Broadcast situation comedy was virtually built on the collective backs of family sitcoms, most of which remain classics to this day, even if there was a certain – ahem – sameness to them all. Still, there are wonderful lessons for all families to learn today when enjoying Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Ozzie and Harriet, The Brady Bunch and a host of others.
In the decades since the popularity of the family sitcom has ebbed and flowed, hitting a peak of sorts with All in the FamilyandGood Times in the ‘70s, and again with The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Roseanne in the ‘80s and Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond in the ‘90s.
But it wasn’t until the arrival on ABC in 2009 that the family sitcom was made to feel entirely fresh and contemporary all over again, for the first time since the Bunkers were the first family of the land. That was the same year that ABC brought us the under-appreciated family fun of The Middle, which has never received the same acclaim or awards as Modern Family but has nevertheless remained as funny and insightful throughout its run as it was at the start (praise that, unfortunately, cannot be shared by Modern Family, which has been repetitive and a bit boring during the last season or three).
Since that time ABC has kept the family comedies coming, taking great care to diversify the genre along the way, and in the process giving us the sublime black-ish, one of two current sitcoms that actually evoke the spirit of All in the Family and the other great Norman Lear comedy classics of the ‘70s. (The other is CBS’ marvelous Mom.) And then came two more gems – The Goldbergs and Fresh Off the Boat -- and another with the potential to be gem-like, though it isn’t exactly there yet – The Real O’Neals.
This season ABC added Speechless, like The Real O’Neals a gem in the making, but also one of the boldest situation comedies to come along in quite some time. It tells the story of a teenager with cerebral palsy and his loving family – including a manically overprotective mom – who help him cope with his mobility and communication challenges. Best of all the son, played by an amazing young actor named Micah Fowler (pictured at top), has a sense of humor about it all. On the surface Speechless sounds like it shouldn’t be funny, especially at this time of crushing hyper-sensitivity to everything, but it is. It’s also smart, touching and aspirational in ways that are never preachy.
For my money The Middle (pictured above) is still the funniest of all of these shows, and also the most uncompromising, in that it dares to acknowledge a way of life that the majority of Americans must manage every day of their lives: Moving forward and providing for their families without enough money to comfortably do so, watching their debt pile up and having increasingly less left to show for their hard work and efforts at financial management. For most folks that’s reality – a reality shared by the hardscrabble Heck family. Everything about this show continues to ring true, season after season, in terms of its stories and the tiny details within. This fall we learned that the Hecks have a junk drawer! In all my decades of watching television I cannot recall any character making a reference to what I have always understood to be a staple in the kitchens of working class Americans everywhere.
The Hecks. They’re just like us! But so are all of the families in all of these shows, even if you have to look a little harder in some of them than in others.
Previously in the Top 25 Countdown:
No. 11: Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers Blow Up
No. 12: The Women of The CW
No. 13:House Hunters and All Things HGTV
No. 14: Grease Live!andHairspray Live!
No. 15: BBC America's London Spy
No. 16: American Idol Bids Farewell (For Now)
No. 17: Colorized Classics on CBS
No. 18: James Corden's Carpool Karaoke
No. 19: South Park Takes on Donald Trump
No. 20: Bates Motel Psychodrama
No. 21: Return of The Exorcist
No. 22:Tosh.0 is Still TV's Funniest Show
No. 23:Kelly Ripa's Cavalcade of Co-Hosts
No. 24:Sarah Paulson, Kate McKinnon on NBC Late Night
No. 25:Hallmark's Happy Yule Log
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