For most of the sitcom’s rich history, families were at the wise-cracking, mischief-making center. Ricky and Lucy were a picture of imperfect, but altogether loving domestic bliss. Mike and Carol were always ready with some groovy advice any time one of the six Brady kids got themselves into a pickle. But with the success of Cheers in the eighties, followed by Seinfeld and Friends in the nineties, sitcoms began to turn their attention towards workplace and adult friendship for reliable laughs. There were still the occasional family sitcoms but, overall, the medium felt like it was becoming a relic of the past. On most networks, streaming sites, and whatever else counts as TV, this is still the case. I say most because there’s one glaring exception: Against all odds, ABC has managed to not only revive but revolutionize the family sitcom with its family-centric 8-9:30 comedy block on Tuesday nights.
ABC’s family comedy power lineup starts with The Middle, heading into its ninth and final season, at 8 p.m., followed by Fresh Off the Boat at 8:30 p.m., and, finally, Black-ish batting cleanup at 9 p.m. Each of these shows has their own distinct voice and sense of humor, brilliantly and subtly demonstrating how there is no limitation to what it means to portray a family on television.
These aren’t just good family comedies, they’re fantastic comedies by any standards. Black-ish continues to be one of the best shows on TV, as it manages to find laughter while honestly and intelligently addressing issues such as race and gun violence. Fresh Off the Boat features one of the most talented comedy ensembles around, with Constance Wu and Randall Park playing possibly the most realistic and hilarious parents on TV since Marge and Homer (plus, Park’s character Hudson has yet to strangle his son for comedic effect). And The Middle has been possibly the most underrated comedy on TV since its debut, constantly being overshadowed by Modern Family.
But the key to the success of this murderers’ row of familial situational comedy is that these shows don’t merely replicate the old family sitcom formula. Instead, they have reinvented it for a 21st-century context. Gone are the days of warm hugs, over-exaggerated laugh tracks, and teachable moments. In their place are grounded, authentic characters who don’t have all of life’s answers but do always provide laugh out loud moments.
Black-ish might not be the first TV show to focus on a black family but shows like Family Matters, Fresh Prince, and The Cosby Show mostly avoided the subject of race, except in an occasional very special episode. Black-ish doesn’t shy away from race. It embraces debate, discussion, and anger as a part of its DNA.
In last night’s season premiere, the Johnsons dealt with the fact that America loves to celebrate itself while ignoring things like slavery. The outrage begins with a watered down retelling of what a swell guy Christopher Columbus is, which eventually leads to Dre and Bow realizing they never taught their kids about Juneteenth Day, which is when slavery was officially abolished all across the United States. The episode was deeply emotional and incredibly thoughtful but it also ended with a hysterical musical parody number of Hamilton called Juneteenth: The Musical.
As for Fresh Off the Boat, it truly is the first sitcom to star an Asian family and, in case you couldn’t tell by the title, the show is well aware of that fact. From its very first episode, the show has cleverly pointed out both the systemic racism of American society and the subtle racism that exists in everyday life. As much as the Huangs might try to fit in their mostly white community, they slowly realize they will always be on the outside looking in. But instead of relaying these messages through soapbox speeches and teachable moments, the show fights racism by mocking its absurd, hate-filled stupidity.
The Middle obviously does not have the same issues to address but the Heck family is a poor family with two working parents who are struggling to put food on the table. Family dinners consist mostly of fast food and leftovers. Frankie and Mike, the Heck matriarch and patriarch, are terrified when they discover their daughter Sue might be smart enough to actually go to a non-junior college. They are a far cry from the privileged, worry-free families often shown on TV. Money, or lack thereof, is constantly hanging over their heads. But instead of letting it tear them apart, the Heck family bonds over their improvisational, hope for the best approach to life. Because what’s the alternative?
The family sitcom may not be the power player it once was in a larger television landscape, but thanks to Tuesday nights on ABC, they aren’t going down without a fight. They may not be the idealistic shows where every problem is resolved in 30 minutes or less but they do manage to give accurate portrayals of what family has always meant, as well as what family means in the modern era. So if you manage to somehow get your kid to sleep on time on a Tuesday, check out the 90-minute block that might singlehandedly save television families from extinction.