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The Greater Love of Family

  • May 7, 2012
Rating:
+1
TV Producers who get lots of hit shows onto the air tend to make hella lotta dough. TV producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett - Miller-Boyett Productions - struck a nerve with American families in the 80's and enjoyed a run of Family Lesson shows which included Happy Daus, Full House, Perfect Strangers, Step by Step, and several others. The problem with raking in cash from TV shows all the damn time, though, is that when you're trying to preach Lessons - as Miller and Boyett frequently were - you're bound to begin focusing on Lessons for problems that the 99 Percent doesn't have. Remember the episode of Full House where Michelle ran away at Disneyworld after overhearing her family complain about her abusing her princess-for-a-day privileges? What about the episode of Step by Step where Frank and Carol decided to let a TV network film their family? (Note: Step by Step aired before reality TV was a thing.) Hard hitters, those issues.

In 1989, Miller-Boyett launched a spinoff of their hit show Perfect Strangers. While I know the name of a TV show called Perfect Strangers, I have to take it on word of god that it featured an elevator operator by the name of Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Payton untill 1998, Judyann Elder). The Perfect Strangers spinoff, called Family Matters, focused on her and her working-class Chicago family: Husband Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), and their kids: Eddie (Darius McCrary), Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), and Judy (Jaimee Foxworth). The house was a little crowded because the Winslows were kind enough to house Carl's mother Estelle (Rosetta LeNoire) and Hariette's little sister Rachel Baines-Crawford (Telma Hopkins) and her little son Richie (Joseph Wright and Julius Wright until 1990, Bryton McClure until 1997) after her husband died. Remarkably, while Family Matters did contain a lot of the throwaway Lessons and insufferably sappy trademarks of Miller-Boyett's other shows, it also proved the produces had some real working-class sensibilities under the pancake-tissue melodrama after all. It also went on to become the longest-aired sitcom with a dominantly black cast.

When Family Matters debuted in 1989, it was no different from any of Miller-Boyett's other popular Lesson shows, and it survived primarily on the strength of its time slot in ABC's Friday night TGIF lineup. And then, in the middle of the first season, without warning, HE came. Episode 12, Laura needing a date for a dance and Carl favoring a man for her that would change the course of the show forever: Love of plaid and polka, suspenders, thick glasses, high-pitched voice, clumsy demeanor. Meant and written as a one-shot character to be seen in the first season and never again, Steven Q. Urkel (Jaleel White) was so well-received that he was written as a recurring character and eventually became the breakout character of Family Matters and the very face of the show.

Even the hovering presence of Urkel couldn't hide what was good about the show. Since Miller-Boyett characters are Lesson vessels anyway, the folks behind Family Matters were, in a lot of cases, able to convey their messages through Steve. In fact, Steve himself was able to provide the occasional message which might not have been possible had he not been on the show. Bullying was a recurring theme with him, and that would have been difficult for Family Matters to otherwise cover because Darius McCrary is no one's idea of a nerd and his character wasn't awkward or unpopular. Inner beauty and character was always a high virtue Family Matters preached through Steve, not only in smaller episodes, but in the very tapestry of the show as well; over the course of the series run, the Winslow family goes from seeing him as a pestering nuisance to developing genuine love and affection for him. One of Steve's trademarks was his pining for Laura, and in the final season of the show, his efforts to win her finally pay off and they begin a relationship. (I'm taking that on word of god here because my interest in this show was gone by then.)

This is a Miller-Boyett show, so yes, there's going to be the occasional throwaway Lesson - the best example is probably the episode where the hangout joint Rachel opens isn't an immediate hit. Um, good sirs, most restaurants and nightclubs which are started independently DO tend to go under. It's a natural fact of life in a country where local capitalism is forced to co-exist with corporate capitalism. Hell, even local capitalism wouldn't guarantee Rachel's Place staying open! But between spatterings of Miller-Boyett pulling poorly-conceived messages out of their asses, they managed to tackle some heavy subjects. One memorable instance actually touched racial profiling when Eddie was harassed by a pair of white Police officers. Another time, Family Matters hit up the subject of guns and violence in public schools when Laura's best friend was shot, and the family-friendly police didn't wimp out and spare us the action - the shooting itself happened offscreen, but a gunshot was heard, and the next shot was of Laura's friend clutching the bullet wound. Sexism is brought up when Eddie and his best friend Waldo go on a dating show. A lot of the other issues tend to revolve around family and relationships, and even with the typical family sitcom sheen, there is a realistic current running under many of them.

