TV classics: Family
USA 1976-80, five seasons, 86 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Produced by Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Selling, Mike Nichols. Cast: Sada Thompson, James Broderick, Gary Frank, Kristy McNichol, Elayne HeilVeil, Meredith Baxter Birney, Quinn Cummings.
Plot summary: Family life is not a walk in the park and no one knows that better than Kate and Doug Lawrence, two middle-aged parents who love and curse their kids at the same time.
Review: When Family premiered in the spring of 1976, the family shows had long been established on TV. Programs like Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show had coined the genre in the early days. Unlike its predecessors, however, Family dealt with issues and disputes in a serious way. Although joy and laughter belonged to the Lawrence’s household, the overall tone of the show was serious. In contrast to the early family sitcoms, Kate and Doug were loving but stern parents who had to deal with three children and their struggles.
Set in Southern California, the Lawrence family belonged to the upper middle class and led a comfortable life in Pasadena. Kate, played by a warmhearted but slightly melancholy Sada Thompson, was the female head of the household. A woman who had put her family before her own professional aspirations and thus fought with her own demons. Doug (James Broderick) was Kate’s husband and father of Nancy, Willie and Buddy. As an independent lawyer, he was the negotiator of the family, a strict man who had his convictions but wasn’t set in his ways. Nancy, the oldest daughter, was married in the beginning of the show but later divorced her husband. Selfish by nature and equally demanding, she had a difficult relationship with her mother whose own values differed largely from hers. Willie, the second-in-line, was a high school drop out who dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Buddy, the pet of the family, was his favorite sister. A tomboy on the outside, she was a teenage girl within. Insecure about her height and femininity, she slowly grew into a confident young woman who was a reliable and honest friend. As the youngest Lawrence offspring, she had suffered greatly after the loss of her older brother, Timothy, five years prior to the show’s beginning. His death a gash still tangible in the entire family.
It were topics like these that set the show apart from many others. Family didn’t shy away from touching uncomfortable or somber topics. Breast cancer, divorce and the doubts of an expectant mother are just some of the examples that made this program what it was: a story about a fictional family with realistic challenges and problems. Although not yet available on DVD as a complete collection, the first two seasons provide an insight into the difficulties and changes of the 1970s. Influenced by subjects and questions discussed at the time, the show now functions like a time capsule. No matter if you are fond of the era or critical of it like me, Family offers a wonderful cast and moving storylines. A real treat for anyone who wants to understand the sensitivities of a different time, as well as the roots of female characters who speak their mind. Kate Lawrence has always been one of my favorites, strong, hands-on and maternal. Here’s my favorite scene with her from the pilot, a great example of the style and tone of a show that started as a mini series and ended its run at the dawn of a new decade after five seasons.