Recently one of my most faithful readers, Edith OSB, asked " I've pondered what it would take to have a TV show with a happily married family who goes to Church each week - the data support the link with stable marriages - and I don't think it's going to happen." Earlier this year I lamented the dearth of good marriages on television, and nominated the DuBoises of "Medium" as the best TV marriage. In response to Edith OSB's specific question, a clear case of a church-going family were the Camdens of "Seventh Heaven," in which the father was pastor of the church. They had a wonderful marriage.
The problem with television as a place for happy marriages is that happy families are not dramatic enough for a domestic show. The Camdens illustrate this perfectly: while the marriage was strong and the children were well-raised, the writers put the children, and later the father, in increasingly contrived scrapes in order to keep the plot going.
Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with this claim: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I long puzzled over that. It seemed to me that happy families were truly free to do anything they want to. It was the unhappy families, locked in dysfunctional rituals of addiction and miscommunication, that seemed much like one another. The mystery of Tolstoy's meaning was cleared up for me by, of all things, Jared Diamond's excellent Guns, Germs, and Steel. He cites the "Anna Karenina Principle" not in relation to marriage and family life, but as the rule governing which kinds of animals can be domesticated. The problem, Diamond explains, is that for an animal to be domesticated, it requires a list of characteristics, each of which is necessary, and none sufficient by itself. A relative handful of animals have all the qualities on the list, while many animals have most, but not quite all. This is why horses could be domesticated, but zebras cannot.
Happy families are alike in that they have the whole list of characteristics in the right balance. They are bounded but flexible, firm but adaptive. Happy families don’t have big, tv-friendly dramas based on miscommunication or self-destruction for the very same reasons that they are happy families in the first place.
The better role for happy families on television is to support the work of the family members. The DuBois marriage is secondary to her crime solving (and, secondarily, to his engineering work, of which we see little). The Huxtables of the legendary "Cosby" show had their work as doctor and lawyer to attend to, which their quite functional marriage and family life supported. The Bartletts of "West Wing" had the minor business of the presidency in the foreground to attend to – and even then they neglected their children. I wish we could have seen President Santos' family adapt to the White House, though I expect the writers would have felt obliged to mess them up, too.
Shows that foreground dramatic work, like cop shows, routinely show the job shredding the family. Shows that foreground the family, as most sit-coms do, usually make the family dysfunctional. "Gilmore Girls," one of the Gruntled family's favorite shows, is running on the rocks in its final season as it tries to turn its highly functional single-mom family into a pair of competent marriages. This is more of a problem in television world than in real life.
What I want is a show that foregrounds the work, but with a continuous backstage life of a happy, supportive family.