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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

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