TV land: No place like home

Modern Family, in which a gay couple bring up a baby, is winningly fresh television, says Gerard Gilbert – and shows how domestic sitcoms can offer radical reflections on society
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The Independent Culture

Which was the first American TV show to feature a gay character? Perhaps you're thinking Billy Crystal's openly homosexual Jodie Dallas in the late-Seventies spoof Soap – and certainly Dallas was the first regular gay character in a prime-time serial. In fact, All in the Family made the breakthrough six years earlier, in 1971, when Archie Bunker (the Alf Garnett of this Stateside version of the BBC's Till Death Us Do Part) mocks an acquaintance, Roger, who he considers effeminate. Roger, it turns out, is straight – but Archie's macho bar buddy, Steve, is gay.

My point is that both Soap and All in the Family were family sitcoms – or rather half-hour comedies about family life (albeit deliberately exaggerated in Soap, a satire on daytime dramas). They are what you might call "dom-coms", a genre that has a reputation for being cosy and life-sappingly un-amusing, and certainly some shows – 2point4 Children, My Family and Life of Riley, for example – do little to refute this association. On the other hand, the dom-com can also be an unerringly accurate barometer of social change, the box-turned-flat-screen in the corner of the living room reflecting back, and even helping change, the world outside.

The big dom-com hit in the US at the moment is Modern Family, an Office-style mockumentary following three branches of an extended Los Angeles clan. One of the funnier, and certainly the most radical, aspects of Modern Family, is its depiction of two gay men, Mitchell and Cameron (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) bringing up an adopted Vietnamese baby, Lily. Mitchell and Cam are as neurotic, confused and as competitive about rearing Lily as any straight parents.

Network television has given American viewers gay parents before – in the third series of Will & Grace, for example, Jack McFarland learned he was the father of a teenager. But this is the first time that a mainstream show has depicted two gay men raising an infant. According to Michael Jensen of the gay pop culture website, "The issue of gay parents is still a fairly controversial one in America. Some states currently ban adoptions by gay people, numerous Republican politicians decry the idea, and don't even bring up the idea of discussing gay families in US schools. While Modern Family is unlikely to address any of these issues too pointedly, simply including a gay family as series regulars is groundbreaking."

Visibility can be everything, in other words. The Cosby Show, featuring stand-up comedian Bill Cosby as patriarch of the Huxtable household in Brooklyn, was, in every way, except one, deeply middle class and unchallenging. It was also the top-rated sitcom in America for four straight years in the late 1980s, matching the feat of that archetypal sitcom I Love Lucy. However, of course, The Cosby Show featured a black cast. Despite its popularity, some African American activists decried its irrelevance to the plight of inner-city blacks (coincidentally, the final hour-length send-off for the Huxtables, in April 1992, was overshadowed by the LA riots following the acquittal of the white policemen who had beaten Rodney King).

While Cosby was giving us an aspirational black sitcom family, he was about to be eclipsed by some poor whites – The Conners of 714 Delaware Street in Lanford, Illinois. Roseanne, showcasing the abrasive talent of Roseanne Barr/Arnold, presented the flipside of the American Dream.

There was a brutal honesty about Roseanne as it reflected back, in a bracingly matter-of-fact way, many of the social changes in America of the preceding 25 years – not least the increasing importance of women as wage-earners. Roseanne herself couldn't have been less like Doris Day if she tried, and she was beautifully complimented, in physical shape and comic persona, by John Goodman as her husband, Dan. But most radical was the depiction of the children, from Sara Gilbert as the preternaturally hard-bitten Darlene to Michael Fishman's borderline sociopathic DJ.

Asked last year about rumours that she might resurrect her sitcom, Barr told Entertainment Weekly that "I've always said that if they were on TV now, DJ would have been killed in Iraq and the Conners would have lost their house." In the meantime she has joined forces with her former Roseanne producers to develop a family comedy to be scripted by Jim Vallely of Arrested Development.

While there have been dysfunctional sitcom families since at least The Addams Family in the mid-Sixties, the term didn't come into vogue until Roseanne and, to perhaps a greater degree, The Simpsons, hit our TV screens. But the greatest flowering of the dysfunctional dom-com surely has to be Arrested Development, with its downwardly mobile Bluth family.

