Thursday 13 July 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the cinema of Douglas Sirk - All That Sirk Was Allowed - Part 17 - Afterword: The American family on the small screen

Editor’s Note: This is the seventeenth part of a series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The previous parts were published on 

22 April 2017  (Introduction)
27 April 2017  (Notes on the Weimar and Nazi years)  
2nd May 2017 (The American independent years, 1943-51)
7th May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1951-53)
14 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, 1953-57)
16 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, The Last Films, 1958-59)
17 May 2017 (Klaus Detlef Sierck, 1925-1944)
22 May 2017 (Critical Recognition, the Turning)
30 May 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part One)
4 June 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part Two)
12 June 2017 (Drama/melodrama/tragedy)
18 June 2017 (Post Sirk:Mass Camp; Genre and the Women's Film)
26 June 2017 The Critical Backlash
27 June 2017  The Legacy
4 July 2017  Sources
12 July 2017 Afterword: American family (melo)drama and comedy on screen. The forties and fifties

Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

To come shortly: A final Afterword


Bruce is a long time cinephile, scholar and writer on cinema across a broad range of subjects. The study being posted in parts is among the longest and most detailed ever devoted to the work of Douglas Sirk. It is planned for the complete text to be published as an e-book.

As a tv series Peyton Place (514 eps., 1964-9) owed its existence to the success in America of the long running British series Coronation Street (9124 eps.,1960-2010) which showed that soaps could succeed in the US in prime time slots. Dallas (356 eps. 1978-91) centred on a rich and powerful Texan family who build their wealth on cattle and oil, lusting after power, money and sex. Dynasty (164 eps. 1981-9) featured an oil rich family in Denver, Colorado. In theme if not in style, they were prime time soap opera descendants of Written on the Wind. Dallas had a peak audience of more than 30 million. Something of an inversion of Dallas and Dynasty, The Waltons (1972-81) was a sentimental saga about a barefoot but happy hick family in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.

The first of the family formula westerns was Bonanza (430 eps., 1959-73) set in Virginia City, Nevada during the Civil War. It is more of a 'saddle soap' than an actioner. The Big Valley (112 eps. 1965-9), is a family saga of cattle ranching in the San Joaquin Valley while The High Chapparal (98 eps. 1967-71) set in Arizona in the 1870s is about an attempt to establish a family cattle empire and is notable apparently for its portrayal of the Indians with dignity and respect.

Father Knows Best
A marker for the advent of family sitcom on the small screen, Father Knows Best (283 eps. 1954-60) in an American WASP family of five, idealised sentiment mitigated by the gentle irony implicit in the series title. Leave It to Beaver (234 eps. 1957-64) was a long running family sitcom which ostensibly gives centre stage to a kid's point of view. One critic has commented that the father-son interactions in Happiness (see below) are like a “pedophiliac pastiche of father-son chats in Leave It to Beaver.” 

Perhaps the most buoyant of all the tv family sitcoms is The Dick Van Dyke Show (158 eps. 1961-66) created and written by Carl Reiner, divided between the work and family of Rob Petrie (DVD) head writer for a tv comedy show produced in downtown Manhattan providing a natural forum for jokes. His home life is shared with his wife (Mary Tyler Moore), son and the neighbours.

The Cosby Show
Sirk commented that in 1952 he was “interested” for the first time to have a black actor in the cast in a supporting role in a film he was directing (Meet Me at the Fair). More than three decades later top rating The Cosby Show (202 eps. 1984-93) based on Bill Cosby's stand-up comic style, defied concerns about the ratings potential of a series centred on an Afro-American family. Although Cosby originally wanted the family including five children to be working class, it was settled that the Huxtables be upper middle class. Unlike the pioneer network series in which The Jeffersons (255 eps. 1975-85) are a successful Afro-American couple (a spin-off from All in the Family), it seems that race was almost never mentioned in The Cosby Show although black culture was promoted by cameo appearances of black musicians and artists. Serious issues such as dyslexia and teenage pregnancy were integrated into the comedy. All in the Family (185 eps. 1971-9) inspired by the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, with Archie Bunker as the “lovably bigoted” patriach of a working class family in Queens, NY, was groundbreaking in the injection into network sitcom of a range of previously taboo subjects such as racism (the black couple, the Jeffersons, were neighbours of the Bunkers), homosexuality and women's liberation. When the satire was politically broadened into a middle class family setting in The Simpsons in 1989, significantly it was not only animated rather than live action but also in a fictionalised setting.

