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How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Reality TV

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

When I heard that Fox Reality Channel was about to launch a show called “Househusbands of Hollywood,” my blood ran a little cold. Slowly and quietly, fathers have begun to chip away at decades-old stereotypes about their fitness as parents or their interest in anything other than breadwinning and golf.

But the more I thought about it, the less worked up I became. It is clichéd to say that reality television bears no resemblance to reality, but the truth is actually even more ironic: Depictions of parenthood on reality television are so out there, so over-the-top, that they have zero impact on the social fabric. You have your choice of extreme: extreme bad parenting ("Supernanny"), extreme bad grounding in reality (all of the “Real Housewives”) and extreme procreation (including a certain TLC program that best goes unmentioned). But no one who tunes into any of this dreck is likely to compare it to their life. (Indeed, when the “realest” parent in reality television is Tori Spelling, you know you’re in the twilight zone.)

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the boob tube, but I was raised on a steady diet of family sitcoms that followed a now-rare (on TV) script: working dad, earnest kids, a mom who held it all together and no problem that couldn’t be solved in 22 minutes. You had your pick: “Family Ties,” “Growing Pains,” “The Cosby Show,” “Home Improvement” and the like dominated the airways in my youth. And while no one was likely to believe that the Seavers or the Huxtables were just like the family next door, the constant drumbeat of this kind of model family no doubt influenced what millions of kids saw as normal.

Not so anymore. The families that appear on TV now are so divorced from what we’re likely to encounter in our day-to-day lives that it’s hard to imagine that Hollywood is forcing any notions of family on today’s television viewers. I don’t know if
“Househusbands of Hollywood” are a bunch of bozos who struggle with the kids and lament their lost income stream, but if they do reflect as badly on dads as the “Real Housewives” reflect on moms, I figure no one will notice. After all, it’s TV. Reality TV. And no one can take that stuff seriously.

As we all had different TV experiences growing up, I’d love to get your take: Were there depictions of families on the small screen that ever really resonated with you? And what – other than the perfect children – were the elements of TV families that irked you the most?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at rebeldad.com.

By Brian Reid |  July 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Dads , Entertainment
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Comments


"And what – other than the perfect children – were the elements of TV families that irked you the most?"

I wasn't a kid when it first aired, but "All in the Family" irked me the most:

Bigoted, loud-mouthed, tyrant father (later "softened"), but still a jerk.
Professional "victm", dingbat mother (the producer, Norman Lear later "smartened up" the mother after tons of complaint letters).
"Princess" daughter. 'Nuff said.
Ingrate son-in-law. Case closed.


The irony is that the Bunkers WERE a lot like the people next door in my neighborhood.

"Happy Days" is one of the dumbest sitcoms EVER.

"The families that appear on TV now are so divorced from what we’re likely to encounter in our day-to-day lives that it’s hard to imagine that Hollywood is forcing any notions of family on today’s television viewers."

No one's holding a gun to your head. If you don't like a show, turn it off, and write a lot of letters, e-mails.

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Correction: Professional "victim

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 7:40 AM | Report abuse

I just wanted to go to boarding school with the Facts of Life gals and I wished we had a crazy neighbor who would come into our kitchen unannounced and add excitement. I always felt like the Wonder Years had a true feeling about it. So, generally, I don't think the families on t.v. provided a template for me any more than Battlestar Gallactica was a template for the folks at NASA.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | July 9, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

I don't why people mind the "perfect" families of old time TV shows. Personally I would prefer watching them rather than all the messed up families on today's shows. While no one is perfect, isn't it better to strive for more and fall short rather than just give up and celebrate how dysfunctional you are?

Posted by: sunflower571 | July 9, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

I'm surprised jezebel didn't cite Aristotle and Aristophanes, but let's remember that a comedy (since ancient Greece) has been the form of literature that is most divorced from a true imitation of life. "Comedies" provide humor by taking something that seem to be like real life, but exaggerating certain characteristics for comic effect.

So don't ever expect sitcoms to be realistic - that's kind of the whole point.

