I have recently been watching old sitcoms from the 1980s and 1990s. It has been an interesting trip back in time to see what the issues of the day were. Some of the shows, such as Roseanne, I have watched many times over the years. Others, such as Family Ties, I was seeing again for the first time in 20 years. What surprised me when reviewing shows that I had not watched in many years, was the overwhelming amount of dangerous situations that the main characters suffered.
In the 1980s I remember the buzz term “Hard Hitting” to refer to a show which dealt with serious real world issues. Commercials introduced “Tonight on a very special….”, so that one would know that their favourite characters would be involved in some form of drama. What I did not notice at the time, was the climate of fear being supported by the shows meant to serve as comedic relief. As a child, I assumed that these shows represented average real life situations which gave them universal appeal.
I have never lived in a house that was burglarized, but always lived in fear that I would come home and surprise a burglar. The burglaries that quickly come to mind are “Have Gun Will Unravel” (Family Ties, December 8, 1982), “Break In” (Golden Girls, November 9, 1985), and “Tolerate Thy Neighbor” (Roseanne, January 5, 1993). In the first two examples, the characters are so upset that they purchase guns for protection. In both cases, the guns are found to be an unreasonable measure, and that fear lets criminals win. By the 90s, the scenario had changed to the crime being targeted on a neighbour, but the criminals are so crafty that they are able to perform the deed in broad daylight.
So it was not safe at home. Even though the characters were able to overcome their fears, we as the viewers did not have the opportunity to overcome the personal challenge of the fear. It was simply brought to the forefront. Somehow this was more disconcerting than the threat of traveling islanders on Gillian’s Island or fear of the Clampetts taking their money from Beverley Hills.
As I was also part of the Just Say No years, drug addiction and alcoholism appeared to be a problem rather than what you did at the end of the day (or on every visit if a character on the 1970s hit Maude). Murphy Brown, Cheers and Blossom all featured main/major characters who were recovering from alcohol/substance abuse. These individuals were those who had risen above their addictions, and were now reborn into (unrealistically unshattered) lives. Though their dark years are often referred to in anecdotes, the characters hit bottom before the series begins, thus shielding the viewers from their trespasses. This is not true on Family Ties, wherein Season Two, two episodes (Episode 6, “Speed Trap” & Episode 14 “Say Uncle”) focus directly with the abuse. Alex uses speed to study for a test, while later in the season Uncle Ned suffers from alcoholism. Rose’s 30 year addiction to pain medication comes to the forefront in “High Anxiety” (Season 4, Episode 20, March 25, 1989).
So adults, children and even grandmothers can be addicts. What is even scarier, was that in all cases, the characters around those addicted did not know. Was I secretly surrounded by unstable addicts? Did everyone have a secret double life?
Regardless of who hid issues behind the American Dream, it still existed. Different shows created different and often unrealistic expectations. Even at a time where the gulf between the rich and the poor was growing unchecked, those of us in working class households were usually represented, or led to believe that middle class was much more lucrative than reality. High income middle class families included the Huxtables (Lawyer/Doctor), the Keatons (Television Executive/Architect), and the Seavers (Television Executive/Therapist). The Connors, known on Roseanne for their brushes with bankruptcy and poverty began the show as Dan owning Four Aces Construction and Roseanne in an $8.00 an hour job (though quoted in Season 1 Episode 23 as not a livable wage, the Illinois minimum wage was $3.35 in 1989). The Facts of Life girls were joined by Jo in the show’s retooling in 1980, thus bringing a “blue collar” face to the Eastland characters. Diff’rent Strokes, the series that spun off Facts of Life, featured a millionaire that adopted the two poor black children of his maid after her demise. The idealism appeared to be that status was movable – in stark contrast to today’s reality.
Were we conditioned by this idealism and fear to become the people we are today? Was it easier for governments in North America to change the reality of our lives through policing because we learned the world was a scary place through our entertainment? It certainly didn’t hurt.