Reproducing the Television Family

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Tim Dayton

Prime-Time Families:
Television Culture in Postwar America
By Ella Taylor
Berkeley University of California, 1989, 196 pages.

TELEVISION, THE PRODUCT of twentieth-century technological developments, sign of the expansion of the purchasing power of the American working class, and (along with radio and film) replacement for older forms of popular culture, presents itself to the viewer as the natural and intimate companion to the nuclear family. Natural, because its predominantly realist form masks its character as a highly refined and convention-bound entertainment product; and intimate because, unlike movies or oral narratives, and to a much greater extent than books or radio, the TV set forms a palpable part of the borne furnishings.

Television invites — all but demands — attention, and in return grants among other things a shared object of attention to the viewing family. As cartoonist Mall Groening has observed, television permits people who hate each other to sit peaceably in the same room.

Ella Taylor’s Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America sets out to trace the development of television — and particularly the development of its figuration of the family — from the 1950s to the 1980s, from the sunny, white, upper-middle-class normalcy of “Leave It to Beaver” through the stormy, uncomfortable working-class antagonisms of “All in the Family,” to the consumers’ paradise of the Black-upper-middle class in “The Cosby Show.”

Taylor argues that the placid homogeneity of “Beaver,” “Ozzie and Harriet-and other 1950s and 1960s comedies was a function of several factors. These included sponsor hostility to and virtual censorship of shows whose content contradicted the happy world of TV advertising; the move of television production from artistic, theater-oriented New York to commercial, movie-oriented Hollywood; and the shared ideology among TV executives that the United States was moving into a period of affluence that would dissolve and defuse class, ethnic, racial and gender-based conflicts.

Since these conflicts were supposed to be disappearing (along with ideology, we may recall), it mattered little if they failed to find a place on the small screen.

But the 1%0s shattered this illusion, and after 1968 TV started presenting its viewers with an increasingly fragmented and unstable world where the family was not immune from — but rather was the register of — social conflicts.

The Relevant Revolution

Two shows, “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” represent for Taylor the two most significant types and styles of late 1960s to 1970s video productions. “All in the Family,” its characters overtly clashing over topical political issues, examined domestic life as such and found it a cauldron of often half-articulated rage.

Taylor sees this unfocused rage as the trademark of the show’s producer Norman Lear, who also produced “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mazy Hartman, Mary Hartman” and others. On the other hand, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” displaced into the workplace what are commonly considered qualities of the family: supportiveness, a focus on ongoing intersubjective relationships rather than success, concern with personal development Taylor identifies this as the trademark of Mazy Tyler Moore (MTM) Productions, which also produced “The Bob Newhart Show” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” among others.

Taylor praises this era — the 1970s — as the heyday of relevant television. Single-parent families, independent women, racial and ethnic minorities and other groups previously denied voice dominated the top-rated shows.

As Taylor points out, TV executives had little choice but to change the way they figured the family: Developing demographics techniques were indicating that the crucial now audience, with the most disposable cash, was young between 18 and 35, and predisposed to anti-authoritarian, anti-racist and other views that Taylor calls “liberal pluralist” In order to deliver viewers to advertisers, TV had to speak a language acceptable to the young.

Here, however, Taylor’s story splits in two. On the one hand, the rise of relevant television presented viewers with political conflict and refused to retreat into “pure” entertainment. On the other, TV shows of the era articulated and resolved conflicts in ways so equivocal that one cannot say whether viewers rejected Archie Bunker as a jingoistic racist or accepted him as a figure of identification.

Similarly, one cannot say whether the audience took the adventures of Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) as an endorsement of feminist consciousness, or whether her unmarried status and daily struggles were seen as a result and hence indictment of such consciousness.

Taylor cannot make up her mind on this point: She prefers the programming of the 1970s to that of the 1950s, 1960s or 1980s but also realizes that even as these shows brought to the screen real social conflicts, they also “bring together and reconcile multiple, often contradictory, kinds of satisfaction.”

Even in the era of relevance, TV offered something for everyone, and part of this something was the possibility of identifying with Archie Bunker.

A Mediator of Reality

But the questioning of whether the programming of this era was relevant and oppositional, or relevant and conservative, is not necessarily an either/or proposition, and one wishes that Taylor had explored this matter a bit more deeply. As Fredric Jameson has suggested, oppositional and conservative functions may be, or rather should be expected, to operate in a single text.

Taylor herself points out that TV does not passively reflect lived reality, but rather mediates it. Television provides symbolic resolutions for real conflicts, and when social conflicts reach the peak they did in the late 1960s and the 1970s, opp4sitional views of these conflicts will be represented.

Since the executives could not utterly offend young viewers, characters who hold somewhat oppositional views and represent previously excluded groups must get their say. But these oppositional elements will almost always be reeled in by a resolution that is acceptable to the hegemonic culture.

Thus the anti-war elements of M*A*S*H retreat into a bland humanism, Archie Bunker’s racism is matched by Mike Stivic’s freeloading and political trendiness, and soon.

However, neither Taylor’s failure to examine thoroughly the ambivalence of the programming of the 1970s, nor the book’s other significant shortcoming — its failure to place the family more precisely within postwar culture as the site for reproducing gender, political, race and class norms — should keep anyone from reading this book. Its overall thesis and method as well as its individual readings of programs are sound and informative, helping the reader to examine and question the cultural forms that have partly shape the present.

September-October 1990, ATC 27

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