Friday, November 30, 2012

Sibling Envy: Eight is Enough

 As an only child, I’ve always found myself drawn to shows about large families. Watching them was a way to vicariously experience what it may have been like to have a childhood surrounded by loving, but sometimes frustrating siblings, while actually growing up without ever having to wait in line for a bathroom or a telephone.

While I can only infer which show about a house full of kids offered the most accurate look at a crowded family unit, the one that resonates most with me is Eight is Enough. It seemed like a more authentic portrayal of both the advantages and drawbacks to that kind of upbringing.

I’ve been getting reacquainted with the Bradfords now that the series’ first two seasons are out on DVD. And once again I’ve been impressed with the genuine family “feel” that pervades, even if some of the situations are heightened for dramatic effect beyond what most of us will experience in our non-scripted lives.

I cannot recall any other series from that era that moved as easily from sitcom style humor, complete with laugh track, to serious moments, and then back again. That tonal switch is fraught with peril, and only the best television shows can pull it off without undermining the drama or overplaying the comedy. Eight is Enough gets it just right.

The Bradford home looks lived in. This is not a showplace with the little touches of perfect organization that betray set design. The house itself is one step up from ramshackle, and the interior is in desperate need of a makeover. A flat and awful green carpet looks how you’d expect an old floor covering to look after ten people have been running up and down the stairs on it for years.

Tom Bradford, as played by the genial Dick Van Patten, was not the cool dad, or the all-knowing dad, or the befuddled dad that is regrettably now so commonplace on television. He was just a father who did the best he could. As a writer I liked that he was a writer – and even more that he could support a large family by writing a newspaper column.

Voices were raised in nearly every episode, but when Dad got mad it was usually at eldest son David, and here again we saw characters honestly conceived and portrayed, so it was possible as a viewer to see both sides of the dispute. Rarely in real life is it as simple as the parent being a blustering dictator, or the son being an irresponsible delinquent. Tom and David were both intelligent, compassionate people who simply saw things differently across generations.

This was also a family that experienced a profound loss, as a result of a real world tragedy that forced a change in the series. Diana Hyland, who played Tom’s wife, Joan, in the first season, died before the series returned for its sophomore year. The change was noted respectfully, in scenes that were admirably underplayed. In the first episode of the second season, Tom recalls a fight with Joan over whether the spare room should be converted into his work place or her dark room. As his sentences drift into quiet reflection, the kids listen in silence but their expressions say it all.

Sometimes with a large cast it can take several episodes to get to know each character, but that wasn’t the case with liberal crusader Mary, theatrical Joanie, tomboy Susan, sexy Nancy, rebellious Elizabeth, sensitive Tommy and precocious Nicholas. The Bradford bunch was a beguiling collective that gave every viewer a character to emulate, identify with, or crush on. 

Contrast that with The Waltons, where it could take a full season to figure out who was Jason and who was Ben.

In its later seasons, as the family grew and writers began playing too much to cute Nicholas hijinks, Eight is Enough gradually began to lose its footing. But even in its least compelling moments, this was a far more rewarding glimpse into life with eight kids than that provided by Jon and Kate Gosselin. And I for one just can’t picture the Octomom brood spending their days like bright and shiny new dimes.

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