Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Tribute to the Awesomeness of “Family Matters”

Remembering one of the greatest…and weirdest…family sitcoms of all-time

Nowadays, the acronym “TGIF” doesn’t mean very much, but back in my day, it was four of the most revered letters on the planet.

In hindsight, nobody’s going to call ABC’s Friday block of “family-friendly” programming in the 1990s great television - “Full House” was no “All in the Family,” of course - but it was pretty hard to knock a majority of the line-up. Over the course of an hour, you got Wonder Years Lite AND a sitcom consisting entirely of tyrannosaurus puppets; if you can complain about something like that, you sir or madam, have no business in our society.

With February representing Black History Month here in the States (insert your trite, clichéd joke about the shortest month of the year being the one allocated to African-American citizens), I figured it was only fitting that we celebrate our black sitcom heritage by revisiting what was probably the best overall TGIF program of them all - “Family Matters.”

I don’t care what any of you TV elitists may think, this show was one of the ten greatest comedies to ever air on American television. Even now, the show remains pretty enjoyable, and it’s practically a given that the show will have legs far into the 21st century. It’s not that “Family Matters” is a timeless show, by any stretch - in fact, it’s one of the most obviously dated sitcoms of the 1990s - but the absolute insanity of the program gives it a certain quality that makes it entertaining and enjoyable in spite of its outdated trappings.

In the spirit of remembrance, I decided to revisit the show, and I pinpointed five very particular reasons why I thought the show was, and still is, so entertaining and enjoyable to this very day…

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number One:
For a family sitcom, it was absurdly violent. 

The inherent “morality” of “Family Matters” seemed to fluctuate from impossibly wholesome to almost subversively relative at the drop of a hat. In one episode, the show could go on a diatribe about the ills of teenage gambling by having Eddie Winslow get into trouble with bookies, only to have the dilemma resolved when Carl’s mother cons some dudes out of their moolah in a game of billiards. For a family anchored around a law-and-order-serving patriarch, the Winslows sure as heck had a subjective take on what constituted right and wrong behavior.

Now, as a law enforcement official, you’d think that the head of the Winslow clan would have something of a distaste for unlawful violence, but I’ll be damned if “Family Matters” wasn’t one of the most violent sitcoms of the decade. Hell, the show may have even had more per capita fistfights than “Married…with Children,” and that was an adult-oriented program featuring strip club visits as weekly plot devices!

It seemed like every other week, there was some sort of imminent threat from a gang in the community. In one episode, Eddie tried to defend Rachel’s honor by facing down a violent posse on his own, only to end up beaten into a bloody mess. So incensed, Carl was ready to go vigilante on the gang’s respective asses, until Steve was able to convince him to set up an elaborate (and probably illegal) sting operation instead. With violent beatdowns, paternal rage and plenty of law-enforcement moral ambiguity, you would think we were dealing with some sort of TV-M AMC procedural drama or something, but nope: this was something tons of impressionable 6-to-12-year olds were tuning in to see, every Friday night at 8 PM.

A recurring plot motif on the program involved bullying storylines, which all seemed to follow a similar pattern; uber-nerd Steve gets harassed by his classmates, and idealistic protectorate Eddie would swoop in and throw down like a boss to avenge him. Every now and then, we’d see a mild alteration in the formula, with Steve learning some sort of fighting trick or something and fending off his would-be attackers on his own. Give that man a towel, and I assure you, there will be some welted asses momentarily.

Perhaps the absolute most amazingly violent thing about the program occurred later on its run, when a wacky sci-fi plot device was introduced that saw Steve using some homemade gizmo to transform himself into a Bruce Lee facsimile. In a couple of different episodes, Steve managed to seek retribution by turning himself into the famed action star, and in case you couldn’t deduce it, a trail of kicked asses was soon to be blazed. Hell, there were even a few episodes in which Steve’s device turned Carl and a few kids into Jeet Kune Do destroyers; all of that stuff about child endangerment and police brutality, I suppose, flying out the window in the process.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Two:
It tackled hard-hitting social issues, in the absolute most awkward ways imaginable.

While it’s not uncommon for sitcoms to occasionally address “serious” social issues every now and then, they way “Family Matters” went about tackling some decisively heavy material deserves special accolades. I mean, you have to have some SERIOUS chutzpah to go from having a story arc about teleportation machines and killer robots to episodes dealing with racism and gun violence, after all.

The two standout “serious shit” episodes I recall most are the aforementioned ones about firearm violence and racial intolerance. In the episode “Fight the Good Fight,” Laura decides to start a Black History Month program at her school; and then, she finds her locker defaced, by someone that, apparently, doesn’t necessarily like “the black folks.”

As the episode unfurls, a near race riot breaks out at the school, until Laura, inspired by her grandmother’s tales of heroically visiting a segregated library when she was younger, manages to stage a nonviolent protest that gets the school to support her program. All this hot and heavy racial stuff is going on, I might add, while a slapstick subplot about Carl trying to figure out how an old vacuum cleaner works is wrapped around the primary narrative.

As awkward as that episode was, it really doesn’t have shit on an episode titled “The Gun,” which revolves around Laura’s quest to obtain a handgun to defend herself from a roving gang of well-armed Amazons. After one of her friends gets capped at school, Steve decides that it’s time to make a stand against gun violence, by holding a firearm buyback program. Just try and watch the videos below without feeling a mild urge to scrub soap all over your exposed skin tissue.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Three:
Three words: Waldo freaking Faldo. 

