Not the Cosbys

In the late ’80s my dad went through an Al Bundy phase. After watching Married With Children he came to believe that Al, the hapless patriarch, was a reflection of him. What’s odd is that my dad was really nothing like Al beyond a shared enjoyment of beer and television. He is successful, and my mother — far from being lazy like Peg Bundy — is the most obsessively clean and organized person I have ever met. We lived in the kind of house where you couldn’t set something down for fear that it would be “cleaned” into disappearance. My dad may have been closer in assigning Bundy qualities to his children. From my pre-adolescent perspective, my older sisters were a bit like ditzy Kelly, and I was a tad Bud-ish with my underdog condemnations.

During roughly the same period, my mother developed “a thing” (as she would call it) for Dinosaurs, a family sitcom filmed entirely with puppets. It spawned the catchphrase “Not the momma!” which the family’s infant, cleverly named “Baby”, would repeat over and over while banging its father on the head with a frying pan. My mother repeated the phrase often and to anyone who would listen, usually without giving her audience the benefit of the origin of her tick.

Imagine, if you will, a group of soccer moms clustered together chatting about life during soccer practice. Now imagine being a kid and spying your mother reenacting that scene, trying to lead a revolt of overworked mothers who received little help around the house from their husbands by screaming “Not the momma” while the other moms politely giggled. The horror.

Personally, I favored Roseanne as the tool to navigate my world. I credit the character of Darlene Conner with giving me the gift of sarcasm, which dawned on me one day like religion on a death-row inmate. My two older sisters were homecoming queens, star athletes, and not as smart as me. In sitcom terms, this makes them infinitely mockable, a perfect target, just like Darlene’s older sister Becky (or Kelly Bundy). Because I wrote all the good lines in my imaginary sitcom, I had every weapon I needed to fight the good fight against the sadistic beauty pageant wannabes. It was the most valuable development in the sibling wars since my adult teeth came in.

I told the oldest that the only college she could get into was University Marry-well. When shown a museum on the California State University of Chico campus, a notorious party school, I asked, “What do they exhibit? Beer cans of yore?” While my family shot photos of my sisters in their prom dresses I commented, “That’s so cute. You can now show your babies what you were wearing when they were conceived.”

Of course, sitcom lines don’t go down well in real life, especially if they’re crappy lines delivered by an embittered, chubby 13-year-old. To this day at family gatherings I am viewed with trepidation more than amusement. To make matters worse, I married a man who is essentially a male version of me and who also carefully studied Darlene’s ways. When it was announced that my Mormon cousin was putting her son in a special Mormon preschool, my husband asked, “Will he have to give up ten percent of his snacks to the tithe?” We’re the people you don’t want to sit next to at dinner.

My parents and I are not the only people to internalize television shows. Every conversation about sex among urbane single women now bears comparisons to the Sex and the City girls. In fact, you can even buy merchandise that brands you as one of the gals with the not-so-subtle language of “I’m a Charlotte”. Apparently, all females can be classified into the categories of Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda, and Samantha. Conveniently, we’ve been spared the tedium of creating our own personas. HBO did it for us.

Despite the phases of my youth, I now despise the extent to which people encapsulate their entire persona into a fictional character. Yet, when someone offers, “You know who you remind me of?” I know what’s coming next. Miranda. I’m a Miranda. My eyes don’t roll back far enough in my head to convey my annoyance with this phenomenon. But, hey, at least Miranda is the smart one.

America is a huge country and as a people we have less in common than we think, a fact best cemented by a pass through a local magazine rack. There are periodicals for knitters, Christians, gamers, doll enthusiasts, indie rockers, the wealthy, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and water skiers, to say nothing of regional rags. However, network television still sets out to create shows that can be enjoyed by all these groups of people, though they’d settle for just high-income individuals between the ages of 18 and 49.

The success of shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Sex in the City, and Desperate Housewives can be attributed to the fact that a myriad of folks watch these shows and believe the characters are like themselves or people they know. While an insult to individuality, it’s remarkably successful. My mother now refers to my sisters as “desperate housewives” and allegedly my husband and I bear a resemblance to the Goth chick on Navy NCIS, a comparison that couldn’t irritate us more. But fine. Then she reminds me of the old bag on Everybody Loves Raymond.

When my sisters and I were teenagers, my parents needed to feel like their struggle wasn’t isolated, just as I did. They had two attractive daughters with questionable discipline and another daughter with anti-social behavior that often merited calls from the school counselors (apparently it’s frowned upon to make lists of ways to murder classmates for every letter of the alphabet despite the inherit macabre humor — is posing a zebra attack really a threat to safety?).

My parents were faced with the task of not only getting all of us into college, but paying for it. They felt like their efforts were not appreciated, and they weren’t, much like poor Al Bundy. My mother resented that she did all the housework, though in truth, when I would help she would re-do my work because her standards of cleanliness were so exacting that a mere child could not perform to her caliber. My father did little besides work and watch sitcoms featuring overworked fathers who obsess on television.

I should be glad that my father defers to beer and television and that my mother imitates talking animals in times of dismay. It could be much worse, and besides, her later Taco Bell Chihuahua period, which counteracted my Brenda Walsh phase, was too hilarious for words. The ubiquity of network television gives us similarities despite our disparate experiences in exchange for some of our individuality. It can be argued that the cost is too great, but there’s something wonderful about meeting your soul mate and learning that you’ve been watching the same programs all these years.