Last week I promised you the review for Season 4, Episode 19: Just a Gigolo. It’s my fault that you aren’t getting that today. I am sorry. I’m trying to get an academic guest post set up for that one, but it’s not ready. So for this week and the next, at least, we’re going to take a little break from season 4. This post was originally going to run between seasons 4 and 5, and it’s simply coincidence that I’m posting it on the first Friday of Black History Month.
Family Matters Assumed
Just over a year ago, through the Perfect Strangers Reviewed Facebook page, I received a message from someone whom I won’t name. Over the course of a week, ze contacted me, Philip J. Reed, and Sarah Portland about our review sites; possibly others. The question asked of all of us is whether we were going to continue our reviews. That is: would Phil review the ALF cartoons?; would Sarah review all of the new Star Trek stuff?; and in my case, when would PSR be done, and would I be reviewing Family Matters? After all, said ze, Family Matters was “a continuation”. Whoever ze is, ze damn sure ain’t this stock photo of a “lawyer”.
Paul Graham of www.paulgraham.com fame laid out a a hierarchy of disagreements in 2008. I saw it online during the last presidential election (and yes, *sigh*, I’m going to have to talk about that shit in this post) and thought it was useful. Someone going by the handle of “Loudacris” on a site called CreateDebate made a graphic to illustrate Graham’s hierarchy. Here it is:
So let’s go backwards through these. First of all, mystery questioner… I’m not going to call you an asshat. We’ve spoken through Facebook on multiple occasions, you’re obviously a fan of Perfect Strangers, and you read my blog. Morever, you’re a real person. You have feelings, and we all want to be understood by others. I don’t think you’re an asshat, but the question was kind of an asshat question.
Second of all, you’re hiding behind an avatar. If you can’t prove you’re a real person, then what authority do you have about 80s/90s network sitcoms? I owe you nothing.
Third, you asked me about this when I had barely done a year of Perfect Strangers Reviewed. Maybe artists like me are touchy about people asking for free work, but damn if it doesn’t happen again that, when you post hard work online, you’re bound to eventually get “you should do more” as the first comment. At least have the courtesy to first compliment me/us on my/our work. And when will I be done? Am I falling behind your media feeding schedule?
Are all of you getting the message from that pyramid above? Name-calling and ad hominem attacks and responding to tone are mean, made by the real asshats who can’t engage in a discussion. Let’s continue.
Fourth, to settle matters for all asshats, everywhere, forever: Family Matters is not what I’d consider a continuation.
Fifth, okay, Family Matters is not a continuation, it’s a spinoff. I kind of want to define continuation by the persons making it, but that doesn’t work; so let’s say that intention is key. Saved by the Bell: The College Years is a continuation. Extreme Ghostbusters was a continuation. Fuck, The Munsters Today, however it was received, was a continuation. (I’ve actually considered reviewing The Munsters Today after I’m done with this. The answer to the question you just thought is “no”.)
Sixth, the argument boils down to a misunderstanding of the differences between a character and a scenario. It’s a continuation of the character Harriette Winslow, as portrayed by Jo Marie Payton-France-Noble-Clark-Downs-Nahasapeemapetilon, sure, and her husband, Carl, and it takes place in Chicago. But could anyone look at both shows and say that they form one narrative? There’s more coherence between the New and Old Testaments, people.
Seventh, I’ll refute a central (implied) point: I should review Family Matters. Here’s my answer: fuck no.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about why that is in more depth. I’m going to take the long way around, and this is ultimately a semi-political statement on race. (Spoiler: I’m a liberal atheist who thinks we’d be a whole lot better off without money. You’ve been warned.)
Family Matters Remembered
I’m not going to ever review Family Matters, but there are some things worth talking about. I’ll start with me as a childhood viewer.
I watched Family Matters as a kid; and just like many white kids then, I loved Urkel. I had an Urkel talking doll; I had an Urkel backpack; I still have my copy of The Lean, Mean Urkel Machine that I probably got from the Troll book fair at school. I share partial blame for his success. I’m sorry.