Arrested Development delighted critics but only found a niche audience – the opposite of Malcolm in the Middle, starring Frankie Muniz as a child genius, which tended to be overlooked by the critics while being popular with the remote-control zapping classes. Either way, the dysfunctional family had become the norm, finding its latest manifestation in cable dramedies like Brothers and Sisters and Parenthood, a belated spin-off of the 1989 film comedy of the same name. And, rather wonderfully, this evolution in the American sitcom family had its roots thousands of miles away, in a terraced house in the East End of Sixties London.

Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part changed sitcoms forever – exporting its revolution to America in the shape of its popular US remake, All in the Family. Warren Mitchell's Alf Garnett was a foul-mouthed, working-class Tory racist who ranted about "Micks, wogs, wops, blackies and coons" and brought politics, race and religion into the shocked/delighted British living room, as Garnett warred with his truculent family.

"British sitcom families were always allowed to bicker more than their American counterparts, but this full-on confrontation was game-changing," says Mark Duguid, TV curator of the British Film Institute. "History has remembered the controversy generated by Alf's forcefully expressed racist views, but the Garnetts' relentless civil war was arguably the series' more innovative feature."

And the British dom-com has continued to innovate. Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash's The Royle Family sometimes feels like a a post-political Till Death Us Do Part, while Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's Outnumbered has dragged the middle-class family sitcom into the 21st century, with its semi-improvising child actors bringing us the most authentic screen youngsters yet (unsurprisingly, Outnumbered is being remade in the States).

"We didn't set out to be an essay on the modern family – but no sitcoms do," says Jenkin. "I suppose Outnumbered is a riposte to all those books you are supposed to read in order to raise a family, all the supernannies and the whole parenting industry."

According to Jenkin, the mother and father of all non-cosy dom-coms was not Till Death Us Do Part, but Steptoe and Son, the Galton and Simpson comedy that married sitcom to Samuel Beckett and the kitchen-sink drama. "We don't really think of it as a family sitcom but it was," he says. "And when you look back at Steptoe, there's no better description of the Sixties, really, with the son who wants to be part of this modern world, being held back by his father. I think, in a way, Steptoe survives better than John Osborne and those sorts of people."

'Modern Family' continues on Thursday on Sky1; the present series of 'Outnumbered' concludes on Thursday on BBC1

For further reading: 'Television Sitcom' by Brett Mills (Macmillan/BFI)

Domestic Bliss: The first families of sitcom

The Garnetts (Till Death Us Do Part, 1966-75)

Living in a pre-gentrified Wapping in the East End, foul-mouthed, Tory-voting, monarchist docker Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) was continually at loggerheads with his wife, Else – aka "silly old moo" (Dandy Nichols) – workshy lefty son-in-law, Mike (Tony Blair's future father-in-law, Anthony Booth), and daughter, Rita (Una Stubbs).

Dysfunctional rating: 8/10

The Bundys (Married... with Children, 1987-97)

Less well-known than its contemporary, 'Roseanne', in this country, but every bit as dark about working-class family life. Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) was a woman's footwear salesman, his wife, Peggy (Katey Sagal), was a shopaholic, while their children, Kelly and Bud, were respectively sexually promiscuous and sexually frustrated.

Dysfunctional rating: 6/10

The Conners (Roseanne, 1988-97)

Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr/Arnold), the matriarch of a blue-collar household from Lanford, Illinois, was a wisecracking, rather scary waitress/beautician/factory worker, while her equally corpulent husband Dan (John Goodman) was a drywall contractor turned motorcycle repairman. Their children were the boy-mad Becky, the cynical Darlene, and DJ, a boy you felt might grow up to be a serial killer.

Dysfunctional rating: 5/10

The Bluths (Arrested Development, 2003-06)

Mitchell Hurwitz's sitcom was the riches-to-rags tale of the formerly wealthy Bluths, whose family business is rocked by allegations of defrauded investors. Revolving around the decent and sensible Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) are various dysfunctional Bluths, including Gob (Will Arnett), an unsuccessful professional magician, and Michael's flamboyant and materialistic sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi).

Dysfunctional rating: 9/10

The Royles (The Royle Family, 1998-present)

Apart from brief excursions to the kitchen or the pub, the Royles are permanently parked around the TV set, Jim (Ricky Tomlinson) picking his nose, Barbara and Denise (Sue Johnston and Caroline Aherne) passing ciggies to each other, son-in-law Dave (Craig Cash) saying things like "too right, Barbara", and younger son Antony (Ralf Little), fetching and carrying. Bickering, but loving.

Dysfunctional rating: 2/10