Family Sitcoms in 2015 Don't Reflect the American Family — And They Haven't for Years
Everyone knows the show: There's a family. A mom. A dad. Two, maybe three, kids of varying ages. They live in a suburban house together. Dad works. Sometimes, mom does too. Their lives revolve around school and work, but they take place mostly in the shared domestic spaces of the house: the disproportionately large living room, the roomy kitchen.
From Leave It to Beaver to Family Ties, the family sitcom has been part of American television for over 60 years. Yet the formula, even in shows as recent as Fresh off the Boat and Black-ish, has been left relatively untouched. As a genre, the family sitcom is stuck representing a type of family that is no longer the reigning norm.
What to make then of the sudden, if still quiet, resurgence of the genre? If the cultural role the family sitcom plays is that of a mirror — we seek and create shows that represent who we think we are — then it seems as good a time to crunch numbers. What kind of family have these sitcoms constructed over the years?
The following statistics and graphics represent data gathered by Mic from 50 basic network family sitcoms since 1989 — both bonafide hits (Modern Family, The Simpsons), short-lived but culturally significant shows (All-American Girl, Cristela, The New Normal) and everything in between. The data backs up what a glancing impression would indicate: The family sitcom is a genre that almost exclusively represents a model suburban two-parent household with 2.5 kids.
The genre's commitment to happily married households may come off as outmoded nostalgia, but comparing statistics from these 50 contemporary family sitcoms with recent census data shows that there may yet be more insidious representational blind spots in a genre that emerged in the Eisenhower era, just as "suburbia" was beginning to be central to the American image. From glaring racial disparities to an almost exclusive focus on two-parent households, the contemporary family sitcom seems beholden to the "family values" that so defined the Reagan administration — the last time the genre was at the forefront of American culture.
History of a genre: An established genre for over six decades, the family sitcom emerged as a prime example of post-war affluent American society. From the 1940s to the late 1980s, family sitcoms reigned as shows the entire family could sit down to watch and enjoy:.They had something for everyone. In a television landscape with limited choices, shows that aimed for broad appeal were king.
Inadvertently then, the family sitcom was both a hook and a mirror. Dad, mom and children each latched on to different characters on screen, identification being one of the earliest but most enduring ways in which viewers and producers alike understood the new homebound technology. But as American demographics and family structures have been changing, why has the family sitcom remained so woefully limited in the types of families it depicts?
In the 1989-1990 season, 14 of the top 50 Nielsen-rated shows were family sitcoms, with Roseanne and The Cosby Show topping the list. That was the same season that saw the premiere of perhaps the most successful family sitcom of the past three decades: The Simpsons. For comparison's sake, only six of the top 50 Nielsen-rated shows of the 2014-2015 season are family sitcoms. Modern Family, widely heralded as a return to form for family sitcoms, is the highest-ranking one at number 17, followed at numbers 27 and 28 by a pair of CBS comedies (Two and a Half Men and Mom) that are modern reworkings of the genre.
The fall from grace of the family sitcom can be accounted for in different ways. The rise of cable gave way to new formats and genres that courted niche audiences, leaving little room for the broad appeal of the nuclear family. In seeking niche audiences, and especially adult viewers, the '90s saw workplace sitcoms and urban-dweller comedies thrive — shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Will & Grace. By the 2000s, reality TV shows about families — like the Osbournes, the Gosselins, the Duggars and the Kardashians — offered more accurate portrayals because they were real families.
From a cultural point of view, the changing demographics of the American family perhaps made the cookie-cutter suburban families whose spacious living rooms were host to kooky plot lines about boyfriends and proms feel outdated. This gave rise to shows about dysfunctional families that left laugh tracks and easily resolved plot lines behind, like The Sopranos, Gilmore Girls and, most recently, Transparent. Nontraditional or broken families seemed to call for a different genre.
Demographics: Despite prominent exceptions, the family sitcom remains white and, more strikingly, ethnically homogenous. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the genre first came to be at the forefront of American culture, the families depicted were "typical" suburban families, then still a novel though increasingly more common concept. Suburbia, emerging as the main symbol of a prospering post-war economy, became in itself an aspirational model for the American people.