(As my father used to say, "Gomer Pyle would be in the brig, and Sgt Carter would be lucky to be a Lance Corporal.")

I'm showing my age, but I grew up with "My Three Sons" and "Leave it to Beaver", etc. It wasn't anything close to my world. Dads didn't wear suits; they wore uniforms which came off as soon as they got home. Moms didn't clean house and fix dinner in dresses and pearls; Moms worked outside of the house, cleaned the house, and ran the household with more efficiency than the DI down the street ran his platoon.

But the shows were still (sometimes) funny.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | July 9, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

But the shows were still (sometimes) funny.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | July 9, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I still Love Lucy.

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I thought "Growing Pains" was realistic to the people who were the same age as the children on the show. It talked about drug use, sex, etc.

Some of the TV show today may not seem real to you because you are older than the intended audience. Kids today are a lot different than they used to be.

Posted by: supersonic2 | July 9, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

"and extreme procreation (including a certain TLC program that best goes unmentioned)."

Do you mean the illustrious Jon and Kate plus 8??

I too still Love Lucy and Andy Griffith. I love All in the Family, Brady Bunch - really anything from the 70's. I never watched Family Ties and the Cosby show in the 80's, didn't watch too much tv in my teen years. I didn't even watch MTV, although I do remember where I was when Thriller aired only because I was at a party - otherwise I probably wouldn't even have watched it.

I admit to catching the Real Housewives of NJ marathon about a month ago, kept peaking in as the day went on (doing laundry and housework and the kids were outside playing) then I watched the reunion show. Those women are crazy!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | July 9, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I grew up with Cosby and always liked the character of Claire. I liked that she worked and had such a good relationship with her husband and had such a no nonsense attitude about stuff. Sure, it wasn't realistic, but I remember watching it every week with my family and those are good memories.

I agree that it's interesting to see how times have changed and the focus on so much TV is the bad, dysfunctional family we all watch in horror (as in "it's a train wreck"). I think it really started around the time of the Bundy's and Married with Children and Bart Simpson...Kinda weird and I'm not so into watching myself, but then in general, I get annoyed and bored with most TV shows these days.

On a sort of separate note, I was home sick yesterday and watching the noon news program on NBC and caught a piece about stay at home dads that was really interesting. I don't know if they ever re-aired it (they usually do), but it was about how more and more dads are becoming stay at home dads because the industries that have suffered the most in this economic turn down are traditionally male dominated industries (auto, manufacturing, etc). The reporter found a sociologist to comment that this may be a situation similar to what we saw in World War II when women went into the workforce and never really came out once the men returned home...this could be an increasing trend that we see well into the future where the economy simply made it ok and more normal for dads to stay at home and women to work.

All this just to say - I thought it was an interesting piece and I wonder whether future TV programming will reflect this societal shift??

Posted by: stephs98 | July 9, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

The shows that I watched growing up included Brady Bunch and Partridge Family. While the Brady Bunch were totally unrealistic in terms of how everything worked out, the situations were very true to middle class kids at that time and today. I was the "Jan" in my family and I could so relate to her issues with Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. And today when my child watches it (yes, we have it on DVD) she loves the situations because those same situations are occuring to her and her friends.

And then there was the Partridge Family. Who wouldn't want to have a rock band for a family? I use to wish that my sisters and I could make it like the Partridges did. And they had a normal life at home just like we did (or thought we did). Disney is doing the same formula with Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers and making a fortune off it.

I don't understand why there have to be shows like the "Secret Life of an American Teen" that imply that the only issues middle and high schoolers today have issues deal with sex. Yes, they think about sex alot, but there are a lot of other things they deal with. MS/HSers still wear braces, are concerned about how they look, want to be a hero, lose their dog, etc. Oh, wasn't there an episode on the Brady Bunch like that?

I would love to see a sitcom where the kids act like kids (not minature adults), get in trouble, and have to figure out how to make things right again. I agree that "the constant drumbeat" of what kids see on TV influences what they think is normal. Kids are not smarter than adults(as much as they think they are), and this kind of TV reinforces the idea that adults are idiots and kids know better. Even Disney is starting to have these kind of sit-coms all the time. Get rid of the bratty know-it-all kids that interact with stupid adults and bring back the "Cosby" show.

