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Emmy commemorative: Happy end to the happy endings

The family sitcom genre has evolved over the years

In 1969, fans of ABC’s “The Brady Bunch” watched Greg, Marcia and the rest of the siblings preening in the bathroom with one important element missing: a toilet.

Two years later, Archie Bunker turned flushing into a comedic device in “All in the Family,” and a new era was born in family sitcoms. Still, viewers who see the Bradys today as a campy exercise in nostalgia are missing the point: That show, about two families of three children who come together, could not have been made a decade earlier.

“They would not have been ready for a new formation of a family (in 1959),” says Sherwood Schwartz, who created “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island.” “It was always traditional. We took baby steps, until ‘All in the Family’ and everything broke loose.”

That’s family sitcom history: Small steps until a landmark show changes everything.

Not so much sap

Of course, “All in the Family” is far better known for being the first show to tackle hot social and cultural issues, but it demonstrates that even seemingly mundane subjects — like commodes — have evolved extremely slowly.

“(‘All in the Family’) showed that sitcoms didn’t have to be light and fluffy with happy endings. ‘Lucy’ was light and fluffy with happy endings, so was ‘Beaver,’ ” says Rich Cronin, the former head of TV Land and Nick at Nite and now president-CEO of the Game Show Network.

Of course, debating what were the most influential family sitcoms in the past 50-odd years can be as conclusive as counting ballots in Florida, but students of the genre generally agree on a few points:

Despite vast changes in how television has depicted families since “I Love Lucy,” certain elements have remained constant: a bumbling dad, rambunctious kids and a no-nonsense but compassionate mom. Even shows like “The Simpsons” and “Malcolm in the Middle” have kept this formula intact.

It’s no surprise that “Malcolm” creator Linwood Boomer says he grew up watching “Ozzie and Harriet,” and that “The Wonder Years” was one of his inspirations: Both parade a dad as an everyman struggling to hold onto alpha status. A big reason for the bumbling dad: Advertisers are courting 18- to 49-year-old female viewers.

And as sitcoms evolve, they tend to lag grossly in portraying their times. It took until the early 1980s for TV to depict a middle-class nuclear African-American family in “The Cosby Show’s” Huxtables.

With “Roseanne,” TV finally discovered the struggling, contentious working-class family in 1988 as a unit that didn’t resolve problems in 22 minutes.

“They dealt with issues in a way that hadn’t been dealt with before, that hadn’t been dealt with in comedies. People were mean to each other,” says “Malcolm’s” Boomer.

“The Simpsons” is one of the most influential sitcoms in the past 10, and possibly 30, years as an animated show that has broad appeal within families while being one of the first to mirror and parody pop culture.

“It’s a landmark show,” Boomer says.

“Besides ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Malcolm,’ I can’t think of another family sitcom that people are watching together,” Cronin says, adding that game- and reality shows are replacing sitcoms as genres in which everyone gathers around the tube. “‘Lucy’ was the gold standard for years as show after show copied its formula, from ‘Father Knows Best’ to ‘The Cosby Show.'”

Oblivious to the world

“Lucy” picked up where the radio sitcoms left off, giving viewers an oasis from the scary outside world of the Cold War. The Ricardos never worried about the Russians; similarly, 30 years later, “Cosby’s” Huxtables rarely dealt directly with being a professional black family in a white world.

“There’s always a gap between reality and TV, but (in the ’60s) it was a gulf,” says Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory of Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows” and senior VP of research at Lifetime Television.

Sitcoms pretty much ignored the sexual revolution in the ’60s. Ted Bessell never so much got to see Marlo Thomas’ navel in “That Girl.”

It took cable television and Fox to broaden the standards enough that family sitcoms actually began acknowledging that moms and dads have sex.

“There’s more competition in television and the desire on the part of TV network executives to attract more younger, upscale audiences,” Cronin notes as a reason for the looser standards.

While neither “The Simpsons” nor “Malcolm” slobbers over sex the way “Friends” does, neither shies away from the subject and both win praise for their realism, albeit exaggerated for comic effect.

In the end, family sitcoms may not be much different than their antecedents. After all, they are just a product of their times.

Even Schwartz, who despairs over the direction of today’s sexually obsessed television programs, praises “The Simpsons” as a natural progression of the sitcoms of the ’50s.

“The stories are similar,” he said. “They’re families.”

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