I remembered the episode where Urkel tries to infiltrate a gang and this guy puts on a tiny pair of glasses and calls himself an “artiste”. I had remembered it being Mr. Potato Head glasses, but it wasn’t, which means I need to go apologize to some people I helped put in prison.
I remember Urkel burning down the restaurant.
I remember the one where Urkel had a jetpack.
I know I watched the show with my dad, because he told me what kind of car Urkel drove. I still wouldn’t mind owning an Isetta myself.
I remember Myra. I really liked Myra, because Myra had large breasts. I remember the episode where Urkel was afraid to touch her breasts.
I remember that I stopped watching regularly around the 5th or 6th season. I remember watching the other shows in the TGIF block around that time – Step by Step, Home Improvement, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Boy Meets World, but somehow it seemed that the magic was gone. I know I didn’t watch any of those regularly. Was I really only into Full House and Perfect Strangers and Family Matters? Was ABC’s TGIF programming simply not as much of a draw for me once I started watching better-written stuff like The Simpsons and The Critic?
I know I tuned in a couple of times in the last few seasons of Family Matters and being disappointed that it seemed to have turned into the Stefan Urquelle show.
Family Matters Revisited
I watched the entirety of Family Matters for this post. All 215 episodes. Just to talk about why I won’t write about it.
Here’s the first thing that jumped out at me about Family Matters: it’s a show about black people.
From what I understand, the Winslows were originally living in the Caldwell Hotel. In the pilot episode, you can see a hallway outside their door, which would be replaced with a front porch in every other episode. So maybe it was still in the hotel? It’s also my understanding that Larry and Balki were intended to show up in the pilot. Consider this: an appearance by the cousins would have been conferring the success of Perfect Strangers onto its child. I’m honestly glad that somebody was smart enough to nix that appearance. History is littered with those in power conferring rights and respect to the powerless; when that happens, those in power control the language of the narrative. (Think, for instance, of when any man says that women should be respected because they are someone’s daughter, sister, mother, etc.; such language denies them respect on the basis of their personhood.)
Anyway, before I talk about Family Matters proper, let’s see how Perfect Strangers addressed the change.
The promo gives the impression that, for the world that Balki and Larry inhabit, Harriette and her family got a television show, replete with relatives that could be removed as needed. And, wow, what the hell happened to Balki’s accent? Am I going to have to listen to that for the next
*counts on fingers*
10 years of this blog?
Not only does the show assertively stand on its own in this way, but Harriette mirrors this behavior. She loses her job as elevator operator (my guess is that Balki mentioned to the wrong person that the elevator had buttons for all the floors) and interviews for a job as a security guard (my guess is that Lance Dick accidentally shot himself); when she’s initially turned down, she states the case for her qualifications loud and clear to the white manager.
(“A sister doing it for herself” is just one of the many awful and tone-deaf jokes you’d get from me, a white guy, if I reviewed the show.)
Eddie has a Chicago Chronicle sign or something in his room in another episode, but aside from those two things, Harriette’s job at the Chronicle is mentioned only a couple times per season after that. In the 5th season, she loses her job after having worked at the Chronicle for 23 years. It may be worth noting that, by that point, Perfect Strangers was off the air. It’s where the Chicago Chronicle originated; perhaps there was no need to keep that tie once the originating show was gone? And while we’re talking about continuation, Jo Marie was replaced during the 9th season. Those two things really erode the idea of “continuation”, but that’s not the reason I won’t review it.
Family Matters Refused
The fact that it would take me probably 5 years to do is also not the reason I won’t review it.
I said “fuck you” at Family Matters multiple times while watching it; but that’s not the reason I won’t review it.
Or, actually, here’s my review of the series: I liked parts. I hated parts. It was good. It was bad. I have things I could say about why it was good. I have things I could say about why it was bad. Family Matters was a sitcom. It did sitcom things in a sitcom way.
But ultimately, I won’t review Family Matters because it’s about black people, and I ain’t one.
I know a few things about black people, and it’s all second-, third-, or nth-hand information; some of it from black people; most of it from books. In the first episode alone, I can see some things in the construction of Family Matters that fits in with things “I know” about African-Americans. You’ve got a big family living all together; there’s a matriarch present; there’s a mention of Prince; hell, the littlest kid is named Little Richie. But I don’t know enough. I don’t know half the celebrities that show up. I don’t know half the bands.
