Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Redeeming the 1%: Family Affair

If you’ve watched television across the decades you may have noticed that rich people are rarely portrayed as admirable. Usually millionaires will either be corrupt and immoral (J.R. Ewing), a Scrooge McDuck caricature (Thurston Howell III), shallow and materialistic (Blair Warner) or just a dimwit (Edward Stratton).

Family Affair is an exceptional sitcom, not just in the sense of being well written and performed, but also in how it varied in both content and style from other situation comedies of its era. This was particularly true in Brian Keith’s portrayal of Bill Davis.

Here was a guy with a blue-collar work ethic and a white-collar lifestyle. He lived in a stunning Manhattan apartment, employed a British gentleman’s gentleman servant, and spent his evenings with a different woman every night. The last thing this bachelor wanted was custody of two six year-old twins and their teenage sister. But he took them in, because it was the right thing to do.

Family Affair is also remembered as one of the most cloyingly sweet sitcoms in history. Yet for all those moppet cries of “Uncle Bee-ill!” it was often a very dark show grounded in the harsher realities of life.

In the very first episode, we learn that the parents of Buffy, Jody and Cissy were killed in a car accident, and the kids were shipped off to separate relatives, none of whom provided a warm welcome. The circumstances of their arrival on Uncle Bill’s doorstep were not forgotten after the pilot – the twins’ insecurity and separation anxiety inspired several first season shows. Contrast this with any other series from that era that featured a widowed parent – The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, The Partridge Family – in which none of the children ever displayed a moment of sadness over such a traumatic experience.

My favorite episode is “The Good Neighbors” from the series’ fifth and final season. In it, Buffy wonders why the residents in their apartment building don’t all know each other and socialize like neighbors did back in her home state of Indiana. She sets out to change that, by inviting everyone in the building to a get-acquainted party in the lobby.

On a typical sitcom, the residents would all be so charmed by adorable little Buffy that they would cast aside their big city cynicism and realize how much they’ve been missing by their withdrawn ways. But here, Buffy waits by the elevator to greet all her New York neighbors with punch and cookies, and…nobody shows up. Nobody. How great is that? It’s exactly what would happen if this scenario occurred in the real world, whether in 1970 or 2012.

I hope I’m not making the series sound like a downer, in case anyone is considering taking another look. There’s a remarkable grace and compassion that permeates these shows, and an emotional honesty that is extraordinary for escapist entertainment.

As previously stated, Brian Keith is wonderful here, and Sebastian Cabot as Mr. French was a perfect foil for three rambunctious kids. Anissa Jones is almost spookily effective as an actress, meriting comparison to Jodie Foster at that age. It takes Johnnie Whitaker (Jody) a couple of seasons to catch up but he gets there eventually. And Kathy Garver’s Cissy was a first crush to many boys and one of TV’s most virtuous and well-behaved teenagers – which made her occasional moments of rebellion all the more interesting.

For all of its serious underpinnings, perhaps the most amazing thing about Family Affair (besides those weird doorknobs to the Davis apartment) is that, over the course of five seasons, I can’t recall a single moment of any member of the family raising their voice in anger. What a refreshing change from today’s sitcoms, where the theory that punch lines are funnier when shouted still pervades. 

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