Welcome to The (New) Family

Viewers Relate More To TV’s New ‘Blended’ Family Shows
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Here’s the story … of a lovely lady … who was bringing up three very lovely girls …

The social dynamics of the American family have changed a great deal since The Brady Bunch hit the air on ABC in 1969.

At the time, the sitcom (which ran through 1974) regaled viewers with the happy tales of a widowed man and woman who decided to give marriage another try. Their six primetime-perfect, troublefree kids had a major effect on how Americans viewed stepfamilies, despite downplaying the real challenges of second marriages with children.

These days, the American family is buffeted by myriad cultural forces, not to mention the domestic dysfunction that’s often due to divorce or a spouse’s death. As a result, television series are more open to tackling the greater complexities of blended families — including the dynamics of class, age and mixed races and cultures — and audiences seem to be embracing this new normal. 

As the portrait of the American family has evolved over the past 40 years, so too have our TV families — and how we look at them. The Osbournes, MTV’s runaway reality hit of the early 2000s, introduced viewers to a new type of loving yet highly dysfunctional clan, giving way to the mixed-family mayhem of E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

“I think [shows featuring blended families] have evolved in what they’re willing to take on,” Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan said. “When I was growing up and The Brady Bunch was on, it was kind of a big deal to have stepsiblings depicted on TV. What’s interesting was that they weren’t divorced people — they had both been widowed — because having a divorced parent on television was unusual, and normally the thing that they did was to have them widowed. And you definitely couldn’t say their spouse left them.”

TV audiences began to embrace not-so-picture-perfect moms and dads falling in love with TV families that were as messed up as their own — or maybe even more so. New scripted shows like ABC Family’s The Fosters go even further, highlighting the burgeoning complexities in the family dynamic, with gay and racially diverse blended families now in the mix.

“Race is one of those things that people shy away from talking about,” Kate Juergens, executive vice president of programming and development and chief creative officer of ABC Family, said. “Yet it’s such a powerful thing to show on television — and we definitely try to go there .”

The shows relate to viewers on levels ranging from serious to silly, whether they’re conflict-heavy teen soaps such as The Fosters, to grown-up dramas such as NBC’s Parenthood — tackling such issues as intercultural adoption and raising biracial children — to laughable romps like the Emmy-winning Modern Family. Kids’ shows offer more polished presentations of blended families, such as Disney Junior’s animated preschool fairy tale Sofia the First or the high-concept tween comedies Dog With a Blog (Disney Channel), Lab Rats (Disney XD) and The Haunted Hathaways (Nickelodeon).

AN AMERICAN FAMILY

One need not look any further than the just-ended season six of AMC’s Mad Men to see how far attitudes have shifted about blended families. The Emmy-winning series, which takes place from December 1967 to the fall of 1968 (a year before The Brady Bunch), depicts the new familial challenges for Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his ex-wife, Betty Francis (January Jones), who has recently remarried.

“When their daughter [Sally Draper] was acting out and had gotten in trouble, she implied that it was the parents’ fault — Don and Betty’s fault — and used the phrase ‘broken home,’ _” Ryan said. “But I don’t think anyone would ever say that now, because it seems like a really horrible, derogatory thing to say. It’s so common now for people to change their family dynamics, get remarried, that kind of thing.”

The face of the American family is indeed changing. Forty percent of married couples with children in the U.S. are stepcouples, according to the Marriage, Family and Stepfamily Statistics compiled by SmartFamilies.com in March.

Further, recent data on the “State of the American Family,” published in the Spring 2013 newsletter from Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, reveals that one in six same-sex couple-headed households includes children.

And the findings indicate that the majority of today’s families are looking more like those featured on Modern Family which, in addition to a “traditional family,” features a gay couple with an adopted kid and an interracial, intercultural stepfamily. (The ABC series begins its cable run on USA Network this fall.)

ABC Family’s new hit summer series The Fosters, which this week got its back order pickup, soared to series highs in key female and adult demos for two consecutive weeks last month. It features an interracial lesbian couple, Lena Adams (Sherri Saum) and Stef Foster (Teri Polo), who are raising Stef ’s biological son, along with adopted twins (who are Latino) and two foster children.

The show’s “a little messier” than The Brady Bunch, Juergens said, but it’s also “a little more realistic, instead of trying to polish all the edges off and make it look presentable.”

Disney Junior used a bit more polish and found its glass-slipper, blended-family fit in Sofia the First. The animated series’ title character, a little village girl, becomes part of a royal family when her mother marries the king. Suddenly, Sofia has a dad, along with a new brother and sister. And while there is no wicked stepmother or evil stepsister, there is plenty of sibling rivalry and issues confronting the parents in forging relationships with their non-biological children.