Posted by: AnotherMom | July 9, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

"I still Love Lucy.

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse "

Yep, I Love Lucy still ranks up there among the best sitcoms of all time. And they were pretty daring and socially-aware for their time - a white woman married to an Hispanic man; pregnancy on TV.

I distinctly remember coming back to the US in 1972, after three and a half years in Germany, and being surprised how much TV had changed. We actually liked "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Sun" and watched them regularly as a family. They were hilarious.

For us kids, the highlight was the ABC Friday night lineup - The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, Room 222, and Love, American Style were TV shows IN ENGLISH that could keep the kids glued to the tube for three hours. That lasted for a few months before it got old, but we all still remember some of those shows. Our parents weren't too wild about us watching Love, American Style - it was a pretty risque sketch comedy show for its time, but they figured we could handle it as we hit our teens.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | July 9, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I distinctly remember coming back to the US in 1972, after three and a half years in Germany, and being surprised how much TV had changed. We actually liked "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Sun" and watched them regularly as a family.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | July 9, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

"That Girl" rocked.
"Mary Tyler Moore" ditto.
"Columbo" was usually great.

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

As long as I could remember, I never took any of those TV families as anything close to my reality. I never "related" to any of them - because none of them dealt with any of the issues that I had with realism, i.e. they got quickly resolved. Any serious issues that I had stayed around and may have changed but never resolved so quickly like they did on TV. One, I couldn't figure out why someone did what they did or even if an issue was resolved, I still had to deal with that person on an ongoing basis.

It was just what it was - entertainment coming out of a light box.

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 9, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Wow Jezebel, "That Girl", "Mary Tyler Moore", and "columbo" were my Grandmother's favorites too.

Did you happen to follow "The Guiding Light"?

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | July 9, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I loved "One Day at a Time." As the daughter of a divorced mom, at a time when that was stigmatized/shameful/viewed as the short path to a lifetime of crime and poverty, it was nice to see something that looked kind of like my life, and that showed it as fairly normal.

Also loved Cosby. He was uber-dad, strict but with humor and love; she was supermom, had a great career but still in charge of the family and very close to her kids. Only later did I learn how far from reality that really was. :-)

Also loved Murphy Brown. And WKRP was about the funniest thing on television at the time.

Posted by: laura33 | July 9, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Green Acres, three's Company, Mork & Mindy, Welcome Back Kotter, MASH, and the Love Boat were the sitcoms when I was a kid.

Somewhere along the way, and I think the shift was sudden as far as national trends go, insults, belittling, offensive behavior, and put-downs became the staple acts of the sitcom comedies, and it hasn't changed for about 25 years.

Even my favorite program nowadays, American Idol, Simon and his outrageous criticisms, though mostly accurate, seem to be the focus of the show. And my son's favorite program, Hell's Kitchen, hosts very few, if any, positive dialog from the main character, Chef Ramsey and the participants. Lots of bleeping out all the curse words too.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | July 9, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

The first season or so of "Roseanne" was pretty true-to-life when I was a kid, imo.

Posted by: snuggie | July 9, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, going down memory lane here and not necessarily talking about reality TV, but the memories are pouring out.

Wacky, Even I remember Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda's spin off - they were in repeats for ages. Sanford and son was the best, Red Foxx constantly clutching his heart and yelling "I'm comin Elizabeth!"

AB, I agree on Love American Style, I was really young but I remember my older brother being VERY interested in that show. I even remember the repeats of the Laugh In and "sock it to me, baby."

Sunday night Walt Disney's Wild Kingdom was awesome too, terrifying to see all the zebra's hunted and eaten but you couldn't look away.

My dad's favorite show was the Rockford Files, and I think that is why I love Jim Garner so much. He also liked Wonder Woman - I wonder why???

Posted by: cheekymonkey | July 9, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

It wasn't a sitcom, so I'm guessing that's why no one has mentioned The Waltons. I was constantly asking my parents questions about their childhoods during the depression because of that show.

