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|Posted: Thu Aug 13, 2020 10:37 am Post subject: The 50 Most Definitive Family TV Shows, Ranked
|The 50 Most Definitive Family TV Shows, Ranked
From The Simpsons to the Kardashians, these shows made a mark on the genre, and American culture.
By Jen Chaney, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Kathryn VanArendonk
One of the hallmarks of a TV family series is the sense that we’re looking into a mirror. On a sitcom it can feel like a literal mirror: The people onscreen sit around a sofa and talk to one another, and we, on our sofas, look back at them. Sometimes it’s more of a funhouse mirror, especially for TV dramas that find families in extreme circumstances or comedies that push against familiar norms. But in either case, the TV family show plays with ideas reflecting the current moment, or acts as a model to aspire to (or avoid). Because shows like this have been a part of popular TV programming from the earliest days of the form, they give us a fascinating way of examining ourselves — or at least, examining what we thought of ourselves — over decades of American culture. Family TV has evolved from the sitcom, a form deep in the DNA of the earliest TV programs, to also reflect changes in how we make and watch TV. Serialized cable dramas, reality shows, and sitcoms that push against the traditional forms are now part of the broader idea of what a “family TV series” can be.
When we sat down to write a list of family TV shows that shaped the genre, we thought about words like “influential” and “best.” None of those felt quite right for this project. Influence is a tough thing to measure for newer series, and “best” indicates a value judgment that feels separate from the ideas we were trying to get across. We landed on “definitive” because it pointed to a series as having a significant place in the culture, or of holding a milestone role in the development of the genre, rather than looking at them purely qualitatively. The other tough part was deciding what, exactly, constitutes a “family” TV show. We considered and quickly set aside “appropriate for a family to watch” as a defining element; if we’d gone with that, we’d have to exclude shows like The Sopranos and most family dramas. We also tried to weigh family series that are mostly about a chosen family of adults — so many of our favorite series fall into that category, and it was hard to differentiate some of the features we most wanted to emphasize from workplace comedies or friend-group shows. In the end, we decided that, for the purposes of this list, a family show needed to include at least one parent-child relationship, and that relationship needed to be a central focus. This allowed us to include shows like Frasier and Golden Girls, which feature adult parents and their adult children, but did exclude series like I Love Lucy and Mad About You, which are more about self, marriage, and work than they are about intergenerational relationships.
Here, then, are the 50 most-definitive family television shows, ranked in order of their impact and innovation.
50. Party of Five, 1994–2000
The success of Beverly Hills, 90210 in the ’90s made Fox and other networks hungry for more teen dramas. The genius of Party of Five was that it looked like a teen drama, but was really a family one. The tale of the Salingers spoke directly to the increasing sense in American culture that the kids, not the parents, were running the show. It did that by eliminating the mom and dad entirely — they die in a car accident before the series begins — and literally putting the offspring in charge, with the irresponsible but technically adult Charlie (Matthew Fox) acting as official guardian. The series was critically championed out of the gate and became such a hit with its intended demographic that it’s often thought of now as a piece of ’90s nostalgia. But it’s actually a beautifully acted look at pressing on in the face of loss, and a tribute to the work that brothers and sisters do to lift each other up.
49. Shameless, 2011–present
ER producer John Wells’s remake of Paul Abbott’s same-named British hit is one of the rare long-running dramas to concern itself with the lives of working-class to poor people in a major city (Chicago) and build many major plotlines around the characters’ efforts to get and hold onto jobs, make rent, and party hard without doing something they’re going to regret (all three prove equally impossible to do). William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum lead one of the best and funniest ensemble casts on television, playing characters who are hilarious and touching in inverse proportion to their awareness of what wild characters they are.
48. Jon and Kate Plus 8, 2007–2011
There is an entire, massive genre of reality-TV families who exist solely as opportunities to gawk at weird families (by whatever simplistic definition of “normal” you might pick) and to judge the parents on their choices. These families are usually some variety of too much — too many kids, too many wives, too fat, too short. There are few notable forerunners in this category, including the Duggar family or the titular Sister Wives. But the family that really turned this genre into TLC’s cash cow were Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children. What began as an aggressively wholesome look at an unusual family (the youngest kids are sextuplets) soon turned into a referendum on Jon and Kate’s marriage, their parenting choices, their changing lifestyle, and their willingness to destroy their kids’ anonymity for the prospect of TV-funded financial security. It did not end happily for the Gosselin’s marriage — the show briefly returned as Kate Plus 8 — but that has not stopped TLC from turning them into an entire programming model. If anything, the Gosselins’ highly visible crash and burn only fanned the flames.
47. Queen Sugar, 2016–present
Set on and near a sugarcane farm in Louisiana, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar is the multigenerational epic family drama that American television hasn’t been able to stage before. That it takes so many factors into account when telling its stories, including class and generational conflict, active and passive racism, laws and government regulations, and even the impact of climate and economic change, makes it a lot more than an itch-scratching TV series full of compelling, good-looking actors, which is also is. The main characters are Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a rich woman who leaves L.A. with her teenage son to make a new life; Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist from New Orleans; and their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), an employment-challenged single father trying to raise a child abandoned by a drug-addict mother. Nothing about the show moves quite as you might expect, and the emphasis on powerfully atmospheric, aggressively visual storytelling (always by women directors) further distinguishes it from other family shows, past and present.
