Family Matters (“Straight A’s”)

Season 1, Episode 5
Date of airing: October 20, 1989 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 22.4 million viewers, 14.2/26 in Households

In which the report card hijinks from Eddie and his best friend Rodney turned the episode into the best one yet, because it happened to be the funniest one yet. The way Eddie’s stupidness was portrayed through the jokes was hilarious and the writers almost created a running joke here by having Eddie be this stupid about everything throughout the entire run of the show. I would love it if Laura continues to tease Eddie with his below-average knowledge of math and science, all while Eddie doesn’t notice he and his stupidity are being made fun of, like the whole Columbia thing which he confused for Colombia. If this actually turns into a running joke, it would show that the writers were able to take certain character flaws and made them permanent by using them to tell jokes and make the audience laugh, and honestly, it’s easy to make people laugh about people who are stupid and don’t know it. Then again, getting four C’s and two B’s should not mean that Eddie is stupid, because that report card proves he must be average or above average at school. I don’t even know why he thought that he was stupid with those four B’s on the report card. One of those two B’s must not have been in math, because he could after all not multiply six with five.

Can they believe it? They definitely don’t question it/

Carl was also kind of stupid in this episode by overreacting this heavily to six A’s on a report card. First of all, the family patriarch should maybe have realized that something was fishy about the report card, but apparently Carl believes anything he sees on paper, without questioning it (so, he votes Republican?). Secondly, celebrating so much about having a smart son while he completely forgets about his smart daughter showed off some of his unconscious sexism. I don’t even know if the writers realized that or even shot for that (I assume it was never the latter, or it would have been noticed during the writing process of this episode and seen as problematic, if not putting it into the story somehow by mentioning how Carl foregoes the smarts of his daughter to rain gifts on his son), but Carl did not figure that five A’s is not good enough for his daughter. Carl did not figure that five A’s is a reason to give Laura the computer system or talk to her about colleges in the future, and Carl did not figure that Laura getting the one B and eating herself up over it did not deserve his empathy or wise words like the ones he gave to Eddie at the end. What was it that gave Eddie so much attention in this episode and why did the writers decide to turn Laura’s report card into the sitcom story of the week, when she should have been the one celebrating? Like Carl was overreacting to his son’s report card, I might be overreacting just a little about the way Laura was treated as a character during this episode.

Rachel gives one of her life lessons, and follows it up with a cutesy moment.

With that in mind, the episode forgot to take care of the other characters in the mix, if you exclude Rachel for a little bit. She may have had that conversation with Eddie about the fake report card, and how Eddie was about to talk to his father after having that conversation with Rachel, but for the life of me I cannot understand why Carl was pretty much the only one celebrating Eddie for his “achievements,” while the rest of the family could apparently not be bothered. Granted, Laura found a way to get all depressed about it, but her behavior didn’t just stem out of the fact that Eddie brought how straight A’s all the way, but because her father neglected her (and to of course make a joke about a B minus making her college aspirations much harder), but I would have loved seeing both matriarchs of the family say something about Eddie and his report card, and how they were proud of the boy, and how they were disappointed at the end when the truth revealed itself. I guess it will take a while for FAMILY MATTERS to get into that part of the show, and for the writers to have known that their show is a success and will be on television for nine years. But this episode was definitely a missed chance in that regard.

Family Matters (“Rachel’s First Date”)

Season 1, Episode 4
Date of airing: October 13, 1989 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 20.8 million viewers, 13.1/25 in Households

Jaleel White was in the cold open of this episode. This shocked me, because I thought he would appear for the first time halfway through the season. I understand that the first episodes of FAMILY MATTERS were reworked just slightly in the editing room to get a little more out of Steve Urkle during the show’s syndication airings, but does that also mean scenes were shot after the season wrapped production just to add them into episodes randomly to make it look like Urkle had been part of the show forever? Or might this have been a scene that comes from a later episode? After all, Urkle was asking for Laura already, and Carl said to him “Once again you’ve come between me and the things that I love,” which suggests that Urkle has been annoying the Winslow family already and it’s just another Urkle comedy moment like most of them probably will be through the back half of the season and maybe the next one. I need some of my answers questions, because it sure as hell looks like this scene was added way after the initial airing of this episode. Someone George Lucas’d this half hour of television.

