Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Fern in Every Pot

Remember the Lawrences, our old friends from Pasadena? Kate is a housewife; Doug is a bushy-eyebrowed lawyer and Matthew Broderick's real-life father. They live in a nice suburban house with lots of ferns and outdoor seating and their three children. Nancy is a divorcee who is trying to finish law school while every man in California tries to sleep with her; Willie is so sensitive and artistic he dropped out of high school and is both a photographer and a writer, and even though (or perhaps because) he really should be gay he has one tragic girlfriend after another - one who is pregnant, one who dies, etc. Then there's Letticia, the baby. She's a tomboy who insists on being called "Buddy" and who, despite her penchant for wearing overalls and mesh football jerseys, manages to attract the affections of every 70s tween idol who happens by Pasadena. Willie Ames is her boyfriend until he moves down the street to his own TV show, then Leif Garrett tries to pressure her to have sex with him. She wears the football jersey through it all.

Yes, I'm talking about family, my favorite hour of television circa 1976. How I wished my family could be like this! I wished my parents would let me drop out of school and live in an apartment in our backyard decorated with faux antiques and macrame. I wished my parents would be completely understanding if I brought Willie Ames up to my room. I wished I had an older brother who would let me drive even though I was 12 years old. I wished we had a hammock in our yard and that my father drove a Maverick rather than a Buick Skylark.

family is out on DVD and, laid low with yet more poison ivy, I spent last night watching highlights from the first two seasons. I can't believe I once loved this dreck, and I also can't believe how slowly the show is paced. We had a lot more patience back in the days when we only got a handful of channels; the title credits alone last about a minute and a half. What makes this show unique is that each and every episode is a very special episode. Not a week goes by where one social problem or another is not the focus. It's a good thing Buddy didn't have sex with Leif Garrett or she undoubtedly would have gotten herpes in the next episode and pregnant in the one after that. This poor family was absolutely besieged, I tell you.

Which makes sense, because despite its liberal trappings, this is one of the most reactionary shows of the period. Yes, the elder Lawrences take a liberal approach to their single-mother eldest, their drop-out aimless artist son, and their independent tomboy daughter. But it's important to note that all three of these children live at home, even those in their early 20s. The real lesson of the show is that beyond the confines of the family lurks danger. If an old flame comes to visit, he's a speed freak. If an old neighbor visits, she's an alcoholic. If you serve on a jury and the criminal is acquitted he will seek out and attack your child. The family is surrounded by perversion, drug addicts, thieves, dissolution of every stripe. Family is the only defense.

So really, I should be glad that I lived in a home without ferns and macrame, a home where one graduated high school and got the hell out of there for good. America in the mid-70s probably did seem scary. The economy was a mess, Watergate had eroded all faith in government and authority, cities were dying, suburban kids were all smoking pot, polyester was ubiquitous. To say that the nuclear family is an anecdote to social ills in 1976 is to say pretty much the same thing Reagan had been saying all along, and in that sense was an early pop culture manifestation of the conservative revolution that had been coming for years and would be completed in 1980. In many ways family is about precisely that moment when the liberal dreams of the 1960s are transformed, when the garden of Woodstock becomes the manicured lawn of suburbia, and when the focus becomes the family.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

I like your post more than the program. I remember a few of the episodes, though I was newly out on my own and had no family available to me at the time. I recall regarding it as absolute fiction.

I hope the poison ivy isn't too bad.