46. Downton Abbey, 2010–2015
The Crawleys may have dressed in highbrow, Masterpiece-on-PBS clothing, but in a lot of ways they brought back the soapy pleasures of following, say, the Carringtons on Dynasty. Downton was a family saga that considered how the ups and downs — not to mention the upstairs and the downstairs — of home life spoke to the economic and social changes of the early 20th century. But it also delivered the juice: romance, murder, gorgeous costumes, constant betrayal, rampant eavesdropping, devastating deaths, and very bad things involving her ladyship’s soap. It brought the British period piece back into vogue, while also deliciously digging into the dynamics between traditional grandmamas and papas, as well as sisters who always have a passive-aggressive insult at the ready.
45. Happy Days, 1974–1984
Norman Lear set the tone for much of TV comedy in the 1970s, but so did Garry Marshall. He started to do that with this nostalgic portrait of family and teenage life in the 1950s, the decade when the family sitcom was born. The Cunninghams were not so far removed from the Nelsons of Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver; they were white, wholesome, and pretty traditional, except for the leather-jacketed ladies’ man (that would be the Fonz) who eventually wound up living in their garage. This being the ’70s, Happy Days did get, to use Cunningham parlance, a little more frisky than ’50s TV sitcoms did, particularly in its first two seasons when episodes dealt with underage drinking, racism, and quiz-show scandals. But mostly, this was feel-good retro entertainment, with some shark-jumping thrown in for good measure.
44. Diff’rent Strokes, 1978–1986
The story of how the Jackson kids became part of the Drummond family is notable for a few reasons: It depicted adoption, it boasted a corny, catchy theme song that you know even if you never watched a second of the show, and it was perhaps the most blatant example of sitcom white saviorism in television history. But it made its most important contributions in the field of family-sitcom tropes. Diff’rent Strokes had them all: The cute kid who steals focus from everyone else on the show (Gary Coleman’s Arnold); a case of “very special episode-ism”; rampant use of a catchphrase (“Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout?”); and the cute kid who joins the cast after the existing kids age a bit (Danny Cooksey’s Sam). It may not have been the first to rely on some of those elements, but Diff’rent Strokes exploited them to a degree that made it irresistible, especially to young kids.
43. Frasier, 1993–2004
Frasier may not be remembered primarily as a family show — it’s a series about Frasier, his love of high culture, his windbaggery, and our delight in repeatedly puncturing his bombastic self-regard. But the way the show performs all of those moves, and the essence of its long arc toward warmth, is in Frasier’s relationship with his father and his brother. There’s something particularly poignant about how much Frasier and his father truly love one another, even though they absolutely do not understand each other.
42. Family Ties, 1982–1989
Norman Lear introduced politics to the family sitcom in the 1970s. Then in the early 1980s, Gary David Goldberg took the All in the Family model and modified it for the Reagan era, giving us ultraliberal baby boomer parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) and their (eventually) four children, most notably conservative Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox). Fox’s comedic gifts and undeniable charisma turned Alex into the hero of the show, while also revealing him to be more flexible and open-minded than one might expect from a guy who reveres Richard Nixon. Family Ties was a key reason to tune in to NBC on Thursday nights in the ’80s and remains an all-time great TV look at generational differences within a family. It’s also responsible for creating one of the most likable right-wingers in the history of … well, everything.
41. The Flintstones, 1960–1966
Without the family from the town of Bedrock, there might be no Simpsons, no Griffins from Family Guy, and no Belchers from Bob’s Burgers. The Flintstones became the first animated family series broadcast in prime time, a programming milestone that sent a definitive signal that cartoons — and cartoon families — were as much for grown-ups as they were for kids, maybe even more so. Though it looked to The Honeymooners for inspiration, the series gave both Fred and Wilma and Barney and Betty children to raise. That made The Flintstones a definitive family sitcom and one that cheekily implied that the amenities of suburban living are accessible to everyone, even those living in the prehistoric era.
40. One Day at a Time, 1975–1984
The most famous Lear sitcom is All in the Family, but One Day at a Time holds its own as a landmark in TV family life. The sitcom features a divorced single mother raising her two teenage daughters, and while shows like Andy Griffith and My Three Sons had already introduced TV audiences to the idea of single (widowed) fathers, One Day at a Time was the first series to really take on divorce and single motherhood. Its current reboot is a modern adaptation of the same premise, but it’s closer to the original than you might imagine: In its original form and in its new version, One Day at a Time uses the comforting safety of a multi-cam sitcom format to tell serious stories (including sexual harassment and suicide in the original, racism and bigotry in the reboot).
39. Family, 1976–1980
In the 1970s, The Waltons and Little House looked to the past as a setting for family drama. But Family was the decade’s most acclaimed representation of a contemporary middle-class family, one that included a daughter played by Kristy McNichol, whose rising-star status helped make it must-see TV. There was nothing high-concept or complicated about Family; it was a straightforward, unflashy relationship show, and one that was completely unapologetic about leaning hard into emotions. Tearjerker television like Parenthood and This Is Us owe it a debt.