“There is no doubt that pretty much every child, even of preschool age, somewhere in their experience — in their own family, in their extended family or friends — knows someone living in a blended family of some kind,” Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of original programming and general manager for Disney Junior Worldwide, said.

Sofia the First, voiced by Modern Family’s Ariel Winter, is the top cable series among kids 2-5 and girls 2-5. The series’ November 2012 made-for-TV movie, now available on DVD, drew some 5.2 million viewers. It returns for its second season next year.

“I don’t know if it was just good fortune that other people were interested in seeing this type of story, or if it’s that so many people are in an atypical sort of family situation now that it resonates more strongly,” Craig Gerber, the series’ creator, executive producer and story editor, said.

RIPPED FROM REAL LIFE

Gerber said he found inspiration for Sofia’s blended family from his own life. At age 9, after his parents’ divorce, he acquired a half-brother and “pseudo-stepsister for a while.”

“Everything felt a little new after that, and there was a lot to figure out in terms of how the family was going to work,” he recalled.

Mitch Glazer, creator of Starz’s Magic City — which spotlights the blended familial struggles of a Miami mobster — also drew on close-to-home experience. When Glazer married his wife, actress and Magic City costar Kelly Lynch, she had a 3-year-old daughter whom he adopted and raised as his own.

On Magic City, though, the relationship between Ike Evans’ new wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko), and his children is not quite so blissful.

“In my mind, the older Evans boys will never, could never, see Vera as ‘stepmother,’ ” Glazer said in an email. “They are simply too grown up, and she’s competing with the recent memory of their dead mother. Vera sees a chance to be a mother to 13-year-old Lauren. [But] it is emotionally an uphill roller-coaster journey for Vera.”

USA Network’s halfhour comedy Playing House — set to debut in first-quarter 2014 — stars Lennon Parnham as an expecting single mother who asks her single, career-driven friend, played by Jessica St. Clair, to come home and help her raise the baby. (The two actresses are real-life BFFs.)

While Playing House doesn’t feature a “traditional” blended family — the term typically describes stepfamilies — “the definition has sort of evolved ,” Bill McGoldrick, USA’s executive vice president of original scripted programming, said.

“I like it that the term seems very inclusive — that it doesn’t specify that it’s a gay relationship or it’s an adoptive kind of situation — a Diff ’rent Strokes kind of situation,” McGoldrick continued. “If you make specific definitions for the different kinds of families we’re discussing, then you’re putting walls in between so many families.”

BLENDED … AND STIRRED

Even high-concept series like the tween-targeted trio of Disney Channel’s Dog with a Blog; Lab Rats, Disney XD’s top rated liveaction series; and Nickelodeon’s The Haunted Hathaways aim to find new ways to tell stories — and educate young viewers — about contemporary blended families.

Hathaways, a live-action comedy about Michelle Hathaway (Ginifer King) and her two daughters, who move into a New Orleans home inhabited by a ghost dad (Chico Benymon) and his sons, had a spirited premiere on July 15. It was up by triple digits over Nick’s year-ago offering in the 8:30 p.m. timeslot among kids and tweens, with 3.3 million viewers.

“It’s kind of like [1968-70 sitcom] The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, if you remember that dynamic,” Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon’s president of content development and programming, said.

But don’t expect any otherworldly wedding bells for these interracial heads-of-household. This family will simply be the cohabitating, not the marrying, kind said Hicks. (This reflects a pervasive societal trend — adults who live and raise children with their significant other without getting married.)

On the live-action series Dog With a Blog, ranked the No. 2 TV series in the fourth-quarter of 2012 among kids 2-11, stepsibling rivalry is squashed when the parents adopt a talking dog named Stan who, unbeknownst to the family, writes about their adjustment to their new life together in his online blog.

Lab Rats, which was just picked up for a third season, centers on the life of a teenaged boy whose mother (an African-American) marries a billionaire genius (who is white) with bionic kids.

Both comedies may seem fantastical, but what makes them tick is plenty of heart, Adam Bonnett, executive vice president of original programming at Disney Channels Worldwide, said. “While these are high-concept shows, they still need to ring true and have some honesty, and some emotional honesty, in them.”

Even if these shows don’t delve into blended family life’s more painful aspects, “anytime you have a platform for discussion, it’s better than sticking your head in the sand,” Barbara Straub, a stepmother, Stepfamily Foundation certified coach and co-founder of Winning Stepfamilies, said.

TV’s modern blended families can offer real-life stepfamilies openings “for discussion within the home on how to get along, how your home functions or what you like about what they do in the family as opposed to what we do,” Straub added. “There are a lot of opportunities for television to provide those [lessons] for people, and still make it a good show.”

TAKEAWAY

TV viewers are embracing the “new normal” of American domestic life — the blended family.

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