So one of President Obama's favorite television shows is 'Modern Family.' Who can blame him? That is funny stuff.
The schtick of 'Modern Family' (and where the series gets its title) is that families in real life do not resemble the nuclear, 'Leave it to Beaver' style American paradigm. Real families are splintered, tacked together, and feature (gasp) relationships that President Obama's opponent this week would disapprove of.
But here's the thing... these families have been in America longer than television has--it was merely the programming that took its time waking up and smelling the coffee.
So which television shows broke the ground that allows modern families to thrive on tv today? Who was the first to break some taboo barriers, for the good of all of us?
Aren't you glad your pal Baddie is here to fill you in on such wonderful details?
Hard to imagine, but even things like single parents raising children were a slippery issue to get past network censors back in the day. For whatever reason--feel free to venture a guess--American television has always found it more acceptable to feature single fathers than to depict single mothers in drama and comedy.
The first single father on American television was Vernon Albright on 'My Little Margie' (1952), a widower with an 18 year old daughter. Vernon worked at Honeywell & Todd, a fictional firm, and Margie (whose mother died years ago) was constantly on the hunt for a new bride for her dear, doting dad.
Westerns and single fathers seemed to go hand-in-hand at the time, as well: in 1955, 'Fury,' 'The Adventures of Champion,' and 'Brave Eagle' all debuted, each featuring fathers doing their best to raise their sons by themselves in the wild west. Eventually, 1960 brought 'My Three Sons' and 'The Andy Griffith Show' and it began to seem like television was a very dangerous place for a mother--these moms were dying off left, right and center.
Once you get to 'The Beverly Hillbillies' (1962) and 'Flipper' (1964) it's a bloody pandemic. But it took sixteen years after the single-father appearance for television to deliver the first series about a single mother...
'Julia' (1968) broke new ground in subject matter, as not only is she a widow trying to raise a young son by herself, but her husband was killed in the Vietnam War. Starring Diahann Carroll, 'Julia' tackled the issue of war-widows and single-mothers all at once... and to make matters even trickier, Julia is a black woman living in the big city. If you're wondering how that makes things trickier, then you don't understand what American television was like in the 1960s; racial prejudice remained rampant and networks were constantly being bullied by small-minded advertisers who would threaten to pull sponsorship if black characters were presented with the slightest hint of fairness.
To put the systemic racism of the time into perspective, 1968 was also the year that the first ever interracial kiss ever appeared on an American program. It was wildly controversial and the actors had to battle through prejudice to even film the scene... but that famous kiss took place between Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the 'Star Trek' episode "Plato's Children" in 1968.
Watch the video, it's fascinating stuff (and gives you even more reason to adore William Shatner, the greatest gift Canada ever gave the USA).
The episode featuring the kiss was shelved by several southern network affiliates in protest; after it aired, even more affiliates were bullied into agreeing to never rerun the scene. A simple, swift, harmless kiss was sufficient to terrify that many people a mere forty-five years ago. (Fun fact: Bill Shatner was also the first person to ever say "Hell" on network television, in the episode "City on the Edge of Forever")
So we've discussed single parents, interracial lip-locks... can you believe that television even took its time accurately depicting married couples and the simple act of raising a family?
Who could ever forget this iconic image?
Yes, according to television, even happily-married people slept in separate beds... maybe deigning to indulge in a quick peck on the lips before adjourning to their separate mattresses at night.
When you look up the first ever shared-bed in television history, you will find a lot of different answers. The reason for this is that people go by strange criteria. Technically, the first television appearance of a married couple sharing slumber was on 'Mary Kay and Johnny' way way back in 1948. So how come this doesn't register for many people? Well, Mary Kay Stearns was playing herself, along with her loving husband Johnny. The actors were married, so the brief appearance of them sharing the sheets was deemed less scandalous, as they had already gotten the thumbs-up in a church ahead of time.
So who were the first unmarried actors to share a bed on television? For that honor you need to leap sixteen years into the future and find this vision on 'Bewitched:'
Interestingly enough, 'Mary Kay and Johnny' is considered the first sitcom in television history and was also the first show to depict pregnancy. It wasn't until the 1950s, once television became more wide-spread and more homes could tune in, that censorship tightened and removed things like childbirth from the American imagination.
Speaking of childbirth and the difficulties surrounding procreation, I bet you'll never guess the first American show to deal with the possibility of impotence.
Seriously, try and guess.
Give up? 'The Flintstones.' For real-real.
When the "Modern Stone-age Family" debuted in 1960 there was a storyline that featured Betty and Barney Rubble sufferring a depression after Fred and Wilma had little Pebbles. Betty and Barney were unable to have children (stone-age medicine had only come so far, you see) and they were heartbroken as a result. The next time you munch your Flintstones chewable vitamins, thank them for tackling such real-world issues on their animated program.
Marriage, childbirth, parentage, interracial romance... the ground was broken on each before the coming of the 1970s. But there was one massive taboo that was being kept off of American television, was being swept under the rug where possible and unfairly demonized everywhere else: homosexuality.
The first treatment of a homosexual couple on television came in 1972, when Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook--both huge stars at the time--depicted lovers in the made-for-tv movie 'That Certain Summer.' In the film, a teenage male is forced to deal with his father's homosexual relationship after divorcing the boy's mother.
Later that same year, 'The Corner Bar' became the first ongoing series to feature a homosexual recurring character, as Vincent Schiavelli played Peter Panama, a myriad of offensive gay stereotypes and over-dramatisms that would make Jack from 'Will and Grace' blush.
So television had begun hinting at the existence of homosexual couples in the 1970s... surely, the appearance of two men sharing an open-mouthed kiss wouldn't be far behind, right? ...Right?
When did the first passionate male/male kiss appear on American television?
Not until 2000 on 'Dawson's Creek.' Can you believe that? Twenty-eight years after 'That Certain Summer' we finally get a single kiss on television. Even then, the episode was highly controversial and drew ire and criticism from various activist groups in the US.
Now, if you google the first gay kiss on television, you're going to find a lesbian kiss on 'LA Law' a whopping nine years prior to the 'Dawson's Creek' episode. For whatever reason, society had a much easier time coming to grips with female homosexuality than with male--about nine years' worth of an easier time. The 'LA Law' kiss would spawn a string of lesbian lip-locks on television, including the massive primetime hit 'Roseanne.'
Now, 'Modern Family' depicts a loving gay couple and their children in a very admirable way. Mitchell and Cameron are frequently touted as the best fathers on television and it's astounding to think how very recently it was that it would have been considered taboo to even depict them on the screen. Certainly television has broken several barriers in its brief history, but many more remain. As we march forward and applaud series like 'Modern Family' (and the fact that our politicians praise these depictions rather than denigrate them), we should take the time to consider the risks taken in the past that made such scenes possible.