I love a good family TV show. Not the kind of shows for families. The kind of shows about families.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a tiny clan — widowed mom, two sisters, a couple of cousins, that’s it — but I have a soft spot for dramatic series that explore the bonds and betrayals of sprawling, ungainly family units. The resentments and groveling that can come with a demanding patriarch or a high-maintenance mother figure; the sibling side-deals and subterfuges — all this is grist for entertainment schadenfreude. Besides, these shows scratch a primal itch, the one that says: You think your family is crazy? Wait’ll you get a load of this one.
I’m currently knee-deep in season two of “The Restaurant,” a divertingly juicy Swedish TV series available on Amazon Prime. It’s basically “Downton Abbey” with a liquor license, charting the ups and downs of the Löwander family, who own an upscale eatery in the heart of Stockholm, and the kitchen and waitstaff who work for them over the course of the decades following World War II.
There’s a matriarch (Suzanne Reuter) making her children dance to her mercurial tune, an older brother (Mattias Nordkvist) in debt and in the closet, a younger brother (Adam Lundgren) who starts out idealistic and slowly loses his way, and a baby sister (the show’s breakout star, Hedda Stiernstadt) who’s secretly having it off with the kitchen boy (Charlie Gustaffson). Throw in a Holocaust survivor (Hedda Rahnberg), a brown-nosing maitre’d (Rasmus Troedsson), a primo don of a chef (Peter Dalle), a power-hungry spouse (Ida Engvoll), and a lesbian union organizer single-mother waitress (Josefin Neldén), and you’ve got the melodramatic equivalent of smörgåsbord.
Great art “The Restaurant” ain’t, but it’s a pretty good night-time soap, and it’s very savvy about the internecine war being waged among the Löwanders — for control of the restaurant but, more importantly, for control of the family narrative — and by extension within all families to one degree or another. Almost every clan has its dominant figure, the one who sets the room’s emotional thermostat whenever everyone’s together, and if there are two or more wrestling to adjust the temperature, it can get ugly. On TV, we call this entertainment. In life, I guess, we just call it Thanksgiving.
That’s one reason why HBO’s “Succession” is so much nasty fun. The series, whose third season has been delayed by the pandemic to 2022, acknowledges the little power games that can animate and aggravate even the happiest of families. It just blows those games up to Murdochian Masters of the Universe proportions and fuels our dislike of the obscenely rich by making all the Roys enjoyably, outrageously hateful. (They’re kind of like your family if it had too much money, and they make you thankful it doesn’t.)
We’re addicted to dysfunctional family sagas, and the history of serial entertainment is full of them. “Dallas” was the “Succession” of the 1980s and you can follow the thread back through films (“The Godfather” movies), Broadway (“The Little Foxes”), Shakespeare, and beyond. What is “Hamlet” if not the blueprint for dynastic discontent and treacherous kin? What are “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” if not slightly extra episodes of “Game of Thrones”?
There are endless variations on the theme. Criminal families, for instance: “The Sopranos” featured James Gandolfini’s neurotic mafia chieftain running the mob while his wife (Edie Falco) buried herself in suburban denial. Britain’s “Peaky Blinders” had Cillian Murphy as the smarter of the Shelby brothers gang, Paul Anderson the hapless Fredo of the clan, and Helen McCrory (who died last month at just 52) as venal Aunt Polly.
Wealthy families: the “Downton Abbey”/”Upstairs Downstairs” genre in which sympathetic upper-class members of the English gentry cope with calamities like infidelity, missing cricket bats, and World War I while the servants have their own kitchen-sink dilemmas.
Dysfunctional families, played for mortified comedy: the Bluths of “Arrested Development,” as horrible as the Roys of “Succession” but no longer as rich, and the Pfeffermans of “Transparent,” spinning out of control after the patriarch decides to become a matriarch. (Is it a coincidence that both shows feature Jeffrey Tambor as the senior family member from whom all self-absorbed miseries flow? I think not.)
Animated families? “The Simpsons” is up to Season 32 and dad Homer Simpson is an icon of doofus Americanus dadhood. Funny families? I’ve avoided classic half-hour sitcom clans because that’s another world entirely, but “Modern Family” spent 11 seasons mining the humor of mix-and-match broods; the current “This Is Us” is a more somber and sentimental iteration of some of the same themes.
Still, “Game of Thrones” stands as the most extreme version of family-warfare drama, just blown up into epic fantasy-world size with witches and beheadings and three-eyed crows. The long-running HBO series adapted from the George R.R. Martin books understood that one of the down-and-dirty pleasures of the genre is that viewers pick sides — and then get to argue among their own friends and family about who’s right and who’s wrong. Which son or daughter of Ned Stark you put your chips on at the end of season 1 said more about you and your home dynamic than you may care to admit.
In recent decades, reality TV has captured a sizable portion of the audience for scurrilous family dynamics, and shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “The Osbournes,” “Duck Dynasty,” et al. have served as a kind of human ant farm, their petty power struggles and wide-eyed gaslighting a blotchy cartoon version of our own squabbles. Yes, I know, you and your family aren’t the Kardashians. But isn’t it good to have a reminder why?
Finally we come to the Waltons, the one TV family where everyone got along. Jim-Bob never conspired with Mary Ellen to rob John-Boy of his inheritance, Pa never shipped Grandpa Walton off to assisted living, and everyone said good night to everyone else, no matter how late they had to stay up to do it. They were a nostalgic tonic in their troubled 1970s prime, and they’d last about half a season in 2021. These days we want TV families that make our own look better by comparison, not worse.