The family television series used to be something else: a husband worked at a respectable job, a wife stayed home and watched the kids, and children got into relatively minor trouble which was often easily solved. Watching television sitcoms were as much about escaping from life as they were about relating to it. We wanted to distract ourselves from our real problems, from our real fears, and we wanted to laugh. That was all that mattered.
As the medium of television has matured, television shows about family life have matured as well. Not only have they become more specifically geared toward adult viewers (these are not shows for children or people with sensitive consciences), but they also more deliberately attempt to present the viewer with family dilemma’s, drama, and resolutions that more accurately reflect real life. The focus of a television program about family, and the focus of television in general, has become relatability and relevancy, rather than escapism and laughs per minute.
These are honorable goals, and shows like Modern Family and Parenthood have succeeded on a number of counts. What we quickly discover is that these are meant to be families with issues, and while many dramas might make the issue itself the point of the show, Modern Family and Parenthood manage to place the focus on the toll those various problems take on the families and the individuals within those families. The result is a couple of television series’ that cause me to laugh and cry from a place that is far more genuine than any slapstick comedy or melodrama.
Of course, many Christians find these shows off-putting or alienating on the surface. Two of Modern Family’s more likable characters are a gay couple who have adopted a baby in order to complete their family. For many Christians, this is both a normalization of a sinful lifestyle and is an uncomfortable and loaded inclusion into an otherwise charming show. On both counts, they’re basically right. But what if such a loaded inclusion is not only inevitable but necessary? When will Christians move beyond being revolted and scandalized by homosexual couples and move on to loving them like Christ loved us? Laughing with Modern Family‘s Mitchell and Cameron is probably a good place to start.
And the fantastic thing about Modern Family is that this couple is just as dysfunctional as the other two primary families in the series. Rather than being written as a shining beacon of pure love, they suffer real problems and have real flaws. Just like the nuclear family featured in the show, their own paranoia and self-consciousness often turns their life into a laughably uncomfortable mess. In Modern Family, every individual lives in the midst of the ludicrous results of their own decisions and tendencies. If you can’t relate to and learn from this, you’re not paying enough attention to yourself or the television you’re watching.
Parenthood makes many uncomfortable for an altogether different reason: it is an off-putting acknowledgment of all sorts of conflicting parenting and relational styles. You get the sense when you watch Parenthood that you are watching a beautiful mess of a family, not just annoying one another with their various expectations and techniques, but sharpening one another, and in the process, sharpening the viewer.
Various approaches to disciplining children, to family togetherness, to the marriage relationship, and to familial encouragement all show their faces. Many of the solutions that we see come to light strike us as less than ideal. And yet, when the show is through we are left with a real affection for the characters themselves and an understanding that there are those in the world who are having to make decisions in less than ideal situations. A young man finds out he has missed the first five years of his son’s life because he had no idea he existed. A young mom attempts to raise her unruly daughter with no real job, no house of her own, and no husband to help. A traditional family finds out that their son is autistic and is forced to come to grips with that fact. All of these situations serve a sole purpose: to challenge the characters preconceptions about relationships. This is an honorable writing technique because it’s exactly how life – and by extension, God – works in our own relationships.
Both Parenthood and Modern Family provide the Christian viewer not with liberal propaganda or a mere deconstruction of the nuclear family, but instead present an opportunity for thoughtful and edifying viewing. No longer are we merely laughing at our characters or staring mouth agape at the latest dramatic turn of events. We’re laughing with them, joyful and saddened for them, because we’re invested in them. We know that, like in our own lives, there will be no quick and easy resolutions to these problems they’re having, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the show.