Now, I'm regularly comparing my family to the Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver - with our spousal role-reversal and lame jokes about DH cross-dressing. Wally and the Beaver had a lot in common with my boys, too.

Posted by: SueMc | July 9, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

It wasn't a sitcom, so I'm guessing that's why no one has mentioned The Waltons.

Posted by: SueMc | July 9, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse


I had the hots Michael Landon on "Little House". Yowza!

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Yeah Cheeky, talk about going down memory lane... Here's a link to possibly one of the most famous scenes in sitcom history as it signifies the death of every TV series to date. Here's Fonzie jumping the shark:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpraJYnbVtE

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | July 9, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Correction: I had the hots for Michael Landon on "Little House". Yowza!

Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: jezebel3 | July 9, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I wunder when Octomom will start airing her reality TV series. I can just imagine her and her brood sitting around watching "Eight is Enough" reruns.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | July 9, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I loved Roseanne, and thought it was the most similar to the working class roots I was raised in. At least up until the last couple of seasons, when it lost all touch with reality and was no longer believable (or funny).

Posted by: cjbriggs | July 9, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Michael Landon was beautiful. I also had a crush on Almonzo. Cheeky, I too loved WIld Kingdom - Marlon Perkins right?, it was on Sunday nights just before the Wonderful World of Disney! Don't forget Love Boat and Fantasy Island on Saturday nights! Ahhhhh, my lost youth!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | July 9, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

We still call my sister "Aunt Jackie" when she shows up with her laundry basket at our door (after Aunt Jackie in Roseanne).

Posted by: stephs98 | July 9, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Moxie, When we had sleepovers we had to watch Love Boat and Fantasy Island. And yes, Wonderful World of Disney was wonderful, as was Michael Landon. My parents watched him on Bonanza and my dad made fun of him crying on every episode of Little House and the Prairie - but I did love him.

This makes me remember how elementary school was so great!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | July 9, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

"Green Acres, three's Company, Mork & Mindy, Welcome Back Kotter, MASH, and the Love Boat were the sitcoms when I was a kid.

Somewhere along the way, and I think the shift was sudden as far as national trends go, insults, belittling, offensive behavior, and put-downs became the staple acts of the sitcom comedies, and it hasn't changed for about 25 years." - Whacky

Pretty subjective analysis you've done there. At least 3 of the shows you mention "m*a*s*h", "three's company", and "Welcome Back, Kotter" were choc full of insulting, belittling and offensive behavior. All the kids on Kotter did was insult each other. All Hawkeye did was belittle Frank. All Jack did was be offensive.

People love to wax on about some sudden cultural shift when t.v. "became" rude and offensive. You got old. That's what happened.

Posted by: 06902 | July 9, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I had a chance to Google some things during a break. I'm really surprised no one other than me mentioned Room 222.(Maybe I'm just the only one that old. :-) What other show had episodes that ranged from:

- A cheerleader refuses to wear a bra, believing it's a sexist relic. Ed Begley, Jr. plays a basketball player who's, um, distracted by her during practice and gets his retainer broken. His single mother is furious and wants the school to require all female students to wear appropriate undergarments. (They refuse.)
- A boy whose dream is to follow in his father's West Point footsteps gets his girlfriend pregnant. His father is furious because you can't go to a service academy if you have a dependent; the boy wants to get married and raise the kid. The teachers teach the boy that he has absolutely zero legal rights in this situation; it's entirely up to the girl to decide whether to have the baby and hit him with a paternity suit; to have an abortion; or to let him off the hook so he can go to West Point.

Clearly a broad spectrum there - and certainly topics that might interest, say, boys in their early teens. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | July 9, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

AB -- Room 222 was my mom's favorite show. Something about being a public high school teacher in TX at the time. Of course, the atmosphere there was a little more, shall we say, restrictive (i.e., one of my male friends was refused admission to kindergarten until he cut his hair above his ears). I presume she liked it because it portrayed what she thought things should run like. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | July 9, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

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