Episodes used ‘Autoerotica’ from My Family and ‘The Anniversary’ from Roseanne
‘My Family’ is a situation comedy in the great British tradition, following in the footsteps of such classics as Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour and On the Buses. Each of these programmes were built around the premise of the central character being a failing male. In their respective situations each failed either to gain social acceptance, or to overcome the inadequacies of upbringing or to break out of the rut into which they’d got in their lives. The comedy each week derived from seeing them try and watching them fail, time and time again.
In the US, situation comedy, as a TV genre, began with Lucille Ball, a well-known comedienne, and her real life husband Desi Arnaz. He played a famous bandleader and she played the wife that was always trying to muscle in on his act. She brought to this new genre a variety of comedy that was very physical. She played to the camera, indeed mugged to it, and the comedy centred on her and her antics. Since then US sit-coms have almost exclusively been the province of women. (In general apart from soap opera, sit-com is the only public arena in which women ritually humiliate men and get away with it and in which men are seen to fail and it is accepted.)
My Family has at its heart a family: Ben Harper a dentist, Susan Harper a tour guide, Nick twenty something oldest son, sometimes still living at home, Janey older daughter, single parent with baby (also sometimes living at home depending on plot needs!), Mikey youngest boy mid-teens and Abi, cousin of some sort, brought into the family ostensibly so she could go to college from their house.
Ben has a decent respectable job with obviously no money problems but significant problems with his family! He, having provided for his children during their formative years, now feels very strongly that they ought to be leaving home to let him renew his marital ties. Instead of the archetypal, avuncular father figure, generous and indulgent – Ben is constructed as a jealous, possessive child himself; at times he is no more grown up than his children with his obsessions about sex and in this particular episode a car, which comes into his life like a ghost from the past, conjuring up strong memories of his courting days and particularly childfree days!
Susan, who should by rights be a motherly, maternal, caring and nurturing sort of person, is constructed as a manipulative, competitive, poor cook and disinterested housewife. Interestingly we rarely hear of her work, though we are sometimes treated to shots of Ben in his dental surgery, to emphasise his importance, though this is often in direct contrast to the narrative or themes of the episode since he is so often subjected to failure or humiliation at the hands of his wife and children.
Nick is a dysfunctional young man who cannot grow up – an eternal Peter Pan – whose sole aim seems to be to get his father to acknowledge his well hidden feelings of affection for him! In this episode as usual he demands money from his father for being allowed to work on Nick’s car but what he really wants is a hug; ‘Please Nick darling, can I work on the car,’ he demands his dad say, and Ben, finally forced, spits it out between clenched teeth. Yet at other times he is quite happy to exploit his father’s desire to get rid of him by demanding money for various nefarious schemes which might or might not enable him to lead an independent life.
This episode has begun with Susan writing ‘DORSET?’ on lipstick on Ben’s forehead. We get the feeling that this is common practice for these two – communicating by writing notes to each other so they cannot be ignored; and predictably ends after the anniversary debacle with him writing ‘SEX?‘ On hers and her writing ‘NO!‘ on his. These two are constructed as children in the way they compete with each other and the elements of physical contact in the form of roughhousing. Ben always seems to have sex on his mind – typical male! And Susan always seems determined to thwart him – typical female! This can best be seen when he comes to bed after having worked on the car till late at night; she comments ‘you’ve got oil on your collar’ clearly indicating that she sees the, battered wreck of a, car as a rival, and so when he makes overtures to her she responds to ensure the primacy of her place in her husband’s affections; he makes ‘brrrming‘ noises as if driving a sports car and other comments more suited to driving than sexual activity, she comments on the softness of his hands under the bed clothes, until she abruptly realises he’s still wearing driving gloves and then the game’s up and he’s lost!! The whole thing is a game to them and games have winners and losers and in the British sit-com it is the male who always loses and the female who always wins.
The US sit-com Roseanne has a completely different ethos and ideological viewpoint to promote. American sit-coms are very keen to perpetuate the ideals of the American nuclear family, the possibility of the attainment of the American Dream for all citizens and the rules and values of law and morality. As such this programme is a particularly good example. Here we have a working class family, Dan does a manual job, Roseanne rarely seems to have an actual job, they have lots of kids and relatives, live in a poorly furnished and appointed house and yet everybody is happy!! These parents are role models, they have fun in their relationship, fun with their kids and yet have very strong moral standards and they stand together against any problems without undermining or competing with each other. Roseanne is not a great cook and Dan is not a great handyman but in joining forces to overcome the family’s problems this is a true sit-com of the ‘dom-com’ variety as identified by Taflinger. Even when the adult characters have their disagreements as in this episode where Roseanne wants a holiday in Florida in a hotel, like the honeymoon they never had, and Dan wants to go camping and fishing, Todorov’s narrative theory of equilibrium, disruption, disequilibrium and resolution is fulfilled in the end as they agree amicably…..
Viewers are encouraged to feel satisfied with the life that they lead and not dissatisfied with what they haven’t got like some programmes do and thus society’s dominant ideological viewpoint is perpetuated and the status quo is maintained.
The choice of the actors was also important in defining these characters and their gender roles – Roseanne Barr is a large woman with a great sense of humour. John Goodman is quite a large man but often seems larger because the camera angle used on him is often a low angle one making him seem even bigger and more slob like than he is. This particular American programme continued the grand tradition of naming itself after the main female character which can lead to problems if ever an actor wants to get out of the role.