TV's Dysfunctional Family Affair

The really shocking shows are on Nick at Nite.


If there's one thing politicians seem to be good at, it's jumping on a dead trend. Vice President Al Gore is a master of this. In August, just before the Democrat convention, he was spotted dancing the Macarena. A couple of months later, in October, Gore attacked Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He called the show "sugary and sociopathic." Passé would have been more apt.

A few days after Gore's rant, 22 members of Congress showed they were on top of things by attacking the 10-year-old Fox television series Married…With Children. They sent a letter to Fox decrying the network's decision to move the show from its 9:30 p.m. time slot to 7 p.m. on Sunday. These lawmakers undoubtedly would have been even more outraged had they known that syndicated reruns of the series have been broadcast nightly in that time slot for years.

It's clear that politicians just can't resist attacking television. And it's equally clear that they know little about it. So I thought I'd help them out. They keep focusing on the big networks, syndicated daytime talk shows, and other broadcast programming. The thing is, broadcast shows have been losing market share for years: Cable is where the action's at.

If politicians think television shows should highlight values such as two-parent households and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, then basic cable is a real cesspool. And that's mostly because cable endlessly reruns the "classic" TV shows that gave way to the likes of Married…With Children and Power Rangers. Just try, for example, to find any traditional role models–or even a family with a living mother and father–on cable.

Start with TBS. Ted Turner, who before marrying Jane Fonda championed "family" TV, put this station on satellite way back in 1976. It's a leader in basic cable. The anchor series for TBS has always been The Andy Griffith Show. Nice and safe, right? Wrong.

Andy Taylor is a widower. His wife died before the series began. So there's no mother to raise little Opie (though he does have Andy's spinster Aunt Bea). And while Andy dates a string of nice-looking women during the run of the show, his closest relationship is with his deputy, Barney Fife. Want more? Consider this: Of all the major male characters on the show–Andy, Barney, Floyd the barber, Howard Sprague, Goober, and Gomer–the only married one is Otis Campbell, the town drunk. What sort of message were the makers of this show trying to send?

Another TBS staple is The Beverly Hillbillies. Once again, Jed Clampett is a widower. While his daughter Ellie Mae lacks a mother, she does have a grandmother who keeps a still in the backyard and who constantly tries to sneak some of her "rheumatism medicine." Grandparents are portrayed so rarely on television. Is it really necessary for one of the few on TV to have a substance-abuse problem?

And what about Jethro, Ellie's cousin? He spends most of his time trying to attract nubile young women. And think about this: Jed is Jethro's uncle. But Jethro's mother is Jed's cousin Pearl. Try to diagram that family tree. The Clampetts' next-door neighbors are the Drysdales, a couple obviously involved in a loveless marriage. The Drysdales are occasionally joined by Sonny, Mrs. Drysdale's son by a previous marriage.

On another Turner station, TNT, you can catch Gilligan's Island. It has seven regular characters. Only two of them–Mr. and Mrs. Howell–are married. They apparently have no children.

Had enough? Then flip over to another superstation, WOR. It has The Fugitive. The lead character here is Dr. Richard Kimball. Dead wife, no kids. WOR also runs The Partridge Family. In this show, the father has died. So mom loads up the kids onto a psychedelic bus and turns them into a rock band. You can also catch Magnum, P.I. on WOR. This one revolves around Thomas Magnum and his pal Jonathan Higgins, an older man who lets Magnum live with him rent-free in a palatial estate. Both men have mustaches.

OK, so turn over to Nickelodeon's "Nick at Nite," shows that preserve our national "television heritage." The big series here is The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, Mary is single–no husband, no children–even at her advanced age. She "dates" a slew of men, but the real sexual tension on this show is between her and her married boss, Lou Grant. Before the end of the series, Lou gets divorced. Perhaps his wife left from jealousy over Mary. One of their co-workers is Sue Ann Nivens, a sex-obsessed hostess of a cooking show.

Nick at Nite also shows The Odd Couple. Nothing more needs to be said about that.

Another Nick at Nite show is a tad more deceptive. At first glance, the Happy Days Cunningham family appears to be a loving, intact unit. Yet most people forget that oldest son Chuck disappears after the first season. No reason is offered for his abrupt departure; he's simply never mentioned again. What did Chuck do that his family so completely disowned him? And what does this situation say about how close that family really was? Or how it deals with problems?

A couple of years ago, Nick at Nite revived The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It features another widower with a cute kid. He dates a passel of attractive women, and he has a live-in female housekeeper.

