Defining sociology in the pilot of “All in the Family”

The 1971 pilot of All in the Family included Michael, son-in-law of Archie Bunker and a college student, as a main character. After the first commercial break, Michael and Archie go at it about Michael’s study of sociology (with some input from Gloria, Michael’s wife and Archie’s daughter):

Michael: What do you want from me anyway? I don’t have time to do anything. I’m studying six hours, I’m in class six hours. You know it’s not easy going to college, it’s hard work.

Archie: For you it’s like building the pyramids. I’ll tell you it’s all that sociology and studying that welfare stuff. I don’t call that no hard work.

Gloria: Oh Daddy, leave him alone. I think it’s beautiful that Michael wants to help the underprivileged.

Archie: Listen, if he wants to help the underprivileged let him start with himself. He’s got no brains, he’s got no ambitions, if that ain’t underprivileged, I don’t know what is.

Sociology does not feature on television shows very often. While it had a spot on the popular All in the Family, the way it is set up here provides two opposite views of the discipline.

On one side, sociology is the discipline of a younger generation interested in social change and improving society. Sociology can help the disadvantaged and provide for the better distribution of resources.

On the other side, sociology is a waste of time. It is a liberal enterprise composed of people who should themselves focus on working hard and not stirring up trouble.

Fifty years later, are these two reactions to sociology common? Given that sociology does not always get much attention on television or among the general public, have we advanced much in our public understanding of sociology?

This is the focus of the opening stages of my Introduction to Sociology courses: how does sociology view the world? What are its methods and theories? What do we hope to see? This takes more time than television sitcoms can provide.

How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

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While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the (sitcom) suburbs

The new television show WandaVision is set in the suburbs portrayed on earlier sitcom TV:

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With “WandaVision,” Feige said that he had wanted to honor the complexity of the title characters and Wanda’s reality-warping abilities but also to leaven the story with tributes to sitcom history…

The series finds Wanda and Vision — now somehow alive — residing in suburban bliss, not entirely sure of why they are cycling through various eras of television history and encountering veteran Marvel performers like Kat Dennings (as her “Thor” character, Darcy Lewis) and Randall Park (reprising his “Ant-Man and the Wasp” role of Jimmy Woo) as well as new additions to the roster, like Teyonah Parris (as Monica Rambeau) and Kathryn Hahn (playing a perplexingly nosy neighbor named Agnes)…

“You enter a sitcom episode with the understanding it’s going to make you feel good and it’s all going to be OK at the end,” said Schaeffer, who also worked on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow.”

What “WandaVision” adds to this formula, she said, is an element of “creepiness — the idea of shattering that safety in a calculated way.”

In a recent post, I summarize scholarly work on television depicting the suburbs. It sounds like this new show tries to do something new but it might just fall into already existing patterns.

The suburban sitcoms of the 1950s are often portrayed as providing a common image: the white nuclear family living happily in a single-family home. The episodes revolve around relatively minor issues that are resolved at the end of the show.

By the 1960s, there were some twists to this theme. Lynn Spigel writes of new television characters who provide an edge to the typical suburban image. Think Samantha on Bewitched who with her magic powers and odd relatives provides a new angle to the suburban sitcom.

In the late 1990s, more shows looked to push the suburban sitcom in even further – and often darker – directions. Take The Sopranos: from the outside, the family has the look of a successful suburban family living in a large McMansion in an upscale community. But, of course, the secret is that the gains are ill-gotten and the attempts to find happiness in this suburban lifestyle never coalesce.

Indeed, this darker approach to the suburban sitcom has an extended history in other mediums as well with novels, films, and other narratives suggesting something similar: the suburbs are not what they seem. These products offer a critique of the the suburbs where the American Dream is not what it seems, where all the suburban striving does not amount to much or falls apart spectacularly.

While I have not seen WandaVision, the narrative arc may then fall into familiar territory: the suburban household with a twist or dark secret is already an established genre. These may be new characters in the suburbs and it may be an expansion of the Marvel Universe but it remains to be seen how much new suburban ground it really treads.

