Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Anna Karenina Problem: Why There Are So Few Happy TV Marriages

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great analysis. Also for telling me about all of these shows. As a member of a monastic community, my TV watching time is close to zero. A session at the National Council on Family Relations conference made effective use of TV clips - you've given me some other directions.

Anonymous said...

Marge and Homer Simpson are pretty happy and they go to church regularly.

Gruntled said...

Ah, we revisit whether the Simpsons have a good marriage. I think Homer is not just an idiot, he is so slothful as a husband and, especially, as a father that they make terrible role models. Marge and Lisa work heroically to overcome the idiocy of the males in the family, but without success.

Molly said...

On Gilmore Girls, Richard and Emily are steadily married and are at least church members. Sookie and Jackson are also very happily married.

Gruntled said...

True -- there is another whole topic to consider in happy marriages of secondary characters.

KLG said...

If you look deeper, why do we watch TV? We want to be entertained, and for the most part healthy marriages and families are not entertaining. It is reassuring to see someone whose family is more dysfunctional than your own. I used to really enjoy Roseanne because they seemed like a more realistic family who loved each other, warts and all, whereas the Waltons set my teeth on edge, because no one could really get along that well.

Anonymous said...

Agree with KLG. There's a piece of this argument that is directly attributable to why TV viewership (& hours watched) has increased exponentially in the past two decades. For much of the population, I would argue that the reasons for watching TV have migrated from providing short bursts of technology-enable family togetherness to providing a mind-numbing escape hatch from one's job and/or family. Thus, the plots of TV shows also have changed from providing short snipits of advice/fables as in Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch that one might enjoy with one's family to Roseanne, The Simpsons, Nick & Jessica's Newleywed Show, etc. that might allow one to believe that one's life could be much worse.