So change the channel to The Nashville Network. Most of this station's programming consists of music videos showcasing the traditional values of country music: alcoholism, infidelity, serving time in prison, and brawling. But for now, let's leave aside the messages sent in these songs. Instead, let's focus on a couple of series rerun on TNN. The first is The Dukes of Hazzard. Once again, the Duke boys have no parents. Bo and Luke live with their Uncle Jesse. And there's plenty of subtle–and sometimes not-so-subtle–sexual tension between them and their cousin Daisy.

The other dramatic series rerun on TNN is Dallas. The Ewings aren't exactly the most functional family in the world. J.R. constantly tries to screw his brother Bobby out of the family business. He repeatedly cheats on his wife, and she eventually divorces him.

The Ewings' other brother, Gary, is so alienated from the family that he's a regular on Knot's Landing, not Dallas. That's familiar stuff to most TV viewers. But let's not forget that, in the first season of the show, ranch hand Ray Krebs has an affair with J.R.'s sister Lucy. A few years later, it's revealed that Ray is actually the illegitimate son of J.R.'s daddy Jock. That means Ray slept with his half-sister.

Sanford and Son anchors Black Entertainment Television's weeknight schedule. The show centers on yet another widowed father and his adult son, who still resides at home. They live in a junkyard and argue all the time. The father's unconventional parenting techniques include calling his son "dummy," comparing his dead wife's sister to a gorilla, and extolling the virtues of cheap wine.

OK, OK, so most cable is toxic. But at least The Family Channel must be safe. After all, it's run by televangelist Pat Robertson. And the name–well, there has to be truth in advertising.

Yet even Robertson neglects his duty to provide moral uplift through entertainment. The channel's Saturday afternoon lineup consists of old Western series. Let's start with Bonanza. Once more, the central character is a widower. This time he's raising three sons. But Ben Cartwright is no ordinary widower. He has buried three wives, and his longtime companion is his male cook, Hop Sing. A few years into the series, the Cartwrights added a new man to their household, a handsome cowboy they call "Candy." The all-male atmosphere seems to have left the Cartwright boys with a lot of unresolved anger. They can't seem to settle a dispute without violence.

Then there's The Big Valley. Here's a switch: It's about a single mother and her sons. But one of the boys, Heath, is actually her husband's illegitimate child, fathered in an affair he had with another woman. And longtime fans of the series will remember that daughter Audra tries to seduce Heath in the first episode, even though she knows that he is her half-brother.

Finally, there's The Rifleman, about another widower raising his son. Like the Cartwrights, Lucas McCain has a hard time controlling his temper. He kills more men than John Wesley Hardin, who famously shot a man just for snoring. Is it any wonder the son quivers whenever he talks to his dad?

For a time, the Family Channel was also home to Gunsmoke, the longest-running episodic series in American history. Matt Dillon isn't a widower. He isn't even married, but he does have a long relationship with "saloon hostess" Miss Kitty. Jeez, does Pat even watch the stuff he airs?

Each weeknight, the Family Channel runs old movie shorts featuring the Three Stooges. In most of these films, the Stooges aren't married. They are often depicted as living together. And their relationship has a decided S&M flavor to it. The channel has also run at least one special featuring magicians Siegfried and Roy. The less said about that the better.

The list goes on and on: Family Affair is now on fX, a channel run by alleged conservative Rupert Murdoch. The show's title makes it sound wholesome enough. But this time, both parents are dead, and the three children live with their Uncle Bill. Bill lives with a man called Mr. French. He tells the kids French is his manservant, but French is British, so there are other possibilities.

My Three Sons is another cable mainstay. Again, the lead is a widowed man raising his family. His only companion is a man his boys know as "Uncle" Charley. Charley is a former sailor who likes to cook and clean. Then there's Flipper, a series featuring another widowed father. Surprisingly, there's no male housekeeper this time. But the boy does develop an unusually close relationship with a (male) sea mammal. Finally, there's The Honeymooners. True, Ralph and Alice Kramden are married. But they have no kids. And their marriage provides a poor role model: Alice constantly belittles Ralph, and he responds with threats of violence.

If it were just one show, or even a few shows, where intact families were absent, one might think it was just a dramatic device. But when the percentage is so high, you have to believe it says something about the values of those who program these channels. And as far as I can tell, it means they value their wives dead.

You get the picture. In their zeal to get ratings and make money, the managers of these channels have shirked their social responsibility to uphold the institutions that society is based upon. Just wait until the politicians get the news.

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.