38. Home Improvement, 1991–1999
The essence of Home Improvement is in its unironic celebration of a particular breed of dumb masculinity that defined a particular breed of family sitcom (also see: The King of Queens). It’s best summarized by that “urrrgg!” sound Tim Allen makes as TV dad Tim Taylor and by the character’s general approach to his profession as a TV handyman. He ignores the safety suggestions for how to use power tools, endangers himself and his co-workers, and never learns his lesson or experiences any consequences. Much to the exasperation of his wife, it’s the same approach he brings to parenthood and his marriage, and for the most part, Home Improvement casts her as the nag and Tim as the sympathetic hero. Urrrgg.
37. Everybody Loves Raymond, 1996–2005
There is a model of TV marriages, of TV fatherhood, and of TV masculinity that feels specific to a mid-to-late -’90s moment, and that is both defined and encapsulated by Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray Barone is the man between times. He lives at a cultural moment when he knows things have changed from the gender dynamics of his youth, but that change feels thrust upon him, and he’s resentful. He’s modern enough to know that he should help with the housework, and he and his wife should be equal partners, and he should have actual conversations with his family members. But this is not the model he grew up with, and frankly, he doesn’t want to. He wants to want to, and at his heart, he’s a good guy. And he doesn’t want to be like his parents. But he’d also like it if his wife would just stop talking to him so much. At least partially, Raymond’s success was due to how much audience there was for what Ray represented: feeling like a vaguely aggrieved participant in a new family paradigm.
36. Soap, 1977–1981
This wild send-up of the daytime soap opera aired on ABC in the 1970s and early ’80s, a short time after the Norman Lear–produced soap satire, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, ended its run. It focused on Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond), who married into a very wealthy family, and her working-class sister, Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), who once was married to a gangster but had settled down with a second husband, Burt (Richard Mulligan). This was an interesting environment in which to examine class and economic distinctions. But mostly, Soap — created by creator Susan Harris, who later created The Golden Girls — pushed the boundaries of propriety by pulling out every wacko plot development it could cram into a half hour: affairs galore, murders, prison escapes, amnesia, abduction of both the regular and alien variety, just to name a few. The censors freaked out — “Corinne’s affair with a Jesuit priest, her subsequent pregnancy as a result, and later exorcism, are all unacceptable,” was a note that came back from the network. So, of course, Soap became a big hit and, in the process, introduced America to the first gay character on mainstream American TV: Jodie Dallas, the son of Mary Campbell, who was played by Billy Crystal.
35. Big Love, 2006–2011
In the prestige TV era, most family dramas have been shoehorned in as something else: crime stories, career stories, spy stories. Few family dramas of this cohort have been as actually rooted in what a family is and how belief can tie a family together (and drive it apart) as Big Love. Even in its most unwieldy, melodramatic moments, Big Love told stories about family: how a woman’s birth family followed her into her marriage, how the religion of one’s childhood informs how you parent your children, what loyalty looks like, and how families change.
34. Gilmore Girls, 2000–2007, 2016
Gilmore Girls has companion series from across this list and beyond — in early single-mother shows like One Day at a Time, in direct inheritors like Jane the Virgin, and in shows like Parenthood that took the idea of a multigenerational family saga and turned it from a quirky comedy into a straight weeper. In spite of those links, what continues to feel most notable about Gilmore Girls is how few series are actually anything like it. There are so few shows that consider a teen pregnancy, 16 years later. There are so few series that start from a core family unit that’s almost entirely female. And so few family shows really nail a comedic tone that’s such a paper-thin cover for real hurt underneath.
33. This Is Us, 2016–present
This NBC series has done something that shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, as great as they were, couldn’t quite pull off. It has given us the first bona fide, mainstream-network hit family drama in a long time. It’s done it by spooling out the complicated, often tragic story of the Pearson family using tools more often seen in high-concept shows, including narrative twists and the careful parceling out of clues that deepens our understanding of the Pearsons’ history. Roughly 40 years after Diff’rent Strokes looked at a white family adopting black sons from a simplistic, sitcom perspective, This Is Us considers a similar circumstance with far more sensitivity and depth, as well as an understanding that the issues that take root in our youth can grow into something stubborn and sturdy as children become adults.
32. Full House, 1987–1995
A successor to the sincerity of some of the earliest TV sitcom families, Full House became the gold standard for family TV in the early ’90s. It had everything: an oddball premise (a widowed father, his three daughters, and their two uncles all live in a house together), a cute baby, catchphrases, personality stereotypes, and the barest whiff of gender politics packaged inside a wholesome half-hour awwww-fest.
31. The Brady Bunch, 1969–1974
The members of the Brady family attained prominent pop-culture status during the sitcom’s initial run. But they were elevated to another level by the young Gen-Xers who spent their afternoons after school watching reruns about the lovely lady, a man named Brady, and their brood of six. To the latchkey kids who were babysat by the boob tube, The Brady Bunch became the quintessential portrait of a big, blended family, and the ultimate example of TV putting a shiny, happy polish on suburban life, so much so that the attempts to puncture the myths it perpetuated — most notably in The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel — still resonated decades after the show’s debut.
