Judge Gordon Sullivan once had 15 minutes of fame. An hour later, even he'd forgotten his name.
"Did I do that?"—Steve Urkel
The Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have seriously fragmented our popular culture. Thirty or forty years ago a "craze" could sweep the nation, lasting for weeks, even months. These days we still get pop-culture explosions, but ones that last that long are getting increasingly rare as everyone chases the "next big thing." Because of this, younger viewers might find it hard to believe that for a long while in the early-Nineties, Steve Urkel, the epitome of the obnoxious nerd with a heart of gold, was a genuine pop-culture phenomenon—complete with catchphrases and his own breakfast cereal. The show that spawned this icon was Family Matters, part of ABC's TGIF lineup. It's long been absent on home video, but now fans can enjoy the first season on DVD. It's a great nostalgia trip, but unlikely to tempt new viewers.
Family Matters follows the trials and tribulations of a middle-class African-American family in Chicago, the Winslows. Father Carl (Reginal ValJohnson, Die Hard) and mother Harriette (JoMarie Payton, The Proud Family) live with their three children. This motley crew also includes Carl's mother, Harriette's sister and nephew, and, eventually, hapless neighbor Steve Urkel (Jaleel White, Dreamgirls). They go through all the usual sitcom situations, where all their pesky problems are resolved in 23 minutes or less. All twenty-two episodes of Family Matters: The Complete First Season are included on three discs:
Steve Urkel is all over the packaging for this release. He's the biggest figure on the front and back covers, his face is the only thing on the front of the liner notes, and he's even featured inside the liner notes as well. Urkel is easily the most memorable aspect of the show, and perhaps the only memory some have of Family Matters. He's a really well-drawn character: he's got a distinctive look (high-water pants, suspenders, and big glasses), a distinctive sound (including catchphrases and that laugh), and, despite his drawbacks, he's a well-meaning character.
All this is really funny, considering Urkel was supposed to be a one-off character, and only appears midway through this season. He was the character that made the show famous, but like many shows of that era (Step by Step and Full House come to mind), Family Matters has a large cast, and that's a huge strength. That means individual episodes can either focus in on one character's situation, or keep multiple strands going at once. Plus, the diversity of the cast keeps things interesting. Few shows juggle so many generations (not to mention having an unmarried aunt and her son) so consistently. It's not a hard-hitting exploration of family dynamics or anything, but the different character relationships provide ample opportunities for situation comedy.
Despite the strength of a good cast and numerous characters, Family Matters is still a late-'80s sitcom, and one that still hadn't found its legs (as the late addition of Steve Urkel to the cast shows). We're talking all the same old sitcom plots: money problems, girl (and boy) troubles, wacky situations—the works. There's a certain nostalgic charm and innocence to the show, but there's not much that sets it apart from any other big-family sitcom from the era.
However, whether those who grew up with the show want to re-experience it or pop-culture junkies want to see where the Urkel phenomenon began, this first season of Family Matters lets everybody experience the show's origins. All twenty-two episodes are presented with solid transfers. It's no better than broadcast quality. Colors are iffy and the source isn't always clean, but there are no significant compression problems to speak of. The audio is a simple stereo mix that keeps the dialogue audible, and subtitles are helpfully included. There are, however, no extras. I wouldn't be surprised if Jaleel White is thoroughly sick of Steve Urkel, but a commentary or featurette about his iconic status would be nice, especially considering how much coverage it gets on the box.
Family Matters is an average-to-slightly-above-average sitcom. Although it spawned a cultural icon in Steve Urkel, the show is unlikely to appeal to new viewers due to generally tired sitcom plots. Fans looking for a nostalgic opportunity to rewatch the show will be pleased that all twenty-two episodes of the first season, including Urkel's debut, are included here, even if the total lack of extras may hurt a bit.
Despite some drawbacks, Family Matters is not guilty for nostalgic purposes.
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