The most McMansiony residence on Modern Family

Adding to earlier posts on the details of the three primary residences on Modern Family and the way the show was successful even with three McMansions, this post considers which home is the most McMansiony.

https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/house-tours/a23472261/abc-modern-family-house-design/

To make this decision, I am working with the four traits of McMansions I developed: size, relative size, poor architecture/design, and a symbol for other American problems.

The Pritchett House: this is the biggest home at over 6,000 square feet. The relative size is hard to judge since the neighboring homes are almost never seen (I cannot recall seeing them). The home is built in a modern style with big windows and some strange angles. There is a good-sized pool in the backyard. With its size and design, the home could definitely be considered for the wealthy and Jay Pritchett is a successful business owner.

The Pritchett=Tucker home is in a more Mediterranean style (title roof, stucco, balcony, some arched windows and an arched doorway). There is a round turret in the middle with the doorway. Cam and Mitchell have the least space (since they only occupy the first floor on the show). Again, we do not have much of a sense of the surrounding neighborhood since other homes are rarely shown. This is easy to select as the least McMansiony home, at least as presented on the show as a oe story dwelling.

The Dunphy home is nearly 3,000 square feet and built to look like a traditional home with its white picket fence, covered entryway, and front entrance that leads to a hallway as well as a staircase to the bedrooms upstairs. The home seems to fit in of what we see of the neighborhood; we see more of the Dunphy neighborhood than any of the other homes. Phil and Claire are portrayed as typical parents who with three kids are just trying to help their kids be successful and keep their sanity at the same time.

Based on my definition and what we see on the show, I think the home of Jay and Gloria Pritchett best fits the bill of a McMansion. It is large. All that space for a family of four. (When the whole family gathers there, it looks like they all fit easily.) It is the most expensive of the homes. It has newer features plus a pool. The architecture is unique though not necessarily garish – this could depend on one’s view of more modernist homes. As the patriarch with his second family, Jay clearly has plenty of resources (and there are other hints of this on the show as well).

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the Dunphy home is really a McMansion. It is a larger than average home. It costs quite a bit, though this is due more to its metropolitan market and its location. The home does not look garish on the outside; the proportions may be off, the entryway covering is large, and there are multiple gables but it does not scream ostentatious. Furthermore, the show does not portray the family as evil or overly-wealthy McMansion owners; they are a typical sitcom family. Given all of this, I am on the fence about calling this home a McMansion even as a majority of Americans could not live in such a home in that real estate market.

More on the McMansions on Modern Family

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are some more details on the main residences featured on Modern Family and which one I think qualifies as the most McMansion-y. (This post draws on “Stalking from Los Angeles: Houses from Modern Family” – denoted as SfLA below, House Beautiful – denoted as HB below, and the Modern Family Wiki – denoted as Wiki below.)

  • Phil and Claire Dunphy’s house.

“Phil is the only one working in the Dunphy family and as a realtor he’s doing very well. The Dunphy house is worth almost $1.8 million, according to Zillow.com.” (SfLA)

“Phil and Claire’s house is a little more traditional, almost as if it’s ripped directly from an early 2000’s catalog. And that was exactly the goal: The space is supposed to be very comfortable and lived in, with a vibe that’s “Pottery Barn meets Restoration Hardware,” production designer Richard Berg told Architectural Digest back in 2012.” (HB)

“It is a detached, suburban home with two living rooms, kitchen/dining room, 2 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, and a garage. Outside it has both a front and back garden with a trampoline.” (Wiki)

  • Jay and Gloria Pritchett’s house.

