Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table?

Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.

Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.

I know this from watching American sitcoms.

Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.

If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.

As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”

Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.

Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.

Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?

Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table

The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8

In this scene, the boys initiate a discussion with their mother proposing having separate rooms. Thus the challenge to the family status quo begins, but the table serves as a focal touchstone for the family ideal, even when a conflict, however modest, is introduced. The frame, as depicted above as well as performed over and over again in numerous episodes, affirms the usefulness of the family gathering spot as a performance of togetherness. A major cliché of family comedies (television and film) shows family members bypassing the ideal, failing to talk or even pay attention to one another at mealtime. It seems to me that such scenes protest too much and, in the end, pay homage to the dinner table as icon, if even a nostalgic dream.

Another show crucial to defining the dinner table as an ordering principle for the American sitcom family is Leave it to Beaver showing on beginning on CBS in 1957 then moving to ABC in its second year and ending its run there in 1963. Leave it to Beaver earned a broad and devoted following. Never a mega-hit, it has nonetheless become an definitive show on par with Ozzie and Harriet. The image below is from an early episode, “Beaver Gets Spelled,” Here is a link to the episode on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riwqUDArJNQ&feature=related

Leave it to Beaver, Grace and Order at the Dinner Table

This scene of the formal family dinner creates an ideal picture (keeping in mind the convention of leaving the fourth wall open for the audience, as DaVinci understood). As in standard uses of the table in Ozzie and Harriet, here, as the parents dutifully ask about the boys’ days, a minor conflict is introduced. Beaver, it seems, is having trouble with his new teacher. The boys, both retire from the table early, but the ordering principle of the dinner table for the family remains clear.

Sitcoms were not the first to capitalize on the evocative power of the family dinner table. Arguably, writers were all in one way or another following the master of nostalgic America, Norman Rockwell, the long-time illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. Often referred to as “The Thanksgiving Painting,” Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” is a masterwork of middle-American aspirations regarding the family. It was one of his Four Freedoms sequence. The other three are: “Freedom from Fear,” “Freedom of Speech,” and “Freedom of Worship.” All of the paintings were published in the Post in February and March of 1943, and were intended to support the war effort. “Freedom from Want,” is arguably the most widely admired paintings in his canon, though many art critics deride its artistic value–but nobody cares about such critics. The painting is nonetheless the most attractive pop culture precursor to the sitcom dinner table aesthetic. Other than Mark Twain, no other figure has so successfully revealed the romanticism of the American mystique—the audacity to assert happiness in the home.

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom from Want”

Rockwell captures an ideal of American bounty and cohesion around the dinner table. The sitcom would often evoke similar aspirations on a much smaller scale but with equal success through sheer repetition. Both Rockwell and the American sitcoms assert a national ideal of family built around the happy sharing of food and togetherness.

The most recent and most compelling adaptation of Rockwell and the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s is the episode “ Tableau Vivant” (first aired 16 May 2012) of the ABC hit Modern Family, winner of the 2012 Emmy for Best Comedy. As part of a class project, Alex (the “smart” daughter) enlists the help of her family to create a living tableau of Rockwell’s painting.

Modern Family

Modern Family, inside the frame of the perfect family moment

In this cropped close-up of the scene, the tension of the moment—in this case, family unity complicated by the challenge of holding still a twenty-pound turkey—undermines the supposed grace of the American family ideal. The completed frame below offers a provocative and funny updating of Rockwell, complete with gilded frame.

Modern Family, Happiness Performed in a framed tableau

Completely framed, the tense smile apparent in the cropped image now simply appears as a smile, and the image seems a fair and celebratory reenactment of the American family ideal. The humor of the sitcom scene, however, depends on the access the audience has to the bitter under-the-breath in-fighting of the family members—a less than ideal subtext to the celebratory performance of Americana.  The key to the success of Modern Family as a series thus far is this careful balance: the modest edginess of a family under constant stress balanced by a consistent affirmation of the ideals represented by Rockwell and the writers of early sitcom dinner-table scenes.

I should add that this scene literally collapses under the weight of the family squabbles, or, more accurately, the weight of the turkey (Alex gets a B-, by the way). After the marred Rockwell performance, family members separate where the arguments intensify and each sub-group decides not to rejoin the family for a planned dinner at a favorite restaurant. In the end, however and of course, all family members reassemble, humbled and ready to reassert unity. The Rockwell image is then revised. See the screen shot below:

Modern Family, Rockwell Redux

Here, the family members, now reconciled just in time for the end of their thirty-minute frame, create their own Rockwellian moment, an image of intimacy freed from the framework of the earlier performance. Viewers at home can sigh in relief and quietly wish they could perform that scene in their own home. Even though the details of “normalcy” are ever-changing, the ideal remains. We all participate in a living tableau of our learned ideas of family togetherness.

I like that. In fact, I am feeling a bit inspired. Tonight, we will eat as a family. We will sit in front of the television together, tune in a sitcom, and try to learn something. Just like the Nelsons.

Ozzie and Harriet, watching the ideal family

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  1. […] Teaching American Sitcoms: Shall We Gather Round the Table? […]

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