Odd couple siblings Kate (Dakota Johnson, Center) and Ben (Nat Faxon, second from Left) push each other out of their comfort zones in the new comedy BEN AND KATE, premiering Tuesday, Sept. 25 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. / Fox Broadcasting Co.
A single woman raising a child with her childlike brother’s help. A gay couple hiring a surrogate to bear their baby. A divorced mom moving in with her parents in tough times.
Leave it to Modern Family: Thanks in part to the mega-success of that ABC multigenerational comedy, this fall’s crop of small-screen neighbors has moved way down the block from the Cleavers. The new TV comedies reflect our increasingly non-traditional, non-Mom-Dad-and-2.5-kids lives. Call these the post modern-family sitcoms.
Series to premiere this fall and winter include brother-sister households (Fox’s Ben and Kate, ABC’s Family Tools), three-generation clans (ABC’s How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) and Malibu Country), families with divorced and stay-at-home dads (NBC’s Guys With Kids), and a gay couple, their surrogate and her family (The New Normal).
On the even odder side of the street, all families but one on ABC’s The Neighbors (Sept. 26, 9:30 ET/PT) are aliens, and NBC has ordered a pilot, Mockingbird Lane, to look anew at one of TV’s most unusual extended families, the Munsters.
“The nuclear family still exists, but it’s becoming less the norm in that there’s a lot of divorce, a lot of single parents and a lot of children out of wedlock,” says Nat Faxon, Ben of Ben and Kate (Sept. 25, 8:30 ET/PT). “It’s a nice representation of what’s already happening in our society. It feels like an honest look.”
Scrubs alum Sarah Chalke, who stars as a divorced mother who returns home in How to Live With Your Parents (due in midseason), says viewers are familiar with the circumstances. “Today there are so many different constellations that make up a family. I was driving the other day, and there was a story on NPR about kids moving back in with their parents later in life. That’s reality.”
On a purely comic level, a tangled family offers laugh potential, as when a divorced woman is both disciplining mom and obedient daughter on Malibu Country (Nov. 2, 8:30 ET/PT). “Between my daughter, June (Juliette Angelo), and my mother, Lily Mae (Lily Tomlin), there’s room for lots of great comedy,” says star Reba. “It’s very relatable.”
Modern Family gets credit for clearing the way. That Emmy-winning series features a traditional family with three kids, a May-December pair with one child from a previous marriage and another on the way, and a gay couple with an adopted daughter.
TV is “becoming more open. I think Modern Family has done a marvelous job of opening up the universe of families,” Malibu Country executive producer Kevin Abbott says.
TV has been off-and-on in terms of portraying different kinds of families. In the 1960s, it already featured multiple generations headed by single dads (My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show), TV historian and author Tim Brooks points out. By 1969, The Brady Bunch, a white-bread clan, reflected the trend of a blended family with kids from two marriages.
“The time of not exploring different types of families was a very short-lived Ozzie and Harriet period,” says Kyle Bornheimer, who plays a son who moves back home on Family Tools (midseason). “Very quickly, television got into divorce and families that looked different. Look at the kinds of families across different races that were presented in the ’70s” by Norman Lear.
TV, especially broadcast networks, tends to reflect social change rather than blaze trails. “Television doesn’t lead society. It’s one step behind because it is a mass medium,” Brooks says.
But the reflection can raise hackles. Well before its premiere, The New Normal (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT), which features two men hiring a woman to bear their child, drew a boycott from a group called One Million Moms for “the decay of morals and values.” And a station in Utah has refused to air the show.
Yes, a gay couple are making a baby, says Georgia King, who plays the surrogate, Goldie, with an 8-year-old daughter and a ribald grandmother. But “it’s about a family, it’s about the connection of an odd group of people coming together under strange circumstances and bonding and connecting, so certainly the themes are family and love.”
Before Modern Family premiered, its producers suspected its gay family “would turn off a certain section of the audience,” executive producer Steven Levitan says. “But for whatever reason, I suspect partly because of the charm and talent of (actors) Jesse (Tyler Ferguson) and Eric (Stonestreet) and partly because our writing staff has written very well for them, they’re two of the favorites of the show.
“The moral of the story is, ‘Do what’s real, do what’s honest and don’t pull your punches. Don’t write thinking about what the audience will like. Just be truthful and the audience will come.’”
Demographic and economic trends drive two midseason ABC comedies, How to Live With Your Parents and Family Tools, both built around adults moving back into their parents’ homes. Parents also reflects the life of creator Claudia Lonow, who moved in with her mother and stepfather with her young daughter.
“It wasn’t as common as it is now, so it turned out I’m kind of like a trendsetter,” Lonow says.
Families crowded with multiple generations are fertile ground for storytelling. Family Tools, in which a down-on-his-luck man moves in with his father, his aunt and her son, has a multitude of ways for relatives “to help each other and to drive each other crazy,” executive producer Bobby Bowman says.
“It’s designed with this web of interdependencies. There’s adult siblings that live together, so it has a bit of the whiff of an old married couple in a way, but they also have the history of siblings,” he says. “With aunts and nephews and surrogate older brothers and surrogate sons, there are just slight tweaks of basic relationships.”
Pushing multiple families together, as Guys With Kids (Sept. 26, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT) does by having everyone live in the same apartment building, generates more options.
Anthony Anderson plays a stay-at-home father of four children while his wife (Tempestt Bledsoe) works. Their neighbors include a freshly divorced father and a working couple. Says Anderson, “You can mix and match all of that.”
Family isn’t limited to kin, either. On Ben and Kate, the characters Tommy and BJ are more than just friends of the title characters.
“It’s sort of a family ensemble in an untraditional sense. It’s brother and sister, best friends, mother-daughter, daughter-uncle,” Faxon says. “They all feel like family.”