You’ve got episodes about making it big in sports, making it big in music, about driving while black, and about racist reactions to Black History Month. And for those first two things? I bet I’m making a bigger deal about them than I ought to, because I think of sports and music as being domains that black people are better in. That’s what I’ve been told my whole life, and I know damn well that if I looked at any amount of data on either thing, my understanding would be more nuanced by some order of magnitude. However, I don’t think that I remember any white sitcoms taking considerable time out of a story to have someone sing a whole song, or to have the characters doing nothing but practicing their dance moves in the living room as a group. When Balki and Larry sing, it’s always meant as some sort of joke. When Family Matters does it, you can tell it’s because someone thinks it’s important.
I’ll come back to the driving while black thing for a second. If you’re in enough of a social media echo chamber not to have seen this over the past half year, I’ll say it here: people of color weren’t surprised at the results of the 2016 presidential election, or any of the language used by the current administration. Being arrested or killed for nothing more serious than holding toys or candy is only a surprise to us. You may have only gotten upset (or not) hearing people asking “why’s there not a white history month” in the past few years. But black people? They’ve been seeing–living–this shit for years. Every god damn day.
When Philip J. Reed finished his ALF reviews, he mentioned that he couldn’t have imagined anyone’s voice but Billy Superstar’s for Full House Reviewed; moreover, that each of the shows we have picked to review are perfect for our personalities, and our voices. I’m a neurotic, college-educated white guy who holds himself back from approaching women; I’m an overgrown child who still buys toys and wants to believe in people. I write detailed jokes about Daisyworld and put them right beside the easier jokes about Balki and Larry fucking. The internal focus between Larry and Balki mirrors in many ways my own internal struggles about how to do things. I’ve left women in my life hanging, and it’s often because I’m caught up in my own shit. As sad as it sounds, I am the cousins, and Perfect Strangers is the right show for me.
I’m not from a big family; I don’t even keep in touch with all of them anymore. I’ve never once gone to a black church and left Christianity’s fold a long time ago. I may have had “nerdy” interests, but I was never quite the type of social outcast Steve Urkel was. I didn’t grow up in a city. I’ve never been a robot.
And most importantly, I’m not black.
This show is not for me.
This show is not for me.
This show is not for me.
I think that, if anybody’s going to review Family Matters in a complete sense like I’m doing, it should be a black person.
But does that just make me one more white guy telling a black person what they ought to do?
Family Matters; Me, Cued
I hope not! But if it does, and I am, I hope you’ll tell me.
Let me take a page (or two) from Scott McCloud’s 2000 book Reinventing Comics. It’s hard to quote comics, so I’m just going to reproduce the relevant panels.
But let me also focus on the converse of who should write Family Matters Reviewed by saying who shouldn’t. I don’t think me, or any other white person, is the right person for it. If we’re going to take a teleological approach, even playfully, and say the shows pick people, Family Matters hasn’t chosen yet.
There were two previous attempts to do Perfect Strangers, and both failed*.
Originally, Billy Superstar had wanted to review Family Matters, but all the seasons weren’t available on DVD yet, so he didn’t. There’s another guy who did reviews for a few seasons of Family Matters. I’m not going to link to it now; you can find it if you want. I linked to it once before, and now I regret it. It was written by a white guy. I haven’t read much of his reviews of the show, but I read enough to read one where he makes a joke about Harriette looking like an orangutan.
And you know what? It took a fair amount of work (I’m a research librarian, remember) to find out this guy’s name. I’m calling this guy out: UNACCEPTABLE, SHANE JEFFRIES
Let me get political again here. YOU MADE A RACIST JOKE, SHANE JEFFRIES
At the risk of back-patting, what I hear/read from women and African-Americans and other minorities is that one of the best things white cishet middle-class guys without disabilities like me can do is call out this kind of bullshit when we see it and say that it’s not okay.
