Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.

Conclusion

These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

Are TV portrayals of NYC housing realistic? An (incomplete) analysis

Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran an interesting analysis of how realistically the housing for numerous New York City characters was portrayed:

TVhousinginNYCWashingtonPostApr17

The article has a detailed breakdown of the housing in Girls and then has summaries for everything else.

Although this does not include every major television show depicted in New York City (I could think of a number off the top of my head), there are two noticeable patterns in the shows discussed in this particular article:

  1. Three popular and influential shows from the 1990s, all ones that supposedly made the city attractive to new generations, showed unrealistically large apartments. The city may look like a fun place to be when everyone has plenty of space and cool stuff.
  2. The number of working class shows here is limited. Television does not do a great job in general portraying the working class – see the documentary Class Dismissed – and this article deals mostly with shows with higher class aspirations.

Additionally, it seems like it would be important to also discuss the field of housing prices within New York City over the last sixty years. Manhattan is one of the most expensive places in the world now but was it always this bad? Additionally, the fates of the boroughs have changed over time.

 

“People want these larger homes”

I’m quoted in a recent Zillow story titled “Upsizing on the Upswing: The Big Decision More Homebuyers are Making“:

The data corresponds with what sociologists are seeing firsthand, says Brian Miller, an associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago. Miller, who studies cities, suburban migration and culture, argues that several factors could be impacting the shift in housing trends, including the strength of the national economy.

“I see a lot about tiny houses and micro apartments in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York — these cities who are really grappling with housing issues and trying to fast-track 200- or 400-square-foot apartments,” Miller says. “And yet the overall pattern across America is that people want these larger houses.

“The economy has gotten better over the last few years,” he continues, with a nod to cities like Dallas, one of the hottest housing markets in the country. “It seems it’s enabled people to [buy large houses] again.”

Popular culture may be influencing this decision as well, Miller adds, pointing to how homes are depicted on television, in both the reality and scripted genres.

“The typical home on TV is huge. Think about the ‘Friends’ apartments, which were impossibly large,” he says. “I’m thinking of HGTV shows I’ve seen over the past few years, where the dining room seats 10 or 12. I don’t have those parties, but if you’re watching HGTV, it just seems like everything is huge.”

I think the larger story goes like this: Americans tend to like large homes and even major financial issues, such as the bursting of the housing bubble, may not be enough to reverse that trend. This does not mean the desire for large homes will continue forever. Yet, major changes need to occur to the economic system and/or enduring values need to shift for Americans as a whole to embrace smaller homes.

Related topics:

McMansions are back.

There are a limited number of tiny houses in the United States.

Suburban TV shows have never dominated TV ratings

One of my studies, From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007, recently came out in print in Sociological Focus. Here is the abstract for the piece and I’ll add a few thoughts afterward:

The majority of Americans now live in suburbs, and a number of scholars have highlighted how various pop culture objects, from novels to television shows, have either reflected or encouraged suburban life. An analysis of the top 30 Nielsen-rated television shows from 1950 to 2007, a period of both rapid suburbanization and television growth, reveals that suburban TV shows did not dominate popular television. There is slightly more evidence for reflection theory with more sets of seasons with higher numbers of suburban-set shows following decades of rapid suburban growth. Additionally, the number of suburban-set shows was also influenced by the popularity of the genres of sitcoms and dramas. These findings suggest a need for further research into why relatively few popular shows were set in suburbs compared to big cities and how viewing settings on television directly influences suburban aspirations and behavior.

In sum: even if suburban set television shows have been a staple of fall lineups and reruns since the 1950s, they often do not rank among the most highly rated and there is limited evidence that they inspired suburban growth.

All that said, I think there is a lot to be done with connecting television depictions of locations with behaviors and attitudes. While Americans still watch multiple hours of TV a day on average, it is not fully clear how all that viewing affects people. What it does mean if the suburbs tend to be depicted in certain ways – either family sitcoms or the underside of happy-looking suburban life – and cities are depicted in other ways – the main setting for crime or police shows, which are heavily represented in top rated shows going back decades? On the whole, few shows are able or willing to deeply delve into a location and its people – such as the celebrated The Wire – even though they have the hours to do so. Does the generic big city or suburb on TV change viewers?

