, I would be astonished if we don’t see a return at some point to the family drama.