Whatever Happened To...The Family TV Drama?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Have you noticed something missing from this year's fall network TV line-up? We have a surplus of crime/murder/detective shows along with hospital dramas (Grey's Anatomy is STILL on the air?), sci-fi/fantasy and the usual reality TV and sitcom pap. But the one thing missing from all of the major networks right now is an hour-long family drama. Just to be certain, I looked at the list of shows on the sites for NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX. There's none to be found. 

And I'm not talking about comedies such as Modern Family (which really isn't all that funny anymore) or the Dallas-like Blood and Oil (which is being canceled because it's a stinker.) I'm talking about shows I used to love like Judging Amy (which co-starred Tyne Daly), Sally Field's Brothers and Sisters, and Once and Again, which was a mature drama about a widowed man and a divorced woman finding love again in their middle age and the effects their partnering had on their children. Then there was the very short-lived teen drama My So-Called Life that developed a cult following despite airing for only one season. It seems that the TV execs have forgotten about the fan bases these shows attracted and that many of us crave seeing thoughtful shows backed by decent writing and character development that reflect some of the very life situations we often find ourselves in. (Not too many of us, after all, can relate to being a superhero...I'm looking at you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans.)

We don't need any more crime, action, and fantasy shows on TV right now. I just want to watch a nice drama that revolves around the life of a somewhat relatable family. The last successful family drama that aired was Parenthood -- which ended its fifth and last season earlier this year. Without it, the current TV landscape seems a bit bare. (Sadly, there are some misinformed folks out there that believe that Keeping Up With the Kardashians belongs in the same category.) 

As usual, I must give kudos to the Brits in this area, because they've always been heads and shoulders above us when it comes to producing quality TV dramas. I believe there's a reason why Downton Abbey became such a big sensation here in the States -- the heart of this show, underneath the extravagant costumes and settings, is about a family. Two families, really, counting the lives of the downstairs staff. No fantastical computerized effects or outlandish plots here; just brilliant writing and acting. I think there's going to be a lot of melancholy viewers -- including myself -- after the final season airs after the holidays.

Speaking of the British, there's a new BBC One series currently being filmed that piqued my interest because it co-stars Lee Ingleby, who I mentioned a few months ago when I wrote about Inspector George Gently. It's called The A Word. The "A" in this case doesn't stand for one of our favorite swear words, but autism. The six-part show is about a family whose "youngest son is diagnosed with autism and they don't feel like every other family anymore." 

You would think that the American networks would have thought of producing a show like this already, especially given the increase of autism diagnoses during the past decade, but as usual the British are way ahead of us. I'm going to make a prediction, though; one of them will copy this show with American actors and writing and it won't be half as good as the UK's production. They did that with an awesome British crime drama called Broadchurch; the American version was called Gracepoint which was cancelled after one season and lousy ratings despite co-starring David Tennant, who also stars in Broadchurch. Weird? Confusing? Yep...but that's American television for you. Here's hoping The A Word comes to PBS or is released on DVD for American audiences. 

The last family TV drama that I watched and enjoyed was NBC's The Slap. This was another copycat production, too; the original series was Australian. But it was well done, well acted, and revolved around a family and how an unruly kid getting his face slapped at a family gathering caused repercussions for everyone (and yes, I and virtually everyone else I know who saw the show felt the bratty kid deserved the slap.) But it does bring up a point: networks don't have to invest a ton of money into a series they hope will last a few seasons. They could do what the Brits do and dole out a quality six-part family series once in a while. 

Anyways, I've probably rambled on enough about this topic. Television is cyclical; I was looking at the line-up of what was airing on NBC in the 1967 and it wasn't all that different than today's schedule. Get Smart, Man From U.N.C.L.E., Dragnet, Star Trek, and Tarzan were all on the menu. The family drama as we know it -- excluding the soaps -- really didn't take form until the late 1980s and 1990s when shows like Thirtysomething started to depict the lives of average people on the small screen. 

Here's hoping that after the holidays, something resembling a family drama is back in the works for 2016 or the 2016 fall season on American TV. Until then, I guess I have PBS, YouTube, and Hulu to get me through. 


  1. There were some family centered dramas in the 60's, but they were Westerns, The Big Valley had Barbara Stanwick has the matriarch on a ranch circa 1870, and then of course Bonanza which followed the ups and downs of the Cartwrights. Nowadays though, TV doesn't do Westerns anymore either...:(

  2. Hi Jeff - Thanks for your comments and my bad -- in that vein I forgot about The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.

    However, I was focused on shows I remember from the late 80s, the 90s, and beyond...that's when we really saw a rise in family centered dramas, it seems.

  3. Great blog post, Pam. The Gilmore Girls was a good family drama in the early 2000's. Ironically it starred Lauren Graham who went on to do Parenthood, a role that was originally going to Maura Tierney, but she needed to bow out when she was diagnosed with cancer. (Gilmore Girls also introduced us to the wonderful Melissa McCarthy.) I think these things are cyclical. I agree that there are too many crime/hospital shows on TV now, but we should expect many of the new ones to fizzle. I, too, an looking forward to Downtin Abbey, but my heart broke at the end of season 3 so even that has not been quite the same.

    1. Downton. I blame the tiny keyboard on my phone.

    2. Downton. I blame the tiny keyboard on my phone.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Tammy. I never watched Gilmore Girls and don't know why, but thought it was focused more on the lives of teenage girls -- maybe I am mixing it up with another show. I'll try to see if Hulu or YT has episodes uploaded.


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