SHANE THAT IS NOT OKAY IT IS 2017
Please note the difference. On Facebook, I was asked a question by someone going under a false name, and at first glance the question read as entitled, but there’s just an interested fan behind the avatar. I didn’t say that person’s name. “Rambo Homer McFly” doesn’t deserve that level of respect, or privacy. You’re an asshat, Shane. Go back to where you belong.
As far as I’m concerned, that kind of joke disqualifies you from writing about the show. I’m glad you went on to other things! But I’m afraid that if I review Family Matters, I’ll end up making jokes that are just as racist–or be so cautious that I end up making fewer jokes, and still be racist. Because… I’m racist! I have racist thoughts about real people. I’ve done racist things, and I’m certain I still do in ways I don’t see. I benefit from racist structures and systems. Yesterday was the first day I tried calling a government agency to express my view about a nomination; why the fuck did I wait so long?
I have taken a test developed by Harvard researchers and gotten back hard data that the associations in my brain are racist. I’m from Georgia; my grandfather was in the KKK. I’m ashamed of that, and I’m responsible** for the bad aspects America he helped create. It’s unavoidable that my brain is going to continue to come up with ignorant racist bullshit for the rest of my life; my hope for the future is that each generation will be less so.
An important aside: I make numerous jokes about Larry and Balki being gay. I know only a few gay people. If I make insulting jokes, or say anything in bad taste, or anything that puts you down for being who you are, I want you to tell me. I need to know. I may ask questions, but I won’t argue with you. I don’t want to hurt anyone.
Family Matters was a show for black people and, sure, it was also a show written so it would have broad appeal for white people. But I feel that any white person is going to have less to say about the show than it deserves. Because black people know their own experience; and they also know the experience of how they’re supposed to present themselves to white people. I know next to nothing about the latter, and even less about the former.
Family Matters Pursued
I think Family Matters could use some love (and some hate) from someone qualified to write about it. I illegally downloaded the entire run of the show–only to find out it wasn’t complete. There were numerous episodes missing that I had to purchase from iTunes, which really has more to do with the DVD releases than anything. Much of the season 9 rips were recorded during what was obviously a marathon, because I kept seeing the same show advertised in the bottom third of the screen. Also there’s one episode that’s lost a few minutes in the middle because a storm warning cuts in. At any rate, for big movies, you can download them as soon as they’re released in Asia, which precedes the DVD release in the US, generally. But I downloaded these in November, a couple weeks after season 9 was released on DVD. I honestly would have expected it to be on torrent sites, but then again, I’m an impatient criminal. At any rate, it’s out now! If you’ve been waiting to review Family Matters because African-Americans are disproportionately jailed for crimes that white people like me are more likely to commit, now’s your time!
By the way, yes, that’s Donna Summer in some sort of gas-powered egg timer. Family Matters went to some weird places. Just a heads-up.
I’d love to hear what a black woman my age has to say about the show. I’d love to hear what a black guy my age has to say about the show. I’d love to hear what any black person has to say about this show. Because god damn there’s a lot to say.
Maybe Family Matters and its reviewer haven’t found each other yet; maybe they never will. Maybe they have, and that person hasn’t acted on it yet. Maybe it’s there and I haven’t seen it? (down there, the comments, tell me) But here’s a message for that person (or the cooler self they become when they use the “boss sauce”):
Doing this kind of review blog certainly hasn’t been entirely a cakewalk***. I have a lot of fun with it. It tells me a lot about myself, and about others, and about television, and about comedy, and about fans, and about nostalgia. But the more I invest in it, the worse it hurts when the show goes bad. When it acts like suicidal thoughts can be done away with in the time it takes to microwave a TV dinner; when it decides to let women stay around only if it helps the main characters get laid; when a character takes a moral stance that is then reversed in the next episode, or the very next joke they make; when it tells you there’s something wrong with you for being the way you are, or thinking the way you think.
And if you’re black, or if you’re a woman, or if you’re a black woman? I’ve seen enough to know that when you say anything online, you get hateful comments at the very least, and at worst, death threats (or worse?). And that may not even be the half of what you’d have to deal with if you took this on. Yeah, it’s a dumb old sitcom, but I’ve seen people who look like me get upset over far less. The worst I’ve had so far is a message on Facebook. You’ll likely be surrounded and policed by fragile white eggshells, jealous of your strengths and courage.
