That Seventies Show
Family is a drama series that aired on ABC from 1976 to ‘80 that attempted to present an American family with an at the time novel approach: by including its problems. Aaron Spelling shared creative control of the show with executive producers Leonard Goldberg, and The Graduate director Mike Nichols. Stopping just short of dysfunction, the Lawrence family grapples with issues previously glossed over in the sanitary realm of network television. Topical issues like divorce, alcoholism, marital infidelity, abortion, single parenting, breast cancer, and drug abuse won the show and its actors critical acclaim and awards.
The Lawrences are an upper middle class family living in Pasadena, California. Doug is an independent lawyer and Kathy is a housewife who decides to return to school. They have three kids: preteen tomboy Letitia, nicknamed Buddy, high school dropout and aspiring filmmaker Willie, and 20-something divorcee Nancy, who has returned home to raise her toddler in the family’s guest house.
Loving parents with money and a solid marriage have not protected Nancy (Meredith Baxter) and Willie (Gary Frank) from stumbling, and the kids are aimless and dependent despite their intelligence. Nancy’s brief marriage has failed, and she’s living at home again, often riling the rest of the family with her inconsiderate habits and sense of entitlement. Willie expects a film career but is highly unmotivated to join the work force, and seems most comfortable hanging out with his grandma and little sister. He falls for girls who are either needy or neglectful, but sure to break his heart.
Buddy, played by Kristie McNichol, seems to be the most well-adjusted, with normal preteen problems but a likable personality. She was also the draw for the young audience. McNichol was a teen idol and her romantic interests on the show were played by special guest stars like heartthrobs Willie Aimes and Leif Garrett.
Doug and Kathy’s marriage, though solid, is revealed to have survived the death of a fourth child and Doug’s past infidelities. In the pilot Kathy (Sada Thompson) conveys a brittle quality and an occasional judgmental wrath, particularly with her daughter. In following episodes her character is considerably softer and warmer. Doug (James Broderick) brings the level-headed advice and good-natured lecturing from his law practice home with him. In the end, they always seem to work everything out, and we see the pair celebrating the latest averted family disaster at the mini-bar after the kids have gone to bed.
The hour-long show is dated by wall-to-wall elevator music and pensive pace; we see long takes of characters walking toward their destination, or brooding in their bedrooms. The slowness can get boring, but it also can be effective. At its best, the show has a cozy, slightly melancholy feeling and the characters feel dimensional. At its worst, Family veers into melodrama and formula, as in an episode about Nancy being stalked, complete with a campy sci-fi Moog soundtrack. Perhaps the varying sensibilities of Spelling, Nichols, and Goldberg created this unevenness, or maybe it just had the rudimentary quality of a new television genre. The upper middle class setting gives a more subtle version of the ‘70s than, say, Charlies Angels, and the pastel hues, dreamy soundtrack, and articulate dialogue lend innocence and nostalgia where flash and action may be absent.
There’s a meta moment in episode 10, when Willie decides to enter an aspiring filmmaker’s contest by making a documentary about his family. Kathy compares her family to the Loud family, saying she hopes the Lawrences don’t meet the same destructive fate. The Louds were the subject of what is considered the first reality TV show-PBS’s 1973 12-episode documentary, An American Family. That show chronicled the Loud’s separation and divorce, and, famously, son Lance Loud’s emerging sexuality as he became one of the first openly gay characters on television. An American Family was a sensation, but it has faded from popular memory and remains only as fodder for scholarly analysis.
Though the two shows started on some common ground, Family seems to have veered away from realism and towards safe, mainstream drama. The Family pilot showed the Lawrence family at its most dysfunctional, with the rawest emotions, and the mother as the most volatile member. As the series developed, the topics remained controversial, but were safely contained and resolved within the hour. The more controversial issues of the day played out just outside of the family, as the concerned Lawrences watched friends cope with drug addiction and homosexuality from the safety of their own buffer zone. Though Family deserves credit for pioneering risky subject matter on network television, its legacy is found in clichéd after school specials, the very-special-episodes of ‘80s TV shows, and prime time teen melodramas.