The Bachelorette may be the best use for a McMansion

With the criticism that McMansions receive, are there any contexts where they are appropriate? I submit that The Bachelor/Bachelorette shows are one such setting:

  1. The home needs to be big. The latest version of The Bachelorette started with 31 suitors. Not only is space needed to house all of them, a McMansion has big spaces like the living room or pool area where lots of people can congregate.
  2. The home needs to be garish and over the top.  For a show that knows it can’t take itself too seriously (are the contestants here for “the right reasons”?), the loud house works just fine.
  3. Having a big, well-appointed house fits with the show’s fantasy theme. Everyone knows that most relationships don’t start and/or occur in huge houses, on adventurous and/or fancy dates, and on trips around the globe. But, watching everyone interact in a 1950s ranch home simply wouldn’t fit with the dream-like aspect of the show. (Indeed, it is an interesting contrast to juxtapose the parts of the show that take place in the McMansion versus the home visit weeks where the families of contestants live in more normal settings.) Big features that are clearly visible on TV? Large pool and hot tub? Vaguely Mediterranean style? Check, check, and check.

For the average American household – less than five people – the home used on the show doesn’t make much sense. But, as a key setting for a fanciful TV dating show, it may be perfect.

When a suburb is made out to be racist on a fictional TV show

Many Americans are protective about their own community so it is little surprise that leaders in Crown Point, Indiana were not happy with their portrayal on TV as a place where there is racial antagonism:

Crown Point Mayor David Uran says the city and its residents deserve an apology after the city was depicted as a racist community on the May 10 episode of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”‘…

He said the way show crossed a fictional storyline with a factual place gave the impression the incident is something that occurred or could occur in the city…

As mayor, he said he is always trying to promote inclusiveness in the community to attract people to live, work and play in Crown Point. He said he has reached out to NBC through different emails and is demanding an apology for the city and its residents.

In the episode, “Army of One,” a black man is killed after he was released from jail for a rape that occurred while he was a star high school athlete dating a white girl.

I wonder at the strategy here: would making this case on the website of the Chicago Tribune call more attention to the portrayal? Do people watching TV shows necessarily link the actions on the screen to the specific places named, particularly if the place is relatively unknown (Crown Point is at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan region)? (Police shows do this all the time and it likely influences how many viewers see big cities as cesspools of crime.) Perhaps the mayor is simply standing up for concerned members (and potential voters) of the community.

At the same time, northwest Indiana communities may have struggled with race. How do many of the white communities and residents view Gary? Or, what about the KKK: here is an overview of historical documents from the Crown Point KKK from 1913-1932, the Crown Point activity of the KKK is noted in the academic history Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, and there were rumblings of KKK activity in Lake County in 2005. Additionally, a research project in Northwest Indiana suggests a number of bias incidents between 1990 and 2014. And these struggles wouldn’t be unique to northwest Indiana; this is part of the American story in many communities and suburbs.

From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007

In my study of suburbs, I have run across numerous scholarly sources that discuss the role television played in promoting American suburbs. A number of them suggest that the idealized image of nuclear family life taking place in the single-family home presented in shows in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged Americans to make the move to the suburbs. My recently published paper (published online in Sociological Focus, forthcoming in print) aimed to put these arguments in context: just how common were these suburban television shows? Did such shows reflect the millions of Americans who already moved to the suburbs or create demand for the suburban life?

The short answer: suburban-set TV shows were relatively rare among the top 30 ranked shows from 1950 to 2007. There certainly were some classic shows – ranging from Father Knows Best to Home Improvement – but many of the top 30 shows were set in cities. Here is my concluding paragraph:

Even though the United States has become a suburban nation, its most popular television shows from the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century did not match this demographic shift. The suburban sitcom or drama, satirized in films like Pleasantville or featuring anti-heroes in more recent television shows like The Sopranos, was a relatively rare figure in the top 30 television shows. The suburban show is a recognizable form with its emphasis on family life in a single-family home without much social strife, and new fall lineups continue to include variations on the genre, yet many popular American shows were set elsewhere. Thus, these longitudinal findings suggest popular television shows had a limited influence on pulling and/or pushing Americans to the suburbs. America may be suburban but its most popular television shows are not.

There is much more to explore here. The scholarship on the topic thus far has focused on particular key examples of suburban-set shows but has rarely considered the full scope of television or how exactly watching a show set in the suburbs would change people’s behaviors.