While he'd rather chew on broken glass than deal with his own interpersonal issues, Judge Bill Gibron could still appreciate the subtleties of this sensational '70s television drama.
Feelings. Nothing more…or less…than feelings.
As the 1960s started to fall apart, the growing generation gap became a primary concern for families all around America. Granted, the youth movement was fueled, in large part, by the stark contrasts that existed between the freethinking students at the center of the rebellion and the rigid Establishment environment the adult world worked within. While the differences were seemingly earth shattering—social reform, civil rights, support of an unpopular war—the truth was that both sides were just protecting their territory. The kids wanted a say in the system they were stuck supporting and dying for, while the parents wanted them to shut up and behave.
As the '70s arrived and then drew on, the divergent dynamic started to weaken, and wash away. Soon, families were trying to reconnect and rediscover the elements that made kinship such a strong social force in the beginning. As a reflection of this time, ABC developed Family, a one-hour drama as reflection of the attempted generational truce. Developed by first class filmmaker Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and TV vet Aaron Spelling, the series strove to bring a new level of honesty and openness to the small screen. Viewed today, it appears antiquated and issue-driven. But during an era when unspoken truths were just starting to be talked about, this stirring series brought an amazing array of issues to the fore.
Facts of the Case
Life in the Southern California suburbs seems like bliss to the casual viewer, but for the Lawrence family, times couldn't be more trying. Doug (James Broderick) is an attorney, a sole practitioner struggling to make ends meet. Kate (Sada Thompson) is the humble homemaker, a past full of dreams drowned in the responsibilities of husband and kids. Eldest daughter Nancy (Meredith Baxter Birney) is separated from her husband and has moved back in with Mom and Dad with a young child in tow. Middle child Willie (Gary Frank) is a high school dropout, desperate to find his place in a world awash in viable personal possibilities. Youngest offspring Leticia, also known as Buddy (Kristy McNichol), is perhaps the smartest member of the entire clan. Wise beyond her years, yet left out of most important decisions, she can cut through the crap and find the truth behind almost any complicated crisis.
Over the course of 28 episodes, making up the complete First and Second Season of the ABC drama, the Lawrences experience many personal problems, almost all revolving around individual issues and occasional social stigmas. Presented over the course of six DVDs, a minor description of each episode is necessary to see how the story arch involving this brood is determined and developed. We begin with:
• "The Best Years"
• "Monday is Forever"
• "A Special Kind of Loving"
• "A Right and Proper Goodbye"
• "Thursday's Child Has Far to Go"
• "A Point of Departure"
• "Coming Apart"
• "Such Sweet Sorrow"
• "Home Movie"
• "Coming of Age"
• "Jury Duty Part 1"
• "Jury Duty Part 2"
• "The Cradle Will Fall"
• "Skeleton in the Closet"
• "The Christmas Story"
• "Rites of Friendship"
• "An Eye to the Future"
• "Lovers and Strangers"
• "Return Engagement"
• "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall"
• "Someone's Watching"
• "A Safe House"
• "Best Friends"
• "Taking Chances Part 1"
• "Taking Chances Part 2"
• "Comings and Goings"
• "There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth"
• "An Endangered Species"
Family is a show about people with hidden scars on their hearts. In a world where home is seen as solace and escape, the Lawrences live with pain right around every corner. It stares at them from images on the mantle, it pries at them from memories fresh and open. No one is untouched by the trouble that flows through the family like the rivers of regret that ebb inside most people's lives. From the divide between Doug and Kate, married so long that even adultery no longer holds the sting it did some 20 years before, to the lost, lonely trip into himself experienced by high school dropout Willie, this clan is covered in excuses and examinations. On the outer edges are the daughters—divorcee-to-be Nancy and youngest (and most insightful) Leticia, also known as Buddy. They represent the best and worst that the Lawrences can look forward to. Nancy just wants to live in the moment, experience everything in life without the regret of responsibility. Buddy just wants to grow up, sick of being the baby in a collective filled with what she perceives as less than rational adults. Together with their past mistakes and misfortunes, they form a bond that's believable as well as broad. Somehow, the Lawrences manage to have all the experiences that families can possible face, always with a painstaking resolution after a near hour of discussion and debate.
In its first mid-season replacement run, Family was a fine if somber entertainment. Action and antics were replaced by conversations and considerations, and the narrative seemed linear, each crisis leading effortlessly into the next. Nancy's impending divorce became the catalyst for several sensational installments ("The Best Years" pilot, "Thursday's Child Has Far to Go") and, as with any episode, the acting matched the emotions and machinations necessary to carry the plotting. At the helm of this fragile group are stage veterans James Broderick (father of Matthew) and Sada Thompson. While Doug comes across as a little distant and disaffected the first few shows, Thompson is a typhoon, a maternal storm straining not to smother her entire broken brood. For the first few months, her Kate was the considered center of the show, the spark that spurred discussions and the sage wisdom that solved the frequent flare-ups. Without her domineering guidance, one envisions a Lawrence clan completely corrupted by selfishness and disrespect. As the motherly fixture at the fore, Thompson gave Family its heart and its chutzpah. Had the series stayed centered this way, avoiding the elements that would come to soil Season Two—and the years to come—this would have been TV's definitive hour-long drama.
