Professor of Literature David Thorburn characterized television as "an ongong conversation between dominant and emergent aspects of the culture" and the recent history of how families are portrayed on television as an "opening out, decade by decade," in a recent seminar sponsored by the Family Resource Center.
Professor Thorburn's talk surveyed how popular TV sitcoms over the past 40 years have portrayed the American family and noted how once-emergent trends within American culture, such as single-parent families, evolved into standard fare.
"In the fifties, the idea of a missing wife, 'replaced' by a surrogate such as dad or a male housekeeper in an apron, was funny. By the seventies, an absent parent was taken as the norm. It was not a source of comedy any more," he said.
Professor Thorburn discussed TV sitcoms from the urban 1950s (The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy) to the early 1960s suburban shows (Dick Van Dyke and The Brady Bunch) to All in the Family, the "defining show of the 1970s, a staging ground for cross-generational debate about dominant and emergent values, gender roles, race and social class."
He also noted the evolution of women's roles in sitcoms over the past 40 years, beginning with Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, two shows in which "women have magical powers but prefer to stay at home." These ceded to Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H and work-setting shows such as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and ER.
Professor Thorburn described The Cosby Show as a typical program of the 1980s, a "feel-good show that reassured white people that blacks were just like them." He also noted the dominant, if subconsciously delivered, value of consumption that placed Cosby in the same consumer-fantasy realm as, say, Bewitched.
In the discussion session that followed, Professor Thorburn handily debunked a conspiracy buff's theory that advertisers control TV content and predicted a wave of nostalgia for the "network era," resulting from the increased number of channels per TV and TV sets per home, and encouraged "literacy about TV shows that would lead to discrimination. That way, we can value and celebrate the richest ones," he said.
Professor Thorburn singled out a current show, Once and Again, as "a brilliant and masterful program, one with no heroes or villians that shows the complex relations between parents and children in an era of divorce."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 1999.