December 11, 2013 by briantshock
Growing up in the 90’s, there were few things better than Friday afternoons. Running home from the bus stop, pestering mom and dad to drive out to Blockbuster to rent a video game, and then kicking off a weekend of goofing off and postponing homework with some pizza and Friday night television. It was probably purely on merit of being 10, but everything seemed better then, even the TV. The whole family could gather around the TV on Friday nights to catch ABC’s “TGIF” (Thank Goodness It’s Funny) lineup of family-friendly sitcoms. The wholesome shows of yesteryear; where the kids were always pandered to, the moms were always right, and the dads/adult male men were always bumbling doofuses. There was always some kind of scripted problem that was always resolved with a heartwarming message and sappy music. That being said, why were these shows occasionally so damned violent?
One of my all-time favorite shows and my favorite TGIF show period was Family Matters. You probably know this show simply as “Urkel” though. This show featured the trials and tribulations of the Winslow family, a blue-collar family led by humble patriarch and all-around helluva guy, Carl and his loving wife Harriette. Carl busted his hump day in and day out as one of Chicago’s finest and Harriette was some kind of elevator operator or something. As if these jobs weren’t enough, their three (later two) kids and live-in mom, Mama Winslow, kept them busy with enough school problems and other life events.
At least, this was the goal of the first season anyway. It quickly ballooned out of control when they decided to completely hand over the show to the Winslows’ nerdy neighbor, the prolific Steven Q. Urkel.
Now, I could fill an entire blog about the ridiculous crises and calamities that went on in Family Matters (and maybe I will one day), but in doing my best to stay on topic and in the interest of brevity, I’ll focus on one in particular.
To preface this absurd display of violence, I should remind everyone that Urkel was always inventing crap. In the fifth season, Urkel invented a method to radically transform his DNA. This is an idiotic concept, sure, but this is nowhere near the most ridiculous display of “science” in this show. This plot device started off as a way for Steve to “transform his genes to cool genes” into “Stefan” which was basically just the actor Jaleel White standing up straight and speaking normally. This grew to incorporate Steve’s celebrity hair collection that he had somehow, allowing him to turn into a bizarre smattering of historical characters for cheap laughs or one-off gags. Wait, why was this show one of my favorites again?
In one of the later seasons, Steve Urkel fell into the role of “playground monitor” for the park that “Little Richie” (I can’t believe this was a real character) and his friend “Three J”. A stereotypical gang shows up and starts making trouble in the neighborhood, and Steve gives them a bit of lip service, which actually showed a lot of courage and strength of character on Steve’s part. This of course goes poorly for him, but it sets up the problem for the episode. How would you suggest Steve handle this situation with these violent individuals?
If you guessed using his ridiculous transformation port-a-john to turn himself, Little Richie, and Three J into clones of Bruce Lee, you guessed correctly. The gang returns to the park to find Mama Winslow there, who gives them some more of her trademark sass before directing them to this ridiculous device. Steve and the boys pop out, and handily destroy this gang with what I assume is supposed to be some insulting perversion of Jeet Kun Do. This thrashing is enough to get the job done, and the parks of Chicago are safe once again.
I really don’t know what the moral of this episode was. I guess the idea was that you should believe in yourself and should never back down, even in the face of adversity. However, the execution of these ideas seemed a little suspect. I mean, Steve and the kids solved these problems exclusively with violence and racist accents. I guess they didn’t have any other options afforded to them though. It’s not like any of them knew a police officer to go to for help or anything.
Family Matters was no stranger to ridiculous setups like this, but one of the most prolific example of unexplainable and out-of-place violence in a family program comes from another TGIF heavyweight, “Step by Step”. This show had one of the largest families yet, as the premise was Frank “Uncle Frank” Lambert (Patrick Duffy) meeting up with Carol “Thighmaster” Foster (Suzanne Somers) during a vacation to Jamaica and deciding to get married after three days of courtship. Each partner had three children from their prior marriages so already this house is reaching some kind of occupancy limit. And if that wasn’t enough characters, Uncle Frank’s nephew, Cody “The Code-man” Lambert, a lovable moron, also lived in a van in their driveway.
In one episode, “Just for Kicks”, Dana, Carol’s oldest daughter, desires to go with her friend to see her favorite singer perform at Jake’s, no doubt a fine establishment. Cody’s ears perk up, and he begs Dana not to go, as Jake’s is a rough place with a “two-fight minimum”. You’d really think there would be an increased police presence in a place with such a dubious reputation, but then we wouldn’t have much of an episode, would we?
Dana ignores the Code-man’s warnings and heads out to Jake’s anyway with her friend. Once there, she is predicatably accosted by some greaser meathead while her friend just disappears. Things are looking grim for our blonde heroine, as this fool just won’t back off, despite her best terrible excuses. Fortunately, Cody shows up just in the nick of time to instigate a brawl with this punk and his buds to protect Dana from a fate that is most assuredly not family-friendly. What follows is FIVE MINUTES of bar room brawling; complete with somebody getting pushed into a table which buckles and a man being slow-motion kicked through a window.
It seems like Code-man’s got a handle on things – he is a professionally trained fighter after all – but the punks eventually ignore the “one at a time” gentleman’s agreement of gang fighting and bum rush him. Lucky for him, Uncle Frank now decides to show up to help “even up the odds”. This 40+ year old man’s presence makes many of the thugs scatter but a few remain to keep the fight going. Uncle Frank and Cody simultaneously assault two goons, and they are felled by Uncle Frank’s patented move, the Uncle Frank Uppercut.
“Looks like I still got it!” Uncle Frank exclaims, indicating that clearly he is no stranger to physically wiping out a room full of jerks, and the family goes home, presumably not being needed for any kind of police questioning or a damage report for the broken furniture and window.
I’d understand if this was an episode from a later season. Often after a show has been running a few years, the writers start to repeat on some of their tried-and-true tropes, and the situations get stale. It’s not uncommon to get an episode that’s way out in left field, far from the norm (see: everything in Family Matters past season 5). But no, this bar room brawl is EPISODE EIGHT of the first season!
Somewhere in the writers’ room, soon after the show has begun, this conversation must have happened.
“Well guys, we’ve got seven episodes written, so great job? What should we do for episode eight?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Why don’t we center it around the oldest male characters getting into a bar fight?”
“Brilliant! I love it! And so will the families with kids watching this at 8:30 PM.”
These absurd situations made for entertaining television, so I suppose they achieved their purpose. As a kid, I ate it up too! I always liked these “action-packed” episodes of these shows that were primarily joke-filled, and never questioned it. It wasn’t until much later that these episodes stood out in my mind as strange. Now it’s all hilarious for a different reason. It’s too bad we don’t have shows like this anymore; I know several characters on TV that could use an Uncle Frank Uppercut.