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.