Steve eventually became the show's greatest curse, though. It's the fault of the audience more than anything else because there's no question of just why Family Matters jumped the shark: Steve Urkel got too popular. Just as he's responsible for some of the show's best moments, he eventually became the focus of the series, and a lot of the low points came about because the writers needed to think up shit for him to do when they didn't have anything else. It started off pretty lightly and sporadically, with episodes featuring the Urkel robot and one of his many alter egos. By about the sixth or seventh season, Family Matters was drifting into such far out territory that the last few years could be aired on Syfy. Steve made magic out of science, and the original idea of the black working-class family going through the motions slowly got antiquated.

Family Matters would frequently hit its low points when it started trying to give Steve a girlfriend named Myra (Michelle Thomas). Myra was one of the hottest women to appear on the show, so a supposed Lesson was that a gawky, awkward nerd like Steve could get a girl like that. Unfortunately, Myra was also a fucking lunatic. In her initial appearances, she always imagined herself to be in some weird win-the-nerd competition with Laura over Steve. She got to be more obsessive later, and according to the website Tvtropes.org, she went off the deep end in the final season: Breakup with Steve as a ploy to get him to beg for her back, sue him for alienation of affection, get Johnnie Cochrane to be her lawyer, and get a spy cam installed in her glasses so she can stalk him from a safe distance. Episodes with Myra always annoyed the hell out of me - no offense to Michelle Thomas, who died of a rare form of cancer in 1998.

The centering of The Urkel resulted in Family Matters developing serious Chuck Cunningham Syndrome starting in the fourth season. That's the name for those weird instances when a show just forgets about a character's very existence. After the fourth season, Judy disappeared. Rachel disappeared in the fifth season, was turned into a recurring character in the sixth, and disappeared in the ninth. Richie and Estelle went bye-bye for long, unexplained stretches. Urkel got the spotlight, and his inventions started causing so much trouble you wonder when government guys in suits never showed up at his door. He invented a teleporter, transformed into his many alters a million times, and even went to space. My heart goes out to Jaleel White for being a trooper about it, because he's Urkel. He created the stereotypical 90's nerd and defined it forever, and he's trapped there. That's a shame too, because behind his Urkel mask is a voice actor and character actor of some ferocious talent.

Don't forget, Family Matters was created to center around Harriette Winslow. She was the character who had spun the show from Perfect Strangers, the one Family Matters was created for. So when actress Jo Marie Payton walked away from the show because Urkel had morphed into it, its devolution and decay was complete, and its cancellation comes off like more of a mercy killing. Its most popular character destroyed it.

During its early to mid-life, Family Matters was exceptionally relatable. It's situations, although sometimes silly, were seen through a real working-class lens, and it did a good job of tackling some heavier social concepts that other shows would rather avoid completely. In other words, it could have turned into the All in the Family for young millennials. That doesn't mean it was exceptional all the time; Miller-Boyett was its creator, after all, and it followed the formula right down to the tear-jerker Full House music infecting the Weekly Lessons. The opening even featured a shot of the family standing around a piano and singing, and if you do that in real life, onlookers see it as cover for serious family dysfunction. And yes, you had the occasional Reagan America problems cropping up sometimes. But when Family Matters was good, it was great, and hit close to home. I'll give about 50/50 odds of seeing one of the better episodes if you tune in to a rerun, but then again, I had tuned out by about the sixth or seventh season.

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May 09, 2012
Very interesting piece. Thank you for sharing it. You've given the show a lot of thought and expressed those thoughts well.
 
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Quick Tip by . April 30, 2012
posted in Pass The Remote!
While this show went downhill pretty rapidly from 1994 until its end in 1998, the episodes from 1989-93 hold up pretty well. I always found it funny when Urkel would make Carl Winslow really mad, and this clip shows this really well.                  With the TGIF sitcoms from the late 80's and early 90's, Family Matters easily creams Full House. 
Quick Tip by . August 15, 2011
A positive family comedy that drowned under the weight of Urkel. Mind you, I blame the TV execs and not the actors for running this show into the ground.
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About this tv show

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Family Matters is a sitcom about an African-American family in Chicago. The show aired for eight years from 1989-1997 and was a spinoff of Perfect Strangers.

The sitcom follows Carl Winslow and his wife Harriette, and their children Eddie, Laura and Judy.  Steve Urkel, the geeky neighbor of the Winslow soon becomes the main focus of the show with his eccentric character. 
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Premiere Date: September 22, 1989

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