Leave It to Beaver, the pinnacle for the family sitcom, also symbolizes the mid-century American suburban family. The picket-fenced house, spacious living room and hidden-from-view bedrooms upstairs are stalwarts of the family sitcom. Father Ward Cleaver, the son of farmers, is employed in a white-collar job, while his wife is a full-time homemaker. The Cleavers are, in essence, the American dream of upward mobility incarnate. They are also, unmistakably, a symbol of a white America.
Race might be the biggest way the families depicted in network sitcoms are failing to represent changing American demographics. Just as the classic family sitcoms all revolved around well-off white families, the contemporary family sitcom is still awash in white-only families, with shows with predominantly caucasian cast members making up close to 70% of the shows included. That's above the close to 62% estimated white (non-Hispanic) population according to recent census estimates.
The Cosby Show ushered a wave of successful sitcoms around the black middle class family, but that is all but absent from the current television landscape. Of the sitcoms on the air right now that survived the 2014-2015 season on basic networks, only two feature nonwhite casts: Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish. Recent additions The Carmichael Show and Dr. Ken nearly double the stats.
Overall, Latinos and Asian-Americans continue to be underserved and underrepresented. Margaret Cho's embattled All-American Girl remained the sole network sitcom focused on an Asian-American family until ABC's Fresh Off the Boat premiered this year. George Lopez, which aired quietly for six seasons on ABC, featured the first high-profile Latino family on English-speaking network TV. ABC launched Cristela last year hoping for similar results, yet the Latino-fronted comedy was cancelled after 22 episodes.
Combined, these minority shows have only aired a total of 179 episodes, roughly the same amount of episodes of the entire run of Jim Belushi's sitcom According to Jim. For all the talk of Latinos being the biggest ethnic minority in the United States, the family sitcom has yet to represent that accurately.
Indian-Americans fare no better, though that's looking to change. Just in the past year, three different shows focused on Indian-American families — Keeping Up With the Guptas, I Love Lakshmi and Pre-Madonna — have been put into development. Unfortunately, American Indian families remain absent from American television.
Beyond these simple (and simplified) statistics, it bears pointing out that Modern Family, in addition to featuring a gay couple, features a mixed-race couple, an even bigger rarity in this particular television genre. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, in 2013, "a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race," a statistic that is nowhere near apparent from the family sitcom landscape which privileges ethnically homogenous families. The ABC show remains a great example of the ways the family sitcom is incrementally moving towards greater diversity.
Yet seven years since its premiere, there has been little to suggest the family sitcom genre as a whole has in any substantive way followed in its footsteps. Television's "modern" families are not as new as they appear: The nuclear family remains the norm.
Nontraditional families: While the mockumentary style and gay family unit made Modern Family feel contemporary, it was pretty much an old formula packaged anew. Even as it depicted three different households, it still maintained the most traditional of all family models: the two-parent household. The Cleavers, the Bunkers, the Bradys and the Conners, by now iconic entries in the family sitcom genre, all represent whole family units.
That is understandable if one follows mid-century American demographical data: In 1960, nearly 90% of American children lived in two-parent households. That number has, by 2014, dropped down to 68%.
Of the 50 shows canvassed, 14 feature single-parent households, though that number doesn't tell the entire story. Nannies, grandparents and involved extended families are central to even the most nontraditional of TV families. The genre basically calls for a large-enough ensemble cast with which to juggle the various A- and B-story lines that occur in every episode.
Of the 10 longest-running family sitcoms of the past 25 years, only Two and a Half Men (a father, a son and an uncle living under the same roof) and Step by Step (a mother of three and a father of three marry each other and move in together) depict nontraditional families. The rest are almost all carbon copies of each other: a father, a mother and two or three kids.
Even now, calls for diversity in TV continue to feel both necessary and, sadly, futile. Yet it bears repeating: While television is not required to accurately represent the viewers it hopes to court, audiences themselves have the right to call out when certain genres — even those that depend on their very repetitive nature — continue to merely present the same kind of show again and again.
The American family has evolved since the days when the Cleavers held the attention of an entire nation, and while these past 25 years show great progress, there are still many ways in which the family sitcom genre remains stuck representing an increasingly rare vision of the nuclear family.