30. The Fosters, 2013–2018
If Transparent is the prestige streaming TV vision of what a family can look like outside of hetero norms, The Fosters is a teen melodrama companion, where two gay women manage the continuing traumas and upsets of their blended family of adopted children, biological son, and foster children. Its plots can be crowded, and its stories tend to feel constantly heightened, but then, doesn’t all of teenhood feel that way?
29. Good Times, 1974–1979
One of the most important sitcoms ever to be undone by its own success, Good Times was a spinoff of Maude, itself a spinoff of All in the Family, and the flip side of The Jeffersons, a series about upper-middle-class black characters who’d “made it.” All were part of executive producer Norman Lear’s mini-empire of popular, pot-stirring sitcoms that took on hot-button issues TV used to avoid. Star Esther Rolle’s character, Florida Evans, was originally Maude’s maid; she and her husband, played by John Amos, and their three kids, including Jimmy Walker’s clownish J.J., were the first poor, African-American family to anchor a half-hour comedy. From the opening credits, with its rapturous gospel-inflected theme music and location-shot Chicago streets that Bob Newhart probably wouldn’t visit after sundown, viewers knew they were about to see a world that American TV would rather have ignored, except in the occasional Emmy-baiting TV movie. But J.J.’s extreme popularity (he was even on a lunch box) overwhelmed the show’s raucous discussions of race, poverty, cultural bias, and other touchy subjects, driving John Amos, who thought J.J. bordered on minstrelsy, to leave the cast. (He and Lear later reconciled, and Amos starred in Lear’s short-lived 704 Hauser, about a black family that moved into the Bunkers’ old place.) After three increasingly compromised but still stirring and hilarious seasons, Good Times stumbled toward its ultimate finish line, becoming an object lesson in the limits of politically aware comedy in a medium that was driven by pleasing advertisers and entertaining millions without asking them to think too hard.
28. The Addams Family, 1964–1966
Based on Charles Addams’s delightfully macabre New Yorker cartoons, David Levy’s sitcom The Addams Family helped usher in a new era of sincere yet knowingly spoofy television that also birthed the original TV Batman (1966), Get Smart (1965), I Spy! (1968), The Wild, Wild West (1965), and the coincidentally similar The Munsters (1964). Both The Addams Family and The Munsters planted spooky-wacky, horrible-lovable families in a back-lot version of suburbia, and both ran for two seasons on different networks, and in both cases, the endlessly repeated joke (and insight) was that the regular people were the real oddballs. The Addams Family stands apart from the rest for its beatnik haunted house music; its elegant costuming, makeup and set design; the quality of its ensemble acting by Carolyn Jones, John Astin, Jackie Coogan, Ted Cassidy, Blossom Rock, Ken Weatherwax; the array of hands that played Thing T. Thing; and all the show’s memorable guest stars, including Felix Silla as Cousin It and Margaret Hamilton as Grandma Hester “Franny” Frump. (Shout-out, though, to Fred Gwynne going berserk as Herman Munster, which will never not be hilarious.)
27. Dallas, 1978–1991
The earliest prime-time family TV shows, dating from the late ’40s and ’50s, tended to be in the sitcom style, focusing on a home and a small family unit. With Dallas, family stories leapt into the prime-time soap arena and would become an ancestor to everything from Dynasty to Brothers and Sisters to The OC. As a show about a feud between two families, Dallas was able to incorporate not just the rivalries and alliances within a group, but also the way families define themselves in opposition to others. It was not the nostalgic family as a safe harbor from the world. It was family as a warfront, as an ever-shifting, unreliable snarl.
26. The Goldbergs, 1949–1956
No, not that one, though we do love it. The first series to bear this title was one of the first sitcoms, as well as the first major series, to paint an affectionate and unabashedly Jewish portrait of urban life: a mostly comedic but sometimes dramatic look at the Goldbergs of 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Originally created in 1928 as a radio series by writer and actress Gertrude Berg, it moved to TV a little over 20 years later, appearing on CBS, the DuMont Network, and in syndication, and airing its final regular episode in 1956. Although the story lines avoided politics and anything else that could have been perceived as divisive (including the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, the two most seismically important issues for Jews worldwide in the first half of the 20th century), The Goldbergs was a notably ethnic look at economic struggle and cultural identity, drawing big audiences at a time when the official portrait of the American family was becoming increasingly white-bread and suburban (though even the Goldbergs moved out of the city eventually, trading the Bronx for Haverville, New York).
25. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990–1996
As if it weren’t enough just to have launched the career of Will Smith, created the dance the Carlton, or had a theme song so indelible that it’s sung by schoolchildren to this day, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is also one of the few TV family shows to explore the way intersections of race and class play out within a single family.