The premise for Roseanne (128 eps. 1989-97) was to have a working mother in a leading role. The Connors are a working class family in Illinois, three children with both parents working in a fictional town in the vicinity of Chicago. An immediate ratings success, Roseanne was critically acclaimed as one of the first American sitcoms to portray a blue collar family in realistic mode. Roseanne's brother and sister are both portrayed as gay. A ten episode series with members of the original cast is reported to be in production for a 2018 season. Modern Family (188 eps. in eight seasons 2009 -17, with two more seasons set for 17-18, 18-19) is a sitcom in mockumentary style (the characters at times address the camera) centred on three interrelated Latino inclusive families - nuclear, step- and same sex - living in the LA area with comic takes on everyday situations. The mothers are in the main stay-at-home. A hash tag for simultaneous analysis is incorporated.

Desperate Housewives
In Desperate Housewives (180 eps. 2004-12) the far from idyllic lives and households of four upper middle class housewives whose intersecting narratives are viewed with commentary from above by one of them who suicides in the first season. The black humour has been compared to American Beauty, the mysteries to Twin Peaks – behind the glossy facade, a touch of nihilism. In 1990-1 Twin Peaks (30 eps.) was a top rating worldwide sensation which in two seasons lost much of its mainstream American audience while gaining a stitched-on cult following. The founding idea was to combine a police investigation of a murder with a soap opera. Peyton Place provided the concept of the town before the characters were developed. At the centre is an all-American family whose desecration in lowlife is fully revealed in the 1992 prequel Twin Peaks movie. In the mix of multiple plots, weird characters and off beat humour merging into supernatural darkness across genres, David Lynch's romantic vision achieves full alchemy in the six episodes he directed (1,3,9,10,15,30) epitomised by the Red Room sequences. Twin Peaks has returned in 2017 in a ten episode third season co-written (with Mark Frost) and directed by Lynch.

Breaking Bad
The Sopranos (86 eps. 1999-2007) is credited with turning serial tv into a legitimate art form. Creator of the series David Chase has said he wanted to tell the story about the reality of a mobster. Partly based on an actual New Jersey organised crime family, The Sopranos sheds light on Italian family dynamics. It has also been criticised for stereotyping Italians; Chase tried to apply his own experience of family dynamics to the series.  The fin de siècle Mafia is personified in Tony Soprano. Like Sirk's melodramas, The Sopranos engages in a critique of American life and values. In The Godfather and The Sopranos organised crime and family obedience are accomplices in the lives of two Italian-American families. Breaking Bad (62 eps. 2008-13) locates moral complexity in the very being of a middle class family. Devotion to family by almost all the characters in the series is a central theme of its creator Vince Gilligan. Once the initial steps are taken, the White family become inescapably ensnared within and without by escalating deceit in pursuit of money and power in the illicit drug trade. Walter White and Tony Soprano have been recognised as mirror images of one another, Walter “deliberately abandoning the light for darkness” while Tony was “born into darkness.”

The Americans
The Americans (65 eps. 2013-17 with a 10 eps. final season for 2018) a new take in long form family drama created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg which focusses on the Jennings family, the parents being Soviet “sleeper” agents (ie, once inactive but now activated as necessary) during the Reagan era. In the early series their children are unaware of their parents' double life. International relations becomes a kind of allegory for family and wider human relations. Weisberg says he based his stories on accounts by former agents serving as spies while raising families.

Todd Haynes made a 5 part mini-series for HBO, a reworking of Mildred Pierce (2011), melodrama with a feminist perspective in extended low key scenes of everyday situations with, as critic Peter Bradshaw puts it, “the operatic drama springing from an accessible reality.” Haynes works with the same attention to preplanned detail in his mise en scène as Sirk, an acknowledged mentor to whom he pays tribute in Far from Heaven.                                                                                             

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