However, something strange happened when the show came back for a second season. Gone was actress Elayne Heilveil in the role of Nancy, in was the bright, bubbly (and definitely blond) Meredith Baxter Birney. Also MIA were the matter-of-fact interactions between the family members. In their place were pithy platitudes, witty bon mots, and the kind of psychologically sound statements that we expect from any well-meaning drama. The Lawrences became less a collective and more like a collection of individually considered quirks. Willie, once so enamored with writing that he was willing to give up his life and escape to the family farm ("A Point of Departure") now longs to be a filmmaker, or something "artistic" while working at a job we thought he'd never find. Similarly, Buddy becomes less of the family conscience and more of the flighty little teenager we always thought she'd avoid becoming. Perhaps as part of a plan to make the Lawrences more relatable—how many '70s siblings sat at breakfast together, trading insights into each others problems and personalities?—or to reach a reasonable broader audience, the remaining 22 episodes on this DVD waver between the insightful ("The Cradle Will Fall," "Comings and Goings") to the dull and derivative ("Home Movie," the two-part "Jury Duty").
Indeed, throughout the second season, Family falls into the "problem of the week" trap that stunted most '70s shows. Instead of trying to keep a single issue alive for more than one installment, the topical treatment of then shocking situations revolving around unwed motherhood ("A Special Kind of Loving"), homosexuality ("Rites of Friendship"), and substance abuse ("Skeletons in the Closet," "Best Friends") make each episode feel separated from the others. Continuity is also not one of the series' strong points. When the family considers moving to New York ("Such Sweet Sorrow"), they never once reference the whole storyline involving the dead son Timmy. Similarly, Salina's continued presence is predicated on making Willie's life complicated. She is never anything other than a life lesson for the indecisive adolescent to learn over and over again. Add in Nancy's uncontrolled Id, a devil may care "do what I want" way of acting that makes one want to slap her through the TV screen, and you've got enough barricades to compassion to keep the Lawrences at arm's length. Happily, through some excellent writing and a wonderful collection of ancillary subplots (most involving Buddy or Kate), we can survive the show's self-righteous, sometimes preachy parameters.
In the end, Family becomes something of a long lost litmus test, especially in this first and second season DVD presentation. If you feel an instant empathy with everything that happens in the first few episodes, if the Lawrences strike you as an unhappy clan looking to find a little light in their world of wasted dark, then you will find the revamp of the remaining installments a tad disconcerting. If, instead, you believe the beginning of the series to be a slow, sullen effort that picks up substantially come Season Two, then this compendium—and future box sets, if any—will be a wonderful addition to your TV on DVD collection. It bears repeating that all the acting here is superb. Even Kristy McNichol and Gary Frank, two actors who can shift suddenly from ingratiating to irritating (sometime within a single scene), offer more great than grating here. Similarly, it's fun to see the occasional famous face—David Hedison, Tommy Lee Jones, James Woods, Helen Hunt, Season Hubley—turn up in a supporting role. Maybe after three decades of interpersonal soul searching, where every possible human problem has been raked over the entertainment coals, the revelations of Family are no longer as outrageous as they once appeared. In fact, that may have been the point of this series all along. In a world draped in drama, what happens between relatives should be settled in a considerate, not controversial manner. The Lawrences seemed to find a way to do it. Hopefully, they can be example for those still looking.
Offered by Sony in a six disc set that's low on added content (actually there are no bonus features to speak of) but high on technical polish, Family: The Complete First and Second Seasons looks practically brand new on DVD. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is clean and crisp, with the occasional image atrophy coming from commercial break fade outs/ins. Details are rich—gotta love McNichol's flyaway hairdos—and contrasts are correct and sharp. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono does deliver easily discernible dialogue, but not much else. The score, a subtle combination of orchestration and passive piano cues, has very little depth here, even if it matches the emotions in the show very well. Granted, Sony should have stepped up and offered some kind of added content…commentaries, interviews, any Making-Of material…but the lack of extras doesn't detract from this series substantial power. A chance to own almost 14 hours of excellent drama doesn't need much salability supplementation.
Just like the chasm created between young and old, Seasons One and Two of Family live in almost polar opposite production modes. The original series wanted to follow a disintegrating domestic ideal as it slowly started to heal. By the time it was picked up and polished for a second go-round, the wounds were all scabbed over, the pain a passing part of a life already lived. Sure, more strife would come, but after dealing with the problems that plagued our initial introduction to this clan, anything in the future would seem small, and perhaps even petty.
For its time, Family found a way to work in scandalous material in a manner that was convenient for an audience unwilling to approach such issues themselves. The gimmick gave the series a gravity that other, less adventurous entertainments truly lacked. Still, the strategy to avoid the interpersonal and go with what would grab ratings would reduce an artistic achievement to a standard TV show. No one should be embarrassed by what Family now stands for—it's a great series, timely and terrifically acted. But it could have been so much more had it just resolved its competing creative claims, kind of how the '70s should have turned out, had the generations found a manageable meeting of the minds.
Not guilty. While it did substantively switch its approach between Seasons One and Two, Family is still a fine example of an inventive one hour drama.
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