24. Fresh Off the Boat, 2015–present
It seems insane that it took 20 years after the cancellation of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl to finally see another Asian-American family at the center of a sitcom. But it did. In 2015, Fresh Off the Boat turned the camera on the Huangs, a Taiwanese-American family that moves from D.C. to Orlando, and it does things that subvert stereotypes about Asian-Americans. The father, Louis (Randall Park), runs a steakhouse with a meat-and-potatoes-heavy menu. Eddie (Hudson Yang), the oldest brother, is an obsessive fan of hip-hop culture. Jessica (Constance Wu) has high expectations for her kids, yet has a habit of doing things that aren’t always legal. But honestly, what makes this show stand out is that it’s the rare long-running sitcom that shows us what American culture looks like from the perspective of an immigrant family either embracing it or trying to understand it.
23. Friday Night Lights, 2006–2011
Friday Night Lights contains so many multitudes that it can be described as an all-time great in more than one genre. It’s the finest scripted drama about sports, and one of the most sincere portraits of marriage ever broadcast, and, as this 2016 Vulture bracket proved, the best high-school show of the modern era. Can it also qualify as a family series? It can and it does, partly because the Taylors and the things they deal with — parenting their daughter Julie, handling the news that they’re expecting a baby, disagreeing over whether to move the family to a new city — are so central to Friday Night Lights’ sense of purpose. Through its high schools, we are also introduced to Dillon’s teens and their family lives, the majority of which are broken in some way. Over the course of the series, Eric and Tami step in to act as support beams for those kids, mentoring and guiding them when their fathers and mothers are absent or negligent. Even more than all that stuff about clear eyes and full hearts, Friday Night Lights taught us that community can be family, that it takes a village to raise the children.
22. The Wonder Years, 1988–1993
Like Happy Days, this ABC series considered a previous era (the 1960s), 20 years later. But unlike Richie Cunningham, who lived fully in his present, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) was gazing backward, via Daniel Stern’s narration, at who he, his friends, and family once were. The Wonder Years had nostalgia baked into its premise, an approach that would later influence The Goldbergs and Young Sheldon. It could get overly sentimental at times because of that. But the series, created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, also made a point of depicting the darker aspects of growing up in the Vietnam era, including seeing friends and neighbors losing children to the war. Most people devote more time looking back at their childhoods and the way their parents raised them than they spend experiencing childhood. The Wonder Years captured that truth with more depth and heart than any family comedy has since.
21. Black-ish, 2014–present
Black-ish is this decade’s answer to Good Times and The Cosby Show. Creator Kenya Barris knows this so well that he’s paid blatant homage to both sitcoms within the context of his own. But to a greater degree than its predecessors, Black-ish regularly and bluntly engages with issues related to race and social justice, offering a mini history lesson as often as it makes us laugh at Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Dre (Anthony Anderson), and their confusion over who their children (especially, in Dre’s case, Junior) are becoming. Its very title hints at the way that one’s identity can become muddled when a person grows up, starts their own family, and does what most parents want: have things better than they did.
20. An American Family, 1973
Arguably the first reality-TV series, An American Family was also a remarkable look at just how far American families had come from the days of Ozzie and Harriet in a mere two decades. In a voice-over to introduce the series, the announcer is clear that the Louds are not being pitched as the American family, or even a “normal” or “typical” American family. But the announcer is almost regretful to inform the audience, they are an American family. Over the seven months they’d agreed to be filmed, parents Bill and Pat Loud decide to get divorced, and Pat realizes her son Lance is gay. It’s a significant series because it’s a predecessor of the entire genre of reality television. It’s also a series that, in 1973, showed a young man taking his mother to a drag show in the Village, and a wife explaining to her friends exactly how little her husband cared whether he left another woman’s lipstick on his collar. It is revelatory, and it’s also more than a little voyeuristic.
19. Better Things, 2016–present
Writer-director-star Pamela Adlon’s series about Sam, an actress and single mother to three daughters, is one of the most insightful and uncomfortably honest TV series about parenting ever made. It captures the intense love that dedicated parents feel for their children, a generosity that crosses over into a masochistic desire to sacrifice, and even die, for the next generation, against the petty reality of daily life — a death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts experience that can leave you so enervated, you fantasize what it would be like never to have had kids at all. The full spectrum of emotional response is depicted here in every episode, and its portrait of the developing teenage brain is spot-on accurate, too. There are compassionate adults inside these self-centered children, and one of these days, with a mother like this one, they’re sure to emerge. You catch glimpses of those future selves from time to time, often when Sam is on the edge of giving up, and it’s glorious.
18. Modern Family, 2009–present
When Modern Family first debuted in 2009, it injected fresh energy into the family sitcom at a time when network TV was overrun with American Idol, various incarnations of CSI and NCIS, and lots of hour-long dramas. It may sound strange to use the word fresh in connection with this series, which, at this point in its run, doesn’t feel that way anymore. But this regular check-in with the Dunphy clan announced itself as something inventive and very funny by applying the mockumentary approach used in workplace comedies like The Office to domestic life. More importantly, it made sure that a same-sex couple was a central part of its portrait of parenting. Are Cam and Mitch responsible for greater real-life acceptance of gay marriage? Let’s put it this way: They definitely didn’t hurt.
