Dysfunctional Families In Television: Triggering or Comforting

I had a rough weekend. Ongoing family issues resulted in a trauma triggering episode, causing me to spiral into a bout of anxiety, depression, and paranoia. In an effort to still the cycling flashbacks, or at least put them on the back burner as I took steps to stay healthy, I went to Netflix and sought out some comfort shows to sooth myself.

Only it didn’t help. I went from Arrested Development to M*A*S*H* to Bob’s Burgers, and all I saw were variations on the family issues that had caused my episode. I eventually had to turn off the television and go do something else.

This isn’t to say that every show or episode of a show will be triggering, nor that the show isn’t good if it triggers you. Triggering happens when something reminds you of a traumatic event. It can be a phrase, a look, a gesture, or a similar situation. Stories will always have the potential to be trauma triggers because we build fictitious stories out of real life. We write what we know, after all.

Family sitcoms and dramas can be especially triggering because most abuse tends to happen inside the home. It’s also because tension creates conflict, and conflict drives story. Dysfunctional families, whether on or off screen, have varying amounts of dysfunction, and conflict such as this does tend to draw people into a story.

Think about the seemingly innocent Andy Griffiths Show. Andy, Aunt Bea, Opie, Barney, and the rest of Mayberry lie to each other in order to keep the peace, they hold back secrets, and they don’t even think about the damage that might do later.

Take a step forward into the time of shows like All In The Family, where the patriarch, Archie Bunker, is a complete asshole who verbally abuses his wife, daughter, and stepson, which is mined for laughs. That’s one step away from domestic violence, which I don’t find funny at all.

There was some effort put into portraying healthy-but-not-perfect families on television in the 80’s and 90’s: The Cosby Show, Home Improvement, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Full House come to mind. Though they might be cheesy, these stories at least tried to show a positive aspect to family life, going so far as to depict pretty solid marital relationships that presided over a healthier family dynamic (there were also shows that ran against this trend, such as Married With Children).

Beginning in the 2000’s, we began to see a move away from positive portrayals of families and instead focusing on darker family issues (My So-Called Life, Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development) and “found” families, which can be seen in the works of Joss Whedon (particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly), Toby Whithouse (BBC’s Being Human), and John Rogers (Leverage).

In the past few years, we’ve seen a range of shows depicting subtle to overt dysfunction, but there are a growing number of shows attempting to talk about the truth of family dysfunction while holding out hope that family can still be a positive influence on an individual’s life, such as Modern Family, Black-ish, and The Goldbergs.

My favorite shows about family tend to be the ones that fall into this camp, like The Munsters, Ugly Betty, Bob’s Burgers, and Phineas & Ferb. The Munsters were outsiders who were often better behaved and more loving than their peers, Ugly Betty is about a girl who must learn to balance her heritage with her future, Bob’s Burgers is about learning to accept each family member as they are (without excusing problematic behavior), and Phineas & Ferb is about being a family in spite of the social construct that mixed families are always detrimental.

There are hundreds of shows about families and the impact family has on us — every show from the darkness that is Dexter to the more light-hearted quality of Wonderfalls. I suppose the tendency to put family in a comedy setting is because we’ve made the choice to laugh instead of cry.

Overall, I think depicting a range of dysfunction is healthier than pretending there is none. Holding back and pretending everything is perfect is dysfunctional, and I’d rather see a show address familial problems than ignore them. There are stories that have helped me pinpoint the dysfunction in my own system and allowed me to step outside of it and seek professional help, as well as a found family of my own.

This is the ultimate power of stories: they can tell us the truth when it’s not visible anywhere else.

Image Credits: ABC
K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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