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Dysfunction junction

Who’s the boss? TV parents these days are often as adolescent as their children.

2009: MODERN FAMILY Rico Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Ed O’Neill, Shelley Long, and Ty Burrell (from left) in a show that features diverse family structures. 2009: MODERN FAMILY Rico Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Ed O’Neill, Shelley Long, and Ty Burrell (from left) in a show that features diverse family structures. (Adam Taylor/ABC)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 6, 2010

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In the opening scene of “Parenthood,’’ an NBC drama that debuted this week, a fortyish man named Adam wore a confident, top-of-the-world look as he set out for a run in his neighborhood. Soon, though, he was out of breath, literally and figuratively, knocked off stride by family pressures.

First, his sister, Sarah, a single mother struggling to control her two rebellious children, called Adam’s cellphone, demanding reassurance that she was doing the right thing by moving back home with their parents. Then, after helping his father with a plumbing crisis, Adam had to race home to talk his troubled son into playing in that day’s youth baseball game. No sooner had he changed the boy’s mind with a desperate bribe of ice cream than it was Adam’s turn to have a meltdown: He argued with an umpire so ferociously that he was stripped of his managing duties and banned from the ballfield.

Welcome to family life, TV-style.

It is a pressure cooker where the stress never ends and where parenthood is less a clearly defined position of authority than a perpetual work in progress. It is not always clear who’s in charge. What is clear is that Father does not necessarily Know Best, and Mother doesn’t always have much of a clue either.

Indeed, the parents are often as uncertain, impulsive, error-prone and, in some ways, as adolescent as their offspring.

If television once offered images of family life as a kind of benevolent dictatorship, governed by calmly omniscient parents - “The Cosby Show,’’ say, or “The Waltons,’’ or, further back, “Leave It to Beaver’’ and “Ozzie and Harriet’’ - it is now more like a messy democracy, with the balance of power constantly shifting between parent and child.

Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of the fact that many Gen Xers and baby boomers are reluctant to adopt the authoritarian model of parenthood. “We feel uncomfortable with traditional authority,’’ notes Jane Shattuc, a professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College. “We’ve broken that apart slowly but surely. Things are more complicated now, with a tension between the desire some have for the traditional family and the reality that marriage is now being structured in different ways.’’

Or it could reflect a basic unwillingness by today’s parents to let go of their illusions of youth. (Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young’’ was heard at the beginning and the end of this week’s episode of “Parenthood.’’) Whatever the cause, the TV screen abounds with mothers and fathers who, while unquestionably loving and devoted to their children, often act like teenagers.

For instance, at one point in “Parenthood,’’ after hunting frantically for a condom, Sarah had sex on a couch in her parents’ home with a former high school boyfriend while he fretted about being discovered by her father. Then, with the man attired only in his underwear, they snuck into the kitchen, where Sarah delved into her parents’ liquor stash, only to be busted when her son entered the kitchen just as she was knocking back a bottle of booze. “I’m so dead,’’ Sarah said, as her son stormed away.

In a recent episode of “The Middle,’’ an ABC family comedy, the fortysomething parents of three kids cowered in fear of a neighborhood bully (even though the bully was a middle-aged mother of three played by Brooke Shields). In CBS’s highly rated sitcom “Two and a Half Men,’’ where two adult brothers are raising the teenage son of one of them, the “half’’ often seems more applicable to the immature grown-ups than to the boy. On ABC’s “Modern Family,’’ a father of three named Phil recently scrambled to cover up his responsibility for a photo of a topless woman that his wife found on his computer. Phil even went so far as to let his 10-year-old son take the rap.

Anne Louise Bannon, who writes about media and parenting issues and is editor of YourFamilyViewer.com, says there has been a pronounced shift in the depiction of parents on television.

“Bill Cosby was hysterically funny, and yet when push came to shove on ‘The Cosby Show,’ there was no question that he and his wife were the authority figures, no question that ‘We’re the parents here, we’re here to take care of you, we’re not your friends,’ ’’ says Bannon. “We lost something there, and I think it’s time to get it back,’’ she adds. “A better sense of parents not so much as dominant authorities but as parents.’’

Yet along with this portrait of parents-as-arrested-adolescents has come a greater willingness to depict nontraditional families, thereby holding up a more accurate mirror to the wider culture.

“Now we’ve got TV families that are reflecting the diverse, rather eclectic array of current family constellations,’’ says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis and author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s,’’ a book about parenting teenagers.

“You’ve got single-mother families, you’ve got two-career families,’’ says Kendrick. “In ‘Modern Family,’ you’ve got two gay dads raising an adopted kid. I don’t know that you’d find that even five years ago anywhere.’’

What makes this more diverse picture doubly important, he says, is that real families do measure themselves against TV families. During therapy sessions, families will often use TV shows as shorthand to describe their problems to Kendrick, saying, for instance, “We’re not ‘The Brady Bunch’ ’’ or “It’s not ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ ’’ Those are idealized versions of family life, but there is a show on the air right now that Kendrick points to as one that real families might fruitfully emulate. “I think the healthiest portrayal of a married couple raising children is the Taylor family on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ’’ he says. “They’re not portrayed as an ideal family. They have disagreements. But at the core is this loving, deep mutual respect, backing each other in their individual aspirations while still remaining a couple.’’

Family has always been an essential part of television’s DNA. Just consider how many shows have had the word “family’’ in their titles, among them “All in the Family,’’ “Family Affair,’’ “Family Ties,’’ “The Partridge Family,’’ “Family Guy,’’ the new BET reality show “The Family Crews,’’ and a drama simply called “Family’’ that ran on ABC in the late 1970s. Or consider the number of shows that have focused on family dynamics, such as “Party of Five,’’ “Malcolm in the Middle,’’ “The Dick Van Dyke Show,’’ “My Three Sons,’’ “The Jeffersons,’’ “Eight Is Enough,’’ “Full House,’’ “Growing Pains,’’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,’’ “Everybody Hates Chris,’’ and “The Sopranos.’’

However, while there were a few exceptions, television for much of its history defined family primarily in terms of the nuclear family: father, mother, son, daughter. Susan Silver, who wrote for “The Partridge Family’’ and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’’ recalls pitching an ABC executive in the early 1970s on a show about a divorced woman forging a career for herself.

“Divorce is not palatable to the majority of Americans,’’ the executive dismissively informed her, brandishing a public-opinion survey that purported to prove his point. But in 1975, “One Day at a Time,’’ which revolved around a divorced woman and her two teenage daughters, went on the air and quickly became one of the most popular sitcoms in the country.

Since then, the parameters of “family’’ on television have broadened substantially. It could be argued that TV now offers a far more realistic picture of contemporary family life - even if that picture is not always flattering to the parents, and even if it’s not always clear, to borrow a phrase from yet another family show, who’s the boss.

“Are you sure about those shoes?’’ Sarah’s teenage daughter said to her on “Parenthood,’’ triggering a spasm of insecurity in the mother as she prepared to meet her ex-boyfriend for dinner. “I mean, it’s a date, not a bar mitzvah. . . . And that bag, it’s very 1960s. Not in a good way.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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