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How TV Families Evolved in the 21st Century

Families – can’t live with them, can’t live without them. We tend to focus on TV friendships and don’t always see how families impact this.

The cast of Modern Family together. Credit: ABC

Television has always adapted to society. It uses current events to build stories of its own. We often notice the difference in time and circumstances by looking at the change in clothes and the change in technology but what we don’t always pay attention to is the families. Whether a sitcom is based on a group of friends or the family itself, there are so many variations of a family. It’s gone past its own traditions.

The Nuclear Family

The cast of Happy Days.
Although filmed in the 1970s, Happy Days is actually set in the 1950s. Credit: Paramount Television

First, we start off with the nuclear family. In this case, it’s the general formation of a husband, a wife, and their children. A key and early example of this is Happy Days, where we have the Cunningham family. This show premiered from 1974 to 1984 and is still one of TV’s most well-known and well-loved sitcoms. It takes place from the perspective of Richie Cunningham and his family. As the middle child, he stands between his older brother, Chuck, and his younger sister, Joanie, with their parents, Marion and Howard. This show goes through the same scenarios any teenager would face with popularity and new friends. Over time, as the actors mature, the show matures, dealing with marriage and living alone.

Happy Days has that catchy theme song that everyone listens to, but it also has some brilliant character development. One example is the mother, Marion. At the start of the season, she is the stay at stay-at-home wife and a loving mother. Finally, in one episode, she decides to stand her own ground against this role and finds a job. Although some people may laugh at that today, this is also a significant episode where she starts to find her voice and, ironic as it sounds, her own place. The show does well to both present and further defeat these associated stereotypes in the family.

Single Parents

The cast of Full House together.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen played the same role as Michelle but in different seasons. Credit: ABC

Now it’s 1987, 3 years after Happy Days has ended. This was the premiere of another favorite, Full House. After the death of his wife, Pam, Danny becomes a single parent and, along with his brother-in-law, Jesse, and his best friend, Joey, takes care of his three children, DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle. When the series first aired, it wasn’t necessarily favored positively, but as time went along and these girls became older, the show received recognition. 

Full House became a lot more creative and realistic. Each episode had a message, one of which was Just Say No Way. In this, DJ catches her boyfriend drinking beer, which she takes away from home. However, Jesse sees DJ with the beer and believes she’s the one who drank it, which causes conflict. This episode not only shows the value of family and trusting each other but is a safe reminder for people to drink responsibly. Episodes like these have a positive impact on their viewers. It even went as far as rebooting a new series, Fuller House

Most people hear yet another iconic theme song, but what’s the most striking is the chemistry that the cast has and, more importantly, how Jesse and Joey become a part of the family. It allows us to explore the family’s stories and each character individually. Although Bob Saget unfortunately passed away, his memory of a loving father has still lived on.

Separated Family

The cast of Drake and Josh in the kitchen together.
Drake and Josh has also been adapted into books for kids. Credit: Nickelodeon

Now, we move on to one of the hardest ones to have – a separated family. It all started when Audrey met Walter. Drake & Josh is about two different boys – Drake, who is laid-back and loves music, and Josh, who is a bit more high-maintenance and bookish. They coincidentally become step-brothers when their single parents become married. This classic, nostalgic sitcom shows how the boys learn to be brothers, avoid the tricks of their sneaky sister, Megan, and overall how the family learns to be a family. It aired on Nickelodeon from 2004 to 2007 but is still watched today by teenagers and adults alike. It has some of the most iconic and silly phrases that some people reference even today. 

Most people are often engaged in slapstick comedy and ridiculous situations, but we can focus on how the family comes together in a way that they become a nuclear family. Everyone bounces off each other and expresses their quirks. It shows that family can come in any shape or form.

Extended Family

The 3 nuclear families together.
Modern Family is the longest-running sitcom on ABC. Credit: ABC

Now, we have a mix of all 3. Overall, it’s three nuclear families coming together as one extended family. That brings us to the most recent one, Modern Family, first airing in 2009 and finishing with 11 seasons in 2020. What I love about this show is that so many family members are in it, of course! It starts off with Jay Pritchett with his first wife, then having two children. Eventually, he remarries and finds a new family – Gloria, a divorced woman, and her son, Manny.

This just leaves his children to find their story. His son, Mitchell, marries the love of his life, Cameron. This almost marks the beginning of normalizing same-sex couples. It’s interesting to note that same-sex couples weren’t necessarily traditional in a family at the time. The show does well to explore both the challenges and even the stereotypes of being in this relationship but shows how it can often be the same as a heterosexual couple. Together, Mitch and Cam adopt a baby called Lilly and remain a happy family.

Jay’s daughter, Claire, meets the love of her life, Phil Dunphy. Eventually, they have two daughters, Haley, played by Sarah Hyland and Alex, and a son, Luke.

The best thing about this show is that the families meet towards the end of almost every episode. The show also embraces the fact that families are continuing to change, and there’s a chance for us to explore these changes in real life.

An extended family is not always about having the most members but rather how they all connect and what each personality conveys. Having a larger family may also lead to its conflicts, but it’s up to each person to resolve and find a way to come to peace. Modern Family has become one of the most successful shows of all time, winning many awards, including the Young Hollywood Award for Best Cast Chemistry. And it’s true. While they may get on each other’s nerves, the family still comes together. That explains why the cast is still a tight-knit group now!

What Does This Mean?

So how has the family changed? It’s not to say that we’ve entirely abolished the nuclear family, but the nuclear family has just been presented in different ways. Despite the form or even the size of the family, the chemistry is still important. It’s what makes the shows watchable, entertaining, and even educational. Each character deals with the same situations we would normally face, and it helps to see how we could deal with it in a similar way.

Written By

I’ve always enjoyed watching movies and TV shows and have become extremely passionate about reviewing them. I want to be able to review some of the newest media whilst reminding the audience of the classics.

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