While “Family Matters” may have been Urkel’s show, there’s no denying who the program’s true legendary character was: Waldo Faldo, Eddie Winslow’s dim-witted best bud that seemed to have an IQ somewhere between that of a special needs child and an sea slug.

This “highlight” video speaks for itself, I do believe…

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Four:
Steve and Carl were the most ass-kicking comedic duo this side of Riggs and Murtaugh

When you look at the annals of great comedic duos - your Laurels and Hardies, Your Rens and Stimpies, your Beavises and Butt-Heads - I’d surmise that Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow deserve a spot in the pantheon of slapstick tandem greats. That, and the undercurrent beneath their rocky relationship is the stuff new-wave action flicks dream about.

When you really look at the two characters, what we are dealing with is the physical juxtaposition of law and anarchy. As a police officer, Carl clearly represents order and the social structure, whereas Steve - a borderline criminal genius - represents social chaos. Think of all of the times Steve has absolutely DESTROYED Carl’s property; I’m not sure what sort of insurance plan safeguards against nuclear explosions, but apparently, the Winslow clan bought as much of their coverage as they could get.

Steve, the insufferable embodiment of social anarchy (a parable for crime? Drug epidemics? Job outsourcing?), ALWAYS goads Carl into some sort of goofy predicament the assures much pain, embarrassment or financial setbacks for the Winslows. Whether he’s getting himself and Carl held hostage by international drug traffickers ("Random Acts of Science"), damn near destroying the Winslows’ entire house while coked up on diet pills ("Life in the Fast Lane") or signing the two up for shoot-fights against the Bushwhackers ("The Psycho Twins"), Steve seems to have only one consistent motive in life; the complete and utter torture of Carl Otis Winslow.

Steve and Carl’s adventures were more philosophically compelling than “The Dark Knight,” wackier than anything Bill and Ted ever got caught up in and consisted of more straight up, lunatic violence than Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s combined “Pulp Fiction” romps times twenty. And that bizarre, strangely confrontational relationship didn’t just result in a ton of laughs; it pretty much carried the program for an entire decade.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Five:
I’m still not 100 percent sure how a show that began life as a quasi-realistic comedy about a working class African-American family ultimately ended up becoming a wacky sci-fi series about a mad teenage scientist, time travel and killer ventriloquist dummies.

At one point in time, “Family Matters” seemed like it was going to be a relatively staid, lower-middle-class sitcom that touched upon a lot of contemporary urban issues. In most realities, “Family Matters” likely would have ended up a short-lived, Afro-centric comedy program, essentially a “lite” version of “Good Times” or “What’s Happening?” only with far more melodrama thrown in the mix. And then, halfway through the first season, a one-off character named “Urkel” was introduced, and like that, the program went from being a fairly “serious” sitcom to being arguably the most outlandish “real-world” program ever to grace our airwaves.

Looking back at the first season of the program, the series appeared pretty damn uniform - and formulaic - in content. There were episodes about Henrietta losing her job, a mother-in-law moving back in with the family and even an episode about a recent widow trying to move on with her love life. Despite some periodic goofiness involving hot air balloon rides and a drunken Urkel almost falling to his death, the second season content similarly remained largely by-the-book as for as sitcom elements went.

And then, as soon as season three begins, the absurdity kicked into high gear. The very first episode of the season was anchored around Urkel befriending a monkey, and by the second episode of the season, we already had jet packs being incorporated as plot devices. If there was a traceable “jump the shark” moment for the series that indicated a bold leap away from conventional sitcom fare, it probably would be episode 54 (episode 7 of season 3, for those that REALLY take their sitcom canon seriously), which was the introduction of the infamous “Urkelbot.” That stated, as goofy as the idea was, it was still quasi-viable as a real-world plotline; in later seasons, the appearance of an android with dance moves provided by that dude from “Breakin’” would actually prove one of the more believable storylines on the show.

Peculiarly, season four was a whole lot more down-to-earth as far as storylines went, with only the season opener - which featured Carl and Urkely duking it out on “American Gladiators” - continuing the ridiculousness of the previous season. With the introduction of Steve’s amorous, potion-borne alter-ego “Stefan Urquelle” in season five, I suppose you could say that was the point in the show’s lifespan where it completely broke away from reality, but for the next two seasons, the show remained mostly rooted in real-world physics and science and all that shit.

By season seven, though, the program had just flat out lost it, with episodes about Carl and Steve getting shrunken to two inches in stature and Urkel turning into a human lightning rod standing side by side with episodes about Laura seeing Steve naked and members of the family learning to tap dance. From there, utterly impossible plot points involving evil dummies, teleportation, super-aphrodisiacs and time traveling pirates become common plotlines for the program. I guess you could say there was some signs of transition from sitcom to sci-fi screwball comedy over the years, but it all happened so gradually that it’s hard to just come out and say that the show went off at the deep end at any precise point.

The very first episode of the show was about a rebellious teenage son trying to break curfew, and the very last episode of the series - nearly a decade later, I might add - concluded with that same character nearly getting killed in a “Heat”-style shootout while his next door neighbor gets stuck in the vacuum of space when a NASA expedition goes array. Comparatively, that’s like the final episode of “Seinfeld” featuring a ninja invasion, or the series finale of “Friends” ending with a sudden werewolf attack.

And by golly, it’s also what made “Family Matters” one of the most freakin’ awesome things that’s ever been put on TV, too.

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