But if you’re out there? And you take this on? I will eagerly, hungrily read it. I will sit, and I will listen, and I will try to understand the interiors I cannot see. I will know that this is a larger, harder endeavor than Perfect Strangers Reviewed is in more ways than one. I will share your work, and I will encourage your work, and I will defend your work, and I will make stupid jokes in the comments about Waldo, or about Myra. And you’ll tell me I’m racist. And you’ll tell me I’m sexist. And I’ll learn, and I’ll try harder not to be.
Seriously, though, I’m totally ready to make stupid jokes about Myra.
And will anything I’m saying here make a difference to you? Do you need my allyship at all? Those aren’t questions for me to answer. If and when you show up, let’s talk about those things. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here.
Here’s what I know: Balki and Larry didn’t show up in the first episode; Harriette got a new job all by herself; I’m not reviewing Family Matters.
Ding Ding Mahmoud
So, back to the regularly-scheduled programming of white guys and their arguments that matter only to them. I’ll talk about Family Matters again at some point. After all, it’s informed my readings of long-running sitcoms in general, and Perfect Strangers specifically, so it will be hard not to.
But I wanted to make sure that I said all this, because 80s/90s sitcom reviewing is a thing I’m doing right now. I think it’s a burgeoning community and I even see its potential as an art form. (I try to be an artiste with this blog.) Independent snarky sitcom reviewing is now a domain I have a voice in, and I’m invested in this, and I’d like to see it become more of a “thing”. I want it to be a good “thing”, because there were plenty of times when the shows themselves certainly weren’t.
Oh yeah, by the way, there’s a Perfect Strangers Reviewed Facebook page, where you can ask me whether I’ll review your favorite show.
Urkel count: I lost track of how many different Urkels there were sometime around season 6
*for some goddam reason
**not “guilty of”–I see some white people confuse the two and try to reject the former
***yet another of the many instances of awful and racially-unaware uses of language you’d get if a white guy reviewed the show
6 thoughts on “Family Matters Recused”
Huh. Now that you mention it, I also knew Urkel’s car was an Isetta. That means either my father identified it for me, or somebody else’s parent did.
I’m actually a little disappointed Larry and Balki didn’t show up in the pilot. Not because I disagree with you, but because we were robbed of a “Got any cheese?” / “Well of course I do don’t be ridiculous” exchange that our society could have been collectively ashamed of for generations to come.
[…] Stefan Q. Urkel made his debut. I deliberately didn’t talk about Urkel’s characterization when I didn’t review Family Matters, but it bears mentioning here. Urkel, like Balki and the daughters from Full House before him, is […]
Urkel is the main reason I stopped watching the show. I also took your Harvard Black/White test; I’m from East Coast Canada and I have no bias one way or the other, which surprised me but in a good way. Relieved, actually. I am still intimidated by persons of color, mostly because of how I imagine they might perceive me. Racism sucks no matter what.
I just went on a binge of this show for the first time since it aired. While much of it was redundant and it did tackle some great issues, I was mostly surprised by the talent of Reginald VelJohnson and, in particular, Jaleel White. Urkel has been relegated to a caricature over the years (and he mostly is), but White’s acting took what was a one note character and gave it some depth, while the various Urkel iterations showed some impressive comedic range. His timing was impeccable, as was his athletic prowess for the physical comedy, including learning how to polka dance and all sorts of other nones. Impressive all around. He deserved more acclaim than he got.
Swinging back around on this one kind of late. You’re absolutely right about Jaleel White. What’s even better about it is, after a few years of trying to mine Urkel for new laughs (now he’s a robot! now he’s Einstein! now he’s Bruce Lee!), when they finally couldn’t get around–and I have to imagine Jaleel was bringing these things up as concerns–that he was pretending to have terrible posture, and that you could see his dick through his jeans, they finally had to let him grow as a character.
[…] I’ve linked to this before, and I’ll link to it again. It does a better job of explaining why I do not intend to rise to meet that challenge than I ever could. […]