Monday, October 25, 2010

We haven't actually met but I saw a photo of you, you were wearing a white dress? Standing outside a church? It might have been someone's wedding?

As a child, I was fascinated by The Waltons. The story of a large family growing up together on the side of a mountain seemed to me to be parallel to my father's childhood, as he grew up in a large family on the side of a mountain. There were some differences, admittedly. The mountain Daddy grew up on is one in name only (really it could more accurately be named 'Steep Incline') and recent events have proved that his large family have more in common with the Manson family than with the Waltons (Daddy excluded, and boy how I wish I was exaggerating!) However, my interest in the fictional representation of families continues and recently I have been giving some thought to continuing my series of listing stuff I like. So, without further ado I present:
Fictional Families I'm Fond Of
I'll start with The Waltons
The Walton clan outside Ike Godsey's General Store
The Waltons is one of those shows that I loved as a child and have rediscovered as an adult. It's been unfairly remembered in popular culture as being saccharine and sentimental. Well, it is sentimental but not in the pejorative way in which the word has often been applied. I find the exploits of the Walton family endearing, thought-provoking and moving. Based on Earl Hamner Jr's childhood in rural Virginia during the Depression, The Waltons has at its centre a large and loving family. There were seven children, parents and grandparents and extended family also. What I find so interesting about this family, and about the show, is the way in which we're able to watch them growing up together. Early episodes focused mainly on the eldest, John Boy (the fictionalised Hamner, and the narrator of each episode) but as the family grew up each member got their own episodes. The family are often seen squabbling and bickering, misunderstanding one another and disagreeing. They experience emotional and material hardship but always pull together and each episode ends with the family all together. In our sarcastic age the values of The Waltons seem outdated but I confess that this is what I enjoy, and what makes this family so special to me. I have a particular soft spot for the way in which the grandparents live with the family, and the gently teasing relationship between Esther and Zeb Walton is a joy to watch:


Zeb Walton, played by the wonderful Will Geer
John and Olivia Walton's relationship is also a joy to watch. It's a loving partnership of equals, of people who are lovers as well as parents.

The Conner family
I've written before about my love of Roseanne, and the Conner family are the reason for this.
The Conners, fetchingly attired in the finest 80s fashion
While the Conner family may seem miles away from the Waltons, I have similar reasons for feeling so fond of them. This is a family that always comes back to one another. I like the way that family life is presented uncensored. We see the family eating together around the kitchen table but, as likely as not, they're eating something Roseanne has microwaved. Becky is a straight A student, but she's an absolute terror as a teenager. Darlene's wiseass attitude doesn't quite manage to hide her middle child angst and DJ is pretty weird. Roseanne doesn't shy away from the fact that families bug the crap out of one another, and this makes it both entertaining and moving. I particularly enjoy the way in which sisterly relationships are played out (having two younger sisters of my own it seems very pertinent to me!) Roseanne's best friend is her younger sister Jackie and we can see how an often adversarial relationship can also be extremely supportive and fulfilling. There are echoes of this in the relationship between Becky and Darlene as well. Family traditions and concerns are represented well, particularly in the various Hallowe'en episodes. Roseanne frequently cracks wise about booting her children out, or about selling them, and this provides a humorous counterpoint to some of her real concerns. Roseanne and Dan are often seen trying to become better parents than their parents were, and this is one of the things that makes this family interesting and endearing to me.