“According to Zillow.com Gloria and Jay’s house in Brentwood is currently worth more than $8 million. This 6,359 square foot (590 square meters) single family home has 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms and a pool.” (SfLA)

“Fun fact: That exterior is an actual, two-story house in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood, though most of the filming is done on a soundstage. The Modern Family production team had built “80 percent” of the set before finding the perfect house to serve as its exterior, so they had to go back and change its windows and layout to match, Berg said.” (HB)

“It seems to be the largest and grandest house of the three families, as Jay earns a lot of money from his job. Contains 2 floors, a living room, 1 kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a garage…Outside there’s a front garden and a huge pool that is first seen in “The Incident“, and is frequently seen ever since…The real house is located in Brentwood, 15 minutes away from the house used for Mitch and Cam. There is a whole extra wing of the house that is not show in the shots of the house for the show.” (Wiki)

  • Mitch Prichett and Cam Tucker’s house.

“Cameron’s and Mitchell’s house is very near to the Dunphys (well, for L.A., of course). Their house has 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Its worth: $1.3 million (source: Zillow.com).” (SfLA)

“Mitchell and Cameron’s apartment, with its villa style and ivy snaking up the walls, definitely caught people’s attention. It’s a little more romantic, and even though their home would mean settling for less square footage (they live in the ground-floor apartment of the two-story, technically), their interiors tend to be a little more upscale and collected over time. “We saw the couple as being new to the parenthood plateau and fresh off the plane from years of travel and singledom,” Berg told the magazine.” (HB)

“Unlike The Dunphy House or The Pritchett House, it only has one floor, the upstairs is open for rental, revealed in Slow Down Your Neighbors. Their floor contains a living room, 1 kitchen, 1 bathroom, 2 bedrooms, and a garage. It is revealed in “Mistery Date“, that Lily’s bedroom was previously Mitchell’s home office, but they had to give it up for her room. Outside it has both a front and back garden..” (Wiki)

In summary:

The homes are all large and expensive, located near each other west of downtown Los Angeles, are meant to reflect the characters that live there, and have recognizable exteriors that are then recreated on sets where the interior scenes are shot.

Tomorrow, I will compare how the features of each home match up traits of McMansions. In other words, which Modern Family dwelling is the most McMansion-y?

Modern Family a successful TV show for taking place in McMansions

McMansions do not have a positive reputation yet they can serve as the primary setting for popular television shows. For example, Modern Family had a successful run and featured three large homes:

The path of the mockumentary series arcs from a trailer park in Nova Scotia to a McMansion in Los Angeles. In 2001, the Canadian cult comedy Trailer Park Boys inaugurated a soon-to-be-ubiquitous style of show: deliberately messy, handheld camera work paired with confessional interviews and presenting scripted fiction in the style of candid reportage. In 2020, the ABC megahit Modern Family wound down after 11 seasons and 22 increasingly aggravating Emmy wins. Between those two events lies the rise and fall of a genre that was not reality TV, but came up alongside it and echoed its conventions.

Since the rest of the article is more about mockumentaries as a genre than about the residences of main characters in such shows, I will go on the McMansion tangent regarding Modern Family. Here is what is unique about the McMansions on the show:

1. The McMansions are not objects of derision or mockery. The genre may lend itself to this but Modern Family sought to end episodes and story lines with feel-good family togetherness. The characters were portrayed as goofy or quirky suburbanites who otherwise lived normal lives. The McMansion is the center of family life and good things result for the family that lives there. (Compare this to many recent portrayals of troubled families that live in McMansions – see examples here and here. Or, consider the McMansion on The Sopranos.)

2. The homes are all clearly large and their architecture is unique in different ways: Cam and Mitchell’s home has a turret (and supposedly has an upstairs apartment), Jay and Gloria’s home is more modernist, and Phil and Claire’s home tried for a traditional look. In other words, the show displays the variety of McMansions.

3. These are not just large homes; they are expensive homes in an expensive housing market. The Dunphy home went on the market several ago with a price tag over $2 million. The homes are portrayed as normal yet the houses are not within the reach of many viewers.

4. There is little doubt that Modern Family was successful: 11 seasons? 22 Emmys? A long life in syndication? And it happened even with the consistent presence of McMansions, homes critics would say symbolize all sorts of large American problems. Did the show work in spite of the homes? Was it all just one big wink and nod about the characters and their homes?