Should we blame the Bundys, or the Bradys? Or maybe it was the Cleavers.
Each of these families played a role in the transition of the TV family from loving and supportive to combative, spiteful and entirely dysfunctional. The Bundys, of “Married With Children,” one of the first sitcoms to air on the fledgling Fox network in the mid-80s, was probably the first to go full-tilt into mockery of family values, ironic since News Corporation, Fox’s parent, is an icon of conservatism. The Bundys, whose serial killer-evoking name is probably no coincidence, spent eight seasons trading barbs and innuendoes and avoided any kind of connection to each other let alone shared values or goals.
But its success was likely thanks to fatigue from the Cleavers, Bradys, Cunnighams and other families of the 50s, 60s and 70s, with their laughably shallow cohesiveness and problems that could easily be mended with corny talk over milk and cookies in the span of a half hour. Greg Brady once got busted with cigarettes (he was holding for a friend) and the female Bradys once got wind of the ERA, but other than that they lived in a sterile dome where Nixon was never president, kids didn’t know drugs exist and Greg, Bobby and Peter didn’t face the draft.
In the mid-80s there were some sitcoms like Family Ties and Growing Pains that straddled the middle somewhat in dealing with problems but still wrapped up hot-chocolate happy within a half-hour, or the occasional “very special” two-part episode. But TV seemed to shift rapidly from one extreme to the other, from goodie-goodies to Children’s Services case files.
Now comes Showtime’s latest attempt to inject some fun into dysfunction. In “Shameless,” a sextet of siblings is neglected by a father (William H. Macy) so literally falling down drunk that his debut in the pilot has him carried into the living room unconscious by two cops. And it’s right back to the bar when he comes around.
Kids raising themselves is reminiscent of “Party of Five” on Fox, in which an irresponsible legal adult takes charge of his four siblings, from teenagers to toddler, after the death of their parents. While that show catered to younger viewers’ fantasies of growing up sans adults, Never-Neverland style, there was an occasional message and an uplifting story in Charlie (Matthew Fox) ultimately rising to the challenge.
On “Shameless,” as the title implies, its all about reveling in complete abdication of parental responsibility by a living adult who, other than needing a long stay in rehab, is otherwise healthy. Last night’s pilot (the show is based on an English series by the same name) featured some standout performances by some of the actors, particularly Emmy Rossum as the 20-year-old sister trying to have a life while serving as de facto den mother. But I found it trying too hard to live up to its name.
No one should look to TV for moral inspiration, least of all pay cable, and as cable shows go, “The Sopranos” set the benchmark for bad parental role models. I don’t object to shows that revel in dysfunction on moral grounds but as a cynical entertainment consumer.
It just isn’t funny anymore, nor is it particularly shameless or shocking. Showtime’s other offerings include a serial killer dad on "Dexter" and a drug-dealing mom who takes her corrupted sons on the lam with her on "Weeds." After three decades of counter-Bradys, there’s just no more envelope left to push.