17. The Osbournes, 2002–2005
Fifty years after Ozzie and Harriet first appeared on television, along came Ozzy. The Osbournes wasn’t the first reality show focused on a family (that was An American Family) but it was the first important one of the modern era — a messier, more goth, and less self-aware precursor to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (It also made it easier to eventually believe in the concept of scripted fare masquerading as a docuseries, à la Modern Family.) The initial allure of The Osbournes was the chance to experience the voyeuristic and amusing thrill of watching the heavy-metal rocker, his wife Sharon, and their two kids putter around the house, struggle to figure out the remote control, and argue with each other. But eventually we got attached to the members of this foul-mouthed crazy train of a family and considered them part of our own. Up until The Osbournes, most family TV shows introduced us to parents and children we’d never met. This one took someone famous for being a wild man and showed us that he and his offspring are just like us, and also daffier than we dared imagine.
16. Golden Girls, 1985–1992
There was some debate about whether Golden Girls even qualifies for this list: The heart of Golden Girls is really about the family you choose, and it’s in a cohort of shows like Friends as much as it is with shows like Roseanne or All in the Family. But Golden Girls absolutely belongs here. Dorothy is Sophia’s daughter, and the continuing tension in their maternal relationship is a rare TV model for what parenthood looks like when a parent is elderly. But beyond that, the rhythms and thematic foundations of Golden Girls share a deep DNA with what makes a family show distinct: These women are bonded in a way that goes beyond being roommates, and the show’s stories are about how they react to events as a unit. It is about their collective economic insecurity, and how to navigate one another’s romantic lives, and it’s about what it’s like to live as a family after the childrearing, first-career-building years. It’s also one of the most hopeful TV visions of what a family can be, and the Golden Girls are supportive of one another, dedicated, and compassionate toward each other, in a way that many more traditional families can only aspire to be.
15. Arrested Development, 2003–present
Years before the Bernie Madoff scandal and the bursting of the real-estate bubble, Arrested Development exposed the dysfunction and ethical deficiencies within a wealthy California family. We had seen rich, flawed families on TV before the Bluths, but never had their misdeeds been portrayed at such a rapid pace, with so much acid humor (“I don’t care for GOB”), absurdity (“The jury’s still out on science”), and energetic skewering of the clueless, privileged one percent. One could easily argue that this is the most precision-tuned family comedy cast of the past 25 years — or maybe even all time. But the icing on the cast cake is the fact that Ron Howard, the son in two stand-up TV families, serves as narrator, which means that every episode provides the chance to hear Opie Taylor/Richie Cunningham call out these wonderful jerks on their constant bullshit.
14. Little House on the Prairie, 1974–1983
In the 1970s, two shows took viewers back in time to observe resilient families persevering through challenging times. One was The Waltons, which was set during the Great Depression and aired for nine seasons on CBS. The other was Little House on the Prairie, which followed the pioneering Ingalls family in the late 1800s and also aired for nine seasons on NBC. We Vulture list-makers debated over whether to include both and ultimately decided to go with Little House, because the time period it depicted was so distant from the 1970s, yet the issues its episodes confronted — from the rivalry between Laura (Melissa Gilbert) and the original mean girl Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim) to serious illnesses and addiction — still felt relevant to the present. In Michael Landon’s Michael, we got to know a father who had manly qualities but was still sensitive to his wife’s and daughters’ needs. More importantly, we got to see family drama from the point of view of a young girl growing into a woman. The women of Little House were survivors, and watching them every week had a profound impact on every girl sitting in front of her TV with her hair braided in Laura-like pigtails, including this one.
13. Bob’s Burgers, 2011–present
So much of Bob’s Burgers could be hoary tropes from TV families going way, way back. There’s the beleaguered father, who’s so often frustrated by the inability to pursue his dreams; there’s the no-nonsense mom who keeps everyone in line; and the kids, all offbeat in their own way. But Bob’s Burgers is much, much weirder than most TV families ever allow themselves to be — who else but Tina could really lean into the horrible intensity of puberty? Who else but Linda could explore so deeply the anxiety of not being cool? And Bob, whose Thanksgiving obsessiveness is as much about family as it is about food. What really sets them aside, though, is how much their individuality is allowed to flourish alongside their functioning family unit; the Belchers are decidedly imperfect, but they’re great parents.
12. The Sopranos, 1999–2007
Before David Chase’s magnum opus debuted on HBO, co-star Steve Van Zandt described it to a Star-Ledger columnist as “the gangster Honeymooners” — a good joke that also acknowledged the Jackie Gleason–seque presence of its star, James Gandolfini. But the result often played like something closer to Goodfellas by way of All in the Family, mixing gangland intrigue into refreshingly everyday stories about inheritance and charity, investments and savings, gentrification and racism, fidelity and faith. The show’s merciless eye for hypocrisy was always balanced out by compassion for the characters’ inability or unwillingness to change for the better. In retrospect, the show’s skeptical-to-pessimistic attitude about turn-of-the-millennium America feels prophetic. From gang boss Tony Soprano’s opening statement that he worries he came in at the end and that the best was over, through the final season’s obsessions with decline, death, loss of memory, and climate change, The Sopranos depicts a family unit angling to grab as much as it can for itself before the shrinking ice floe they’re clinging to finally disappears.
