I was recently reading comments on an author’s blog (probably Tiffany A. White, but I can’t find the post) and noticed that several people were talking about Saved by the Bell – which I don’t think I’ve ever seen! That show debuted after my school years. In fact, I spent a lot of my time when that show was airing watching CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, not finding out who Screech was.
Besides reminding me that I’m getting older by the nanosecond, the conversation made me think about how TV shows characterize generations. Growing up in the 70’s, I have never met anyone my age who hasn’t watched The Brady Bunch (1969-1974). That was THE family sitcom for our time. My sister was so well-versed on the Bradys that she could usually predict the plot line based on the opening scene. (“Jan is wearing her yellow dress and coming down the stairs, so this is the one where she fakes a boyfriend named George Glass and rubs lemon on her freckles.” That kind of thing.) The show was such a part of our childhoods that I wonder how many of my generation have secretly downloaded It’s a Sunshine Day onto their MP3 players.
Then, there was Happy Days (1974-1984). Cool was defined by the leather-clad Arthur Fonzarelli; 1950’s style and music made a comeback; and my friends all thought Joanie and Chachi were the perfect couple. Of course, Ron Howard was the crux of the show as the naïve but maturing Richie Cunningham. In addition to its success, this show spawned Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi. Happy Days was THE show to watch. (Well, until Fonzie jumped the shark.)
Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979) was perhaps my generation’s Saved by the Bell. If not for Kotter, I’m pretty sure John Travolta would not have played Danny Zucko a few years later in Grease. Looking back, the funny thing is how few women were in the show. Other than Mr. Kotter’s wife and a few supporting actresses who interacted with the main characters, it was a male-focused show. But Juan Epstein’s mother’s notes were always entertaining, Vinnie Barbarino was nice eye candy even if he was intellectually-challenged, Arnold Horshack was probably our version of Screech – a little nerdy, and Freddie Washington was the really cool one at the end of the day. And the show made us appreciate that some teachers care about their students quite a lot.
The last popular sitcom I can recall being a big deal when I was growing up was One Day at a Time (1975-1984), which traces the family of a divorced mother and her teenage daughters – played by Mackenzie Phillips (daughter of Mamas and Papas’ John and Michelle) and Valerie Bertinelli (before Eddie Van Halen and Jenny Craig). This show dealt with more serious issues – like family break-up, drugs, teenage sexuality – but interjected humor as well. I think I have at one time or another seen all of the episodes for this show.
Maybe these shows do characterize my generation well. It was post-1960’s, but tough subjects were still not talked about a lot on the TV screen. Slowly, however, shows debuted that dealt with both humorous plots and tough family challenges.
So what sitcoms define your youth? What do you recall about them? Do you think they represent your generation well? What family sitcoms appeal to you today?