Sunday, February 12, 2012

Out of the Box:Musings on FAMILY AFFAIR and THE MIDDLE

I suppose that it is only natural that I, who was born in 1966 and who is raising children in the 21st century would choose a 60s sitcom and a current one as particular favorites. However,it is neither nostalgia nor familiarity that cause me to view FAMILY AFFAIR and THE MIDDLE with such affection. I guess my daughter summed it up well: "Everything's not always terrible-but it's not always perfect, either." Indeed, these two sitcoms feature less-than-ideal parents in less-than-ideal circumstances, doing the best they can with what they've got. In FAMILY AFFAIR, we have Uncle Bill and Mr.French daily muddling through various crises that come with growing up. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes, not so much. Nevertheless, they try-and they love their kids. Uncle Bill lives in a Manhattan apartment, with a high-power career and plenty of money, but his struggles are no more or no less than those of the Heck family, with two working parents and three kids with various, shall we say, idiosyncracies.
  I do relate to both shows in different ways, for different reasons. The Davis family is non-traditional and formed rather unexpectedly. True, my husband and I were slightly more prepared for the arrival of three children than Uncle Bill and Mr.French were-but only slightly. I say this because I don't know if anyone can ever truly be prepared for such a major upheaval. Like the Davis children, our children came with a tragic and traumatic past. The great thing about FAMILY AFFAIR is that Buffy, Jody, and Cissy, no matter how secure they become, no matter how much they are loved, ever forget that they were once orphaned and separated. It is not continually dwelt upon, but it is a thread that runs throughout the series. There is an underlying sadness that is not normally seen in sitcoms. For example, after the first episode of THE BRADY BUNCH, no one ever mentioned the lost spouses/parents. It was as if they never existed. The past never happened. That, my friends, is NOT reality. You do not ever completely forget. You move on, you find happiness, you accept what has been and you look to the future, ideally, with hope, but the the sorrow of loss does not ever just go away. Thus, when Buffy is taken back to her hometown and sees the store where her mother bought Mrs. Beasley, she says wistfully, "It was the last thing...the very last thing." The only sitcom that I know of that came close to doing this as well is the sweet and charming FULL HOUSE, for which I have a reluctant and almost guilty affection. Cloyingly saccharine though the show may be, the two older girls never forget their mom-and no one expects them to.
 In FAMILY AFFAIR there is also the matter of the children's behavior, particularly in the first season. They behave and react in ways that children who have been through trauma naturally would. The fact that they have endured so much also explains the fact that they get along better than most siblings and are unusually close. When my children were younger, this was very true of them. However, since my trio does not consist of twins and a much-older sister, but three children rather close in age, the dynamic has always been different. Now that they are all teenagers (well, the youngest will be thirteen in two weeks, so that counts) there is much more friction. Still, they are fiercely protective of one another and never want to see each other hurt. I would be a bit freaked out if they got along as nauseatingly well as Wally and Beaver Cleaver, but I would also be upset if they hated each other as some television sibs do. This is, after all, REAL LIFE.
 The mention of real life brings me to THE MIDDLE, which, like FAMILY AFFAIR, we all enjoy together because we GET it. See, there's this family, and they don't have a lot of money. Mom and Dad work really hard just to make ends meet, the kids aren't always as appreciative as they ought to be, Mom doesn't usually cook homemade meals, and a lot of things get done on the run or at the last minute. It is so staggeringly close to our actual lives that we will collectively shout, "That's SO US!!"
I have never been the kind of mom who cut out little sandwiches with cookie cutters for my children's lunches or baked adorable and delicious cupcakes for class parties. In fact, there have been times when I have -GASP-forgotten the class party and had to run to the grocery store at six-thirty A.M. to buy a bag of house-brand chips. So be it. I don't stay up until one A.M.making a Pilgrim costume- I have to go to work the next morning. It makes me happy that Frankie Heck once took her sick child to work with her and parked him in one of the used cars on the lot with a book and a blanket. She works because the economy is bad. She doesn't even LIKE her job. Fortunately, I do like mine, but would I rather be home? Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I feel that way. My life is what it is, however, and so we deal with what we've got and do the best we can, all of us.
 Unlike Mike Heck, my husband is extremely romantic and makes a point of doing nice things for me. That's what I am used to, but the recent Valentine's Day episode of THE MIDDLE made the point that love is shown, often, in the small details of life. The Hecks love each other. They stick up for and support one another-sometimes in odd and unexpected ways. (That's SO US!!) The youngest child is odd, the middle one insecure, the eldest unpleasant and self-serving most of the time. They are REAL KIDS-and, like my own real kids, every now and then they remember to thank their parents for what they do. The parents mess up, often, and the kids ultimately forgive them. On FAMILY AFFAIR, Uncle Bill spends a lot of time trying to figure it all out. So do the Hecks. So do we, and so do most of the families that I know. My family is nutty and offbeat. We yell at each other sometimes. We argue and debate (I recently found out that this is because all five of us are "word-smart.) Sometimes things break, like the vacuum cleaner, and sometimes a pipe leaks and we have to patch it. Sometimes we hurt each other without meaning to and we have to patch that as well. We go to school and church and ballgames and horseback riding. We watch movies and play games together. We eat as many meals together as we can, in between ball practice and horses and homework and the dog puking on the rug. We muddle through. That's life. The Davises and the Hecks, we salute you.

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