Does It Hold Up: Family Matters
As a culture, we’re riding something of a nostalgia wave right now. You read that correctly; someone finally said it, probably for the first time, right? Honestly, I don’t mind all the rebooting and what-not going on, because I understand that these products aren’t being made for me. They’re made for people in the same target demographic as I was when the first iteration came out, and I can’t reasonably expect these versions to cater to my tastes anymore.
But in all talk about the remakes and reboots and general nostalgia, I couldn’t help wondering if what came before is really as wonderous as we remember it. Thus, as the title obviously gave away, this blog is the first in a new occasional series, checking to see if the things from my past are truly great, or merely look that way through rose-colored glasses. I’m putting my past joys on the line to see if they hold up, or if I’ve wallpapered over their flaws with years of mis-remembering and booze.
Confession: This isn’t the first time I’ve come back to Family Matters. During college, my roommate (who now has a real job and for the purposes of this blog will be called Robe) and I wound up having free time most afternoons. Not enough to really do anything, just a few hours to kill between classes. And, while I hate to date myself, this was before the days of streaming entertainment. Robe and I only had what cable could provide, and it provided a shitload of stuff from the old TGIF line-up. While there were serious classics in rotation, such as Step by Step and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for today’s blog I had to go with the foundation of the afternoon line-up, the one that was always in our local channel’s rotation come rain or shine: Family Matters.
Aside from being the source of my favorite ludicrous drinking game (Drink every time Carl Winslow has a mustache), so much so that it became the term I used for when a drinking game was unmanageable, Family Matters is also a show set in Chicago, following a family and their wacky neighbor through daily hijinks and heart-tugging moments. I’m sure plenty of you know this, but for the people who didn’t grow up raised by television, Family Matters is actually a spin-off of another classic sitcom: Perfect Strangers. That’s not especially relevant for Family Matters except that the character on Perfect Strangers was Harriet, who the spin-off was supposed to center around yet ultimately left the show and was replaced by another actress when Steve Urkel’s character blew up.
That brings me to my first point: Family Matters is a pretty different show, depending on what season you’re watching. The earlier seasons are super family focused (to the point where they had more members of the Winslow family) with only a sprinkle of Steve Urkel butting in. Even then, he’s mostly played as annoying and, if we’re honest, plainly neglected by his family. Middle seasons shake things up. We lose the youngest Winslow, and while Aunt Rachel is there for the start of this period, she’s gone by the end. At this point, Steve has become a moderate sci-fi element, doing shit that tests the limits of plausibility, but not obscenely so. And then… hoo boy. Let’s say that the Disney World special with the transformation chamber kicked off the third iteration, where Steve was the focus and able to do some sci-fi shit that legitimately would have changed the entire world. He builds a fucking cloning machine, for god’s sake. There also might be magic in their world, but the haunted puppet is always a Halloween special so let’s call it loosely canon at best.
So, how does it hold up? Well, I danced around a little to try some from each version of the show. The early ones are… okay. Like most new shows, Family Matters is still finding its footing. The characters aren’t dialed in as well, the writing is clunky, and the laugh-track… I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to return to a show with laugh tracks after years without them. That’s not the show’s fault, it was a convention of the time, but it could still be a bit excessive. It’s a fine show for having on in the background or while drunk, just not enough to hold your interest on its own. Dialogue and plot have evolved, as they should, and we expect a little more punch from our shows these days.
Now the mid-run seasons were another matter. The dialogue and plotting flaws are still present; as is the laugh track, but the comfort and skill of the actors in their roles does help sell me on at least some of the lines. The wildcard factor that Steve has become also spiced things up. Much as some people look back on the evolution of Steve from awkward neighbor to super-genius as pandering to the audience, the truth is adding that element gave Family Matters more freedom than other sitcoms of the time. It was a show rooted in reality, with a sci-fi fringe element. Most sitcoms at the time were one or the other. Steve’s inventions meant every week was unpredictable. Not always in a good way, mind you, but there’s something to be said for a sitcom surprising you.
Finally, we come to the last iteration. Here, the quality takes a dip, at least for me. That rooting in realism has begun to tear away, and when you expect that anything can happen it no longer takes you by surprise. Add in the clones, Stefan becoming his own character, Steve going to space, (I didn’t rewatch the whole series, I just remember a lot about it) and it’s all just a bit much. This is also the point where the show has run long enough to where the characters have become caricatures of their original versions, so drilled into a few key characteristics that it feels like they’ve shed dimensions. Not to mention (but I will) the classic red flag of tossing a new child character into the cast. Like many shows that make it to 9 seasons, it had simply lost the foundation it was built upon, and the lack of clear direction is noticeable.
So, back to the initial question posed by this blog: does Family Matters hold up? Some parts of it, yes, I’d say so. Not the entire run of the show, but then who hits home runs for nine straight seasons? When it hits, it hits well, and there’s a lot of heart in the show before it goes off the rails. Schmaltzy, over-the-top heart, but heart all the same. There’s some good shit in that middle ground, enough that I plan on going back and rewatching more. That alone is probably the truest test of if something is enjoyable or not. As for if you’ll feel the same, well, all nine seasons are on Hulu as we speak. If this got you wondering and my descriptions didn’t scare you off, go check it out. You may just remember why you loved it so much to begin with.