Video: Home Is Where The Venom Is

Is Domestic life takes a drubbing in TV's anti-family sitcoms

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TV family comedies, of course, have always depended on domestic discord and jokey put-downs for humor. A few of them, like The Honeymooners and All in the Family, have focused on grumbling working-class households. But their barbs were rarely aimed at the institution of the family. Archie Bunker may have railed at Edith and argued politics with Meathead, but the domestic bonds remained rock solid. Roseanne's whiny wisecracks, on the other hand, protest a setup that forces Mom to work during the day to help win the bread, then come home at night to cook it. The message, writes Barbara Ehrenreich in the New Republic, is that "Mom is no longer interested in being a human sacrifice on the altar of 'pro-family values.' "

Those values are shredded completely in Married . . . With Children. The matriarch of this clan is a slothful shrew who never does a lick of housework. Dad is an insensitive lout who picks his toes and spends his happiest hours on the toilet seat. The oldest daughter is a floozy who can barely count to ten. Their repartee is drenched with venom. (Al wants to take Peg bowling for her birthday. "Come on," he says, "this'll be the first birthday you begin in an alley.") Gross and funny in roughly equal measure, Married . . . With Children turns the TV family into a vicious cartoon.

The Simpsons, a real cartoon, is actually much closer to recognizable human life. Family members are not depraved or offensive, just a little dim. Homer, the father, works at the local nuclear power plant and gets no respect at home. His wife Marge, her blue hair piled into an otherworldly beehive, is a scratchy-voiced simp. The only real live wire is Bart, a bratty fourth-grader whose vocabulary includes such bons mots as "Eat my shorts." Created by cartoonist Matt Groening, The Simpsons has a good deal of savvy wit. One episode, in which Bart is mistakenly labeled a genius, sharply parodies a class for gifted children, where a "learning coordinator" leads the grade schoolers in discussions about free will and paradox. The Simpsons, however, is strangely off-putting much of the time. The drawings are grotesque without redeeming style or charm (characters have big beady eyes, beaklike noses and spiky hair), and the animation is crude even by TV's low-grade standards.

Still, ratings keep going up, and Simpsons merchandise, from T shirts to key chains, is flying off the shelves. Obviously, these raffish losers have struck a chord. Maybe it is because, for all their grumbling, this misfit family sticks together in the end: the camaraderie of the downtrodden. There's something oddly touching about the sight of five Simpsons lurking in the bushes, spying on neighbors in their living room. "They actually enjoy talking to each other!" marvels Marge. Or of Homer encouraging his son before sending him off to class: "One day, you may achieve something that we Simpsons have dreamed about for generations. You may outsmart someone." In the world of the anti-family show, parents learn to think small.

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