11. Jane the Virgin, 2014–present
Jane the Virgin is many, many things – telenovela, meta-commentary on the concept of fiction, coming-of-age story, portrait of a writer as a young woman. But at its heart, it’s a show about a grandmother, mother, and daughter who are the center of each others’ lives and whose intergenerational family dynamic provides the core of the show’s stories. Each woman has her own life and her own desires, but Jane, Xo, and Alba are most astonishing as that rare TV family who insist on loving one another, and truly seeing one another as people. There is no better family on TV right now than the Villanuevas.
10. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, 2007–present
They are the family of reality television, and the Kardashian’s reign as reality-family royalty has taken them from “famous for being famous” punch lines through to their current role as undeniable cultural icons. No reality family has had more clear-eyed, self-mining discipline, a more careful grasp of reality platform’s potential, or as astonishing a willingness to extend the family business through each new Kardashian who makes him or herself available. Ozzie and Harriet hawked Hotpoint kitchen appliances. They just wish they had the reach of the Kardashians.
9. Transparent, 2014–present
Transparent is a groundbreaking show for Jeffrey Tambor’s role as Maura, whose male-to-female transition over the course of the first season inspires its title and premise. But even beyond the history-making depiction of a person in transition, Transparent is one of the most interesting TV stories about how families work. It’s a series about intergenerational traumas and legacies, about the complicated mixtures of childhood and adulthood that exist in every grown-up, and about flipping roles of parent and child in a family of adults.
8. Roots, 1977
Still the most-watched mini-series in the history of television, this adaptation of Alex Haley’s nonfiction(-y) book about his ancestors’ journey from Africa confronted tens of millions of 1970s Americans with the harrowing facts of the slave trade and its role in the founding of the country. But at the core of Haley’s epic narrative was a series of mini-movies about family and the idea of family, and the damage that slavery did to both. The most powerful images in the series, including the newborn Kunta Kinte being held aloft and the traumatic departure of Kizzy, are ultimately about families being regenerated or ripped apart. The 1980 sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, brings the story right up to the present, with the character of Alex Haley (James Earl Jones) listening to a griot tell the story of Kunta Kinte in the final chapter, followed (as in the original) by an epilogue in which the real Haley urges viewers to study geneology to better understand their own families. (The 2016 remake of Roots is also very much worth seeing.)
7. Six Feet Under, 2001–2005
It’s pretty remarkable that, until Six Feet Under showed up on HBO, no family dramas dealt with death and grief as actively as this one did. The show got our attention by killing off the family patriarch in the first few minutes of its pilot. For the five seasons that followed, Alan Ball’s masterpiece not only revealed how the members of the Fisher family pressed on emotionally in Nathaniel’s absence — answer: by carrying him around with them, like a ghost — but also how they continued to operate a family business that serves as a minute-to-minute reminder of what they’ve lost and the fact that, at any moment, another one of them could be taken. So many things about this series made it extraordinary: writing that overflowed with an understanding of the human condition; an ability to veer from the shocking to the melodramatic, without ever losing a firm, Grim Reaper’s grip on reality; performances that came from a place in every actor that always felt deep and personal. But if I had to single out two things that made it significant, I’d point first to its depiction of the relationship between Keith and David, a gay, interracial couple who adopted two young boys and did so in a way that was quietly groundbreaking. Then I’d highlight its series finale, which, more than any show in this genre that I can think of, brought full and complete closure to a singular family story.
6. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1952–1966
Police-procedural television made the leap from radio with Dragnet; family sitcoms moved from radio to television with Ozzie and Harriet. If there’s a model of the oh-so-sincere TV sitcom family, it’s Ozzie and Harriet, where all of life’s problems can be solved by a good talk from father and a batch of cookies from mother. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is an important bellwether series for the way TV families have needed to evolve: It represents a distinct, familiar kind of family as seen in Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, and toward the end of its run, it also represents a fictional family that’s become painfully out of step with the rest of the culture. But every family sitcom owes something to Ozzie and Harriet, whether as a direct inheritor or as an effort to rebel against their model. And in some ways Ozzie and Harriet were progenitors of the family-based reality show as well: With every family member essentially playing themselves, the fictional Nelsons became flattened onto their offscreen lives. In so many ways they are an American TV Ur-family, as a model or as a paradigm to resist.
5. Married…With Children, 1986–1997
This show about the misadventures of the Bundy family from suburban Chicago was the first hit series on the then-new Fox network, and it did much to establish its corporate brand: irreverent, bordering on shocking; “politically incorrect” in a way that was rather unstable, because you couldn’t be sure if the writers were really mocking the language and retrograde mentality of its characters (especially the sexist patriarch of the family, Al Bundy) or merely reveling in it. The idea that reactionary conservative ideas are “the new punk rock” really started to flower here. For all the viewers who congratulated themselves on recognizing a corrosive satire of bland sitcom norms and Archie Bunker–style, urban caveman thinking, there were probably just as many who enjoyed seeing a bitter, emasculated father call his wife a money-grubbing ditz and his teenage daughter a slut. The hatred and self-hatred captured by this series was electrifying at first, because it arrived smack-dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term and seemed to be tearing the lid off TV suburbia and exposing its ugly id. But the series soon acquired a sinister and despairing aura. Al was Archie Bunker stripped of context, so that the only thing left was self-immolating glee at tearing everything down. By the time the aughts rolled around, there was a thriving “anti-comedy” movement, based out of Los Angeles, that was built partly around outspoken white liberal entertainers doing material filled with racial, sexual, and homophobic slurs with giant cartoon air quotes around them, to assure everyone that the real point was to mock such behavior, not to give rooms filled with mostly white people an excuse to roar with laughter at hearing them. Married helped make these performers possible, too, though they’d probably be nauseous at the thought. The current occupant of the White House is Al Bundy with money. For better or worse (probably worse), this is one of the most influential shows ever made.