The Lacey family
Tyne Daly, John Karlen and Sharon Gless
Again, I have written elsewhere and at length about my love of Cagney and Lacey. Obviously the partnership of the women is at the centre, but Mary-Beth Lacey's home life is an extremely important aspect of the show. Her marriage to Harvey Lacey is central to how Mary-Beth sees herself. While the wonderful John Karlen doesn't guest in every episode, Harvey is present in some way in every storyline. The marriage is in some ways unconventional - as a detective, Mary-Beth is the main earner and is often the one coming home to find Harvey waiting for her with dinner in the oven. That said, their marriage is always presented as a partnership. They argue (I love it when Harvey Lacey shouts. It's always awesome) and they talk over cases, they disagree and they worry about one another. Their two sons (and later, a daughter) don't play the same kind of role in the drama as the children of the Conners or the Waltons, but the family dynamic is of dramatic importance. Finally, one of the things I adore about the way we see the Lacey family is the fact that we often see Mary-Beth and Harv talking over things in bed. Nice work for John Karlen - putting on his pyjamas and kissing Tyne Daly!

The Shipman-West family

I didn't expect to like Gavin and Stacey when my friend Laura first lent me the DVD. I'll admit, I was snobby about the fact that it was on BBC3 and the soundtrack is full of bands I hate. However, I was quickly won over by the show's warmth and charm and mainly by the large extended family that makes up the show's core. Much more than being about the burgeoning romance between the eponymous characters, Gavin and Stacey is about the wonderful eccentricities of family life, and the marriage of two families as opposed to two individuals.
Both the Shipmans and the Wests (and oh how the serial killer names gags tickle me - another main character is named after Peter Sutcliffe) are delightful families to watch. Larry Lamb as Mick Shipman is straight man to Alison Steadman's hilarious Pam (-e-laaaaa) Gavin is their only son, Pam's 'little prince', but such is their love and generosity that Gavin's friends become surrogate children. This is most evident in the way in which Smithy is absorbed into the household, even after Gavin has moved to Barry for work. I think what appeals to me so much about TV family is the way in which the eccentricities and foibles of each individual are accepted and tolerated and even loved. Stacey's Uncle Bryn is a good example of this. He's like an overgrown child, but the simple pleasures he takes in life (such as updating his Myspace page, listening to James Blunt and working out in his home gym) are accepted and he even forms an unlikely bond with Smithy. It's this ability to rub along together, to turn a blind eye to one another's strange notions that makes this family so likeable. I also adore the way we see the family members come together to spend time with one another and I admire the way James Corden and Ruth Jones give space to these sorts of get togethers. A particular favourite of mine comes from series 3, in which everyone comes together for a curry and a night of drinking in the Shipman home. Nothing happens that especially moves the narrative forward, but so much humour and joy is to be found in watching the family interact with one another.

The Cranes
I'm including this family because they spend so much time together! Also because John Mahoney as Martin Crane is undoubtedly one of my favourite TV fathers. The Crane brothers are close...perhaps too close, as episodes frequently make play of the fact that they spend so much of their time together and have so many shared interests. I really enjoy this aspect of Frasier. There might be an element of wistfulness on my part because I'd love to be able to spend so much time with my own siblings, but I am also drawn to the sibling dynamic, particularly because of the rivalry Frasier and Niles display in almost every matter. The rivalry is most profound and most amusing when it concerns their relationship with their father, Martin. He is constantly amazed by how different his sons are to him, and finds his dog Eddie easier to relate to and to understand. Despite Martin's inability to understand his sons, and his frequent irritation at their genteel ways, he is an involved and caring father. While he finds it difficult to express his love, and often resorts to telling Frasier to shut his big bazoo, it is clear how much he loves and is proud of his sons. And of course, he loves Eddie, who is as much a part of the Crane family as any of the human members.
Eddie Crane, played by the wonderful Moose
Frasier is also interesting for thinking about the way in which our relationship with our parents changes as we become adults. Frasier finds himself living with his father again after decades of living independently and much of the humour comes from both father and son having to make this adjustment. Many of the more moving scenes focus on this also, making Frasier emotionally rewarding as well as funny.
That's the lot for now. Of course, there are lots of other TV and film families I enjoy watching but, you know, you don't want to be reading this all night. Let me know in the comments if you feel I've made any glaring omissions, or if you disagree with me, or you just want to tell me how awesome I am.