Reviews

The Sitcom As Ideological Torture

Family Matters is a sterling (and torturous) example of the allegedly “post-racial” America inaugurated by the bourgeois and only mildly Afrocentric triumphs of The Cosby Show.


Family Matters, The Complete Fourth Season

Distributor: Warner
Cast: Reginald VelJohnson, Jo Marie Payton, Jaleel White, Kellie Shanygne Williams
Release date: 2014-02-04
Amazon

The Nazis had Leni Riefenstahl. Public relations had Edward Bernays. The American culture industry, hardly content with a single pioneer, had the whole genre of the “family” sitcom, mass media’s greatest inglorious engine for propagating domesticity, patriarchy, heterosexism, and every other petit bourgeois treachery.

Confident that dated televised propaganda has untapped relevance, Warner Brothers has released Season 4 of Family Matters (1989-1997), remarkably television’s longest-running African-American sitcom, apart from Norman Lear’s more class-conscious The Jeffersons (1975-1985). If condemned to a time capsule, Family Matters would likely supply sociologists of future centuries with much confusion. Why, they might wonder, would a black family at the tail end of the Reagan-Bush era be so unerringly and apolitically joyous? And why, for that matter, does a phantom audience convulse with laughter when obviously there is no humor?

In the '70s, the “black sitcom”, under the stewardship of Norman Lear, once signified growing liberality and political conscientiousness. Rarely did an episode of The Jeffersons or Good Times pass without some self-conscious class commentary that, though unashamedly preachy, was rooted in underclass frustration, well into the Carter years. Though hardly subversive or countercultural—Good Times, for instance, always upheld the authority of organized religion and the family—such shows rejected not only the myth of a classless America but television’s then-dominant figures of legal authority, which took the Caucasian forms of Kojak, Columbo, Baretta, Banacek, and other virile monoliths.

Today, televised class commentary in America is banished to the waters of a different sort of comedy, as the talking heads of conservative cable news insist that “class warfare” exists only if and when liberals speak about it, as if entrenched wage slavery and a widening income gap were not in themselves ongoing signs of a heartless siege.

Family Matters is a sterling (and torturous) example of the allegedly “post-racial” America inaugurated by the bourgeois and only mildly Afrocentric triumphs of The Cosby Show. By the '80s, Norman Lear’s consciousness-raising had been extinguished not so much by Reagan himself, but by his cronies, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In an atmosphere of book-burning and cultural paranoia, assimilation became key.

Gone, too, were the dingy, lower-middle class sets and art direction of Lear’s “class” comedies, from All in the Family through Good Times and the grimy Sanford and Son—these were families trapped in the dismalness of their stained furniture, peeling wallpaper, and wheezing appliances. Here, class mobility was not a desire—it was the joke.

With the notable exception of Roseanne, one of the few inheritors of Lear’s deliberate drear, the post-Reaganite family sitcom was one of improbable affluence, in which patriarchs holding down lower-middle class or middle class jobs miraculously could afford upper-middle class housing. Sitcom sets were now sunny and open, the faded yellows and browns of Lear’s domiciles replaced by vibrant, spotless primary colors, mammoth kitchens with great islands and Sub-Zeros, and ubiquitous background staircases leading to upper levels of unseen extravagance. Such sets, of course, don’t simply evince Hollywood cosmetology—they are purely ideological, telling audiences of impressionable children that every wage laborer, regardless of race, can easily achieve (and not merely long for) the trappings of bourgeois capital.

The father of Family Matters is a cop, no less; to afford his speciously spacious home, we must assume he is totally corrupt or has an outstanding policeman’s union. Needless to say, he is kinder, more pleasant, and more decent than any real cop—more sugary propaganda for children. The plots of the show are beneath commentary, and as I tried to watch the first episode (the set contains 24, a masochist’s marathon), I realized that revisiting early '90s relics could be far more painful than I’d imagined.

The show’s level of comic invention is summed up by one episode that features the wife, Harriett, “sick of being the only one doing the housework” (according to Warner Brothers’ press release), as if we had returned to the era of The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy. At this point, I should come clean and confess that I could stomach only three episodes, and by the middle of the third episode I’d made the welcome acquaintance of a third martini. Indeed, I would generally advise that propaganda of this sort be taken with mind-altering potions in a one-to-one ratio.

The stock sitcom character of “wacky neighbor” generally serves only to highlight the bourgeois conformity to which we, as presumed members of a family unit, should loyally aspire. As embodied in the justly hated character of “Steve Urkel”, the wacky neighbor in Family Matters reflects in crudest form Americans’ total fear of intellectuality. Not simply a nerdy scientist, he is a pathetic monster, a Quasimodo figure whose misshapen trunk, bulging insectoid eyes, and jester’s garb must be endlessly mocked, and yet who is redeemed with cheapest pathos (as mechanically signaled on the laugh track) whenever he reveals a loving gesture.

In later episodes, the show attempts to rationalize its own pathos by having Urkel experimentally create a doppelganger, “Stefan”, who embodies the socially acceptable (i.e., handsome and desirable) appearance favored by normals. If the show generally elides racial politics by advancing myths of class mobility, it nevertheless recuperates through the trope of the doppelganger W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of African-Americans' “double consciousness”, the alienated feeling of being torn between one’s authentic self and a subaltern self enacted for the sake of assimilation and potential class mobility.

Here, the double-consciousness is not one of race per se but one of integral personality, as Urkel, attempting to escape his own grotesque caricature, literally splits himself in half. The intellectual, "true" half remains an outsider, subject to rituals of pity, buffoonery, and humiliation that only a laugh track can reconcile. It is no coincidence, of course, that the laugh track itself represents a double consciousness, as it tries to negotiate the show’s insistence that it is in fact a comedy with the audience’s knowledge that it only futilely dreams of real humor, much as the underclass only fantasizes about climbing corporate ladders.

Outside of these DVDs, I had seen a glimpse of Family Matters only once in the past two decades, playing on a 20 inch television positioned in the upper corner of a Jiffy Lube waiting room. Naively wishing to entertain us customers, the servicemen had set the show’s volume at needlessly, intrusively loud levels, which only made the laugh track more candidly embarrassing. There was no remote control in sight and, our cars captive, we were held hostage to the propaganda as we awaited our various lubings.

I looked back and forth across the waiting room, hoping someone would be courageous enough to ask for the remote, but we all feigned deafness, pretending not to hear the ideological agonies of the laugh track as we lazily eyed old issues of Men’s Health and Virginia Living. In effect, everyone was too embarrassed to admit being embarrassed. Sitting next to some South Asian immigrants, I was embarrassed for American culture overall and made an effort to discreetly sigh in their presence, as if suggesting my own astonishment that Americans, in some distant, Paleolithic era, would voluntarily subject themselves to this manner of pain. Thanks to the optimists at Warner Brothers, we can continue to subject ourselves, time and again, to exactly this pain—that is, to what we Americans truly deserve.

1
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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