4. The Cosby Show, 1984–1992
It is difficult to talk about The Cosby Show without talking about Bill Cosby. But you know what? Let’s try. As tainted as our image of Cosby is in light of his alleged sexual abuse of dozens of women, the Huxtables still stand as one of the most significant families in TV history, and the many good people aside from Cosby who brought them to life on NBC still deserve credit for that. There had been black families on television before, and there had been successful black families on television before, like the Jeffersons. But there had not been an affluent African-American family in which both parents worked full time in respected positions (even if, in retrospect, it’s a little weird that Cliff ran an ob-gyn practice out of the basement), lived in a nice brownstone, and put in equal parenting time to raise their children with discipline and open hearts. The Cosby Show was the most watched television show in America for the entire second half of the 1980s, and that contributed to the most significant fact of all: that because of this show, the ideal family no longer looked Brady or Waltons white. The perfect family looked like Cliff, Clair, Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy.
3. Roseanne, 1988–1997
Among the very best family shows ever on TV, the original nine seasons of Roseanne were an astonishing feat. The Conner family was, in so many ways, many of the things no TV family had been before. Both parents work outside the home, in an unstable variety of blue-collar jobs that changed as their community changed. They fight with one another, and not in a gentle “knock it out kids” Ozzie and Harriet sort of way. The Conner children grow up on the show, get married, and have their own marital tensions. They get pregnant unexpectedly (more than one child is conceived on Roseanne outside of a marriage). There are gay characters. There are stories about birth control and PMS. Roseanne takes the oh-so-wholesome role of TV mom and turns her into someone who occasionally gets too drunk and whose teenagers have real problems. When the original Roseanne was at its peak, there was a sense that a previously unseen kind of American family suddenly had a (very funny) voice. It will be fascinating to see what its 2018 revival has in store.
2. All in the Family, 1971–1979
Lear and Bud Yorkin’s Americanized version of the popular British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part swept aside a 20-year tradition of avoiding controversy and became one of the most popular series on television — and the initial building block in a cluster of Lear-produced sitcoms that dominated prime time in the ’70s. Blustering bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), his good-hearted “dingbat” wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his postcollegiate liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and his long-haired, polemic-spouting son-in-law Mike “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner) had the kind of knockdown arguments that were already raging in millions of households that never saw themselves reflected on television, at least not in this way. Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, abortion, you name it, the Bunkers and Stivics talked about it, and sometimes drew lively supporting characters (including African-American next-door neighbor George Jefferson) into the mix. Topical sitcoms fell out of favor in the ’80s and ’90s — save for outliers like Married…With Children, Murphy Brown, and Roseanne — as networks took away a dubious lesson from Lear’s success, keeping the risque language and innuendo and occasional toilet jokes and deep-sixing all the stuff that was, y’know, relevant. But the Lear tradition has made a bit of a comeback recently, with actors of color anchoring the shenanigans on shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Modern Family, the late and lamented The Carmichael Show, and a new Lear success, One Day at a Time, a Cuban-American centered remake of his same-titled 1970s hit.
1. The Simpsons, 1989–present
Matt Groening’s series about the Simpsons of Springfield started off as a series of shorts on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show. By the time it became a regular series, the network was presenting it as a more clever and visually imaginative companion piece to their popular anti-sitcom, Married…With Children, stressing the “politically incorrect” nature of Homer Simpson’s stupidity and gluttony and his son Bart’s rebellious attitude and trash-talking. The show was so popular that in 1992, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush tried to score points by telling the National Religious Broadcasters that his policies would help families be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” Problem was, by that point, the pop-culture crazed, politically astute The Simpsons had a lot more to say to Americans than reruns of The Waltons, a terrific series in its own right — and anybody who paid attention to both shows knew they had lots in common, starting with their loving respect for the way the 1950s-style nuclear family (pun intended) could serve as a cushion for individual misfortunes and one of many anchors for the surrounding community, which itself is just a bigger, more populous family. Most of the belly laughs came from the cheerful nihilism of Bart and the slobbish enthusiasm of Homer, but the wisdom and stability came from blue-haired mama Marge and Bart’s jazz-loving bookworm sister Lisa. The show’s powers may have ebbed over time, but it’s remarkable that it still manages to turn out such watchable and sometimes excellent episodes after nearly three decades. The presidency today looks more like Married…With Children than either The Waltons or The Simpsons, but the state of the bug-eyed yellow family’s union remains strong.