It’s a summer dress for her date.

This was a solid episode otherwise. I’m loving the moments during which the show turns into a more serious route and delivers an enthusiastic and heartwarming monologue about how life should be better for the characters and how they can’t just sit back and let things happen to them. Mother Winslow was definitely out to give Rachel a meaningful and thorough life lesson to have the heart grow two sizes, and Rachel’s story of needing to get over her late husband was definitely here to showcase that FAMILY MATTERS appreciates life stuff and that it’s not always about the punchline or the sitcom stuff. Maybe this will be an element that turned FAMILY MATTERS into the hit show that it was about to become, and it’s probably a good thing I don’t remember anything about it, since the last time I watched it on television was when it aired on a week-daily rhythm in German television, which was probably more than 15 years ago.

So, Rachel went on a date with a guy she blew off constantly, which means Alan must have tired many times to convince Rachel to go out on a date with him. The fact that he was still trying must mean he is a creep, and 30 years later this episode would have included a plotline about how Rachel was trying to say “No” without actually using the word and then reluctantly going out on a date with Alan, because she felt she couldn’t handle the negativity coming out of being her own person. That only shows FAMILY MATTERS has lost the momentum of being a timeless show, although that was already happening due to the way the Winslow family was being portrayed by its cast members — there is a sense of the series being a family sitcom from the 1970s, in which kids are here to entertain and make the adults either laugh or feel humiliated (I never knew what Alan felt, because visited both ends of the spectrum), while the storytelling remained with the adults in the room only.

“Which card am I holding?”

Anyway, Rachel went on a date, which means her back story of her husband’s death is probably going to disappear now, which is not a hard thing to do, since it hasn’t been part of the show for its first three episodes. It may have been mentioned once or twice, but it’s not like it has been used as a back story to inform Rachel’s decision-making, up until this episode. And even then, chances are Rachel won’t be dealing with her grief majorly over the next few episodes, as FAMILY MATTERS will continue to focus on stand-alone stories that won’t define or develop the characters. Which is also something that could change in the future of the show after the writers and producers realized it was a hit show and kept ABC’s Friday going, eventually turning it into one of the center pieces for their TGIF block.

Family Matters (“Short Story”)

Season 1, Episode 3
Date of airing: October 6, 1989 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 22.6 million viewers, 14.0/26 in Households

In which my favorite character so far owns the story of the episode, making it a better half hour than it probably has any right to be. At this point in the show, FAMILY MATTERS was still trying to find its tone and its reason for existence, but even three episodes in it’s sort of like ay other family sitcom that has aired before. The cast hasn’t been able to stand out so far, the writing has been nothing special, and the jokes don’t sit all the time, yet there is something fascinating about the show, which I cannot put to words just yet. Maybe it’s the fact that it revolves around an African-American family, which means there are parts of culture in the show I wouldn’t recognize as such, but still notice that they are there. But to know what is fascinating about FAMILY MATTERS after three episodes, I have to do research and I’m one of the lazy ones on this planet, so research is pretty much out. It does make me wonder though how much the show and the characters will change when FAMILY MATTERS gets rebooted only slightly, and how many of the characters that I’m watching now are still part of the show three or four years in. They all seem replaceable, and no one is really going to notice that they may get recast. I would notice if Rachel is gone though.

It’s a visual depiction of Rachel’s writer’s block.

Her story became a little predictable halfway through, when she was persuaded to write a story about her family, instead of something about she has no knowledge of, like truckers and tattoos. As soon as that premise was there, it was obvious her story would sell and it was clear that some Winslow family members would have a problem with the way Rachel saw the family. It’s a good thing then that the story led to a fallout between Rachel and Harriet, which led to the information that the two are sisters — up until this point the show wasn’t really clear whose sister Rachel was, but now that we now she is Harriet’s sister, the writers were able to create a dynamic between the two, let alone something that would resemble their sisterhood. In this episode they may just have looked like two people who had a disagreement about something specific, but since it’s still early in the show and the writers were still trying to find an angle to make this a potentially long-lasting television sitcom, creating a dynamic between certain family members is a good idea. But this being a 1980s show, it could be a little difficult to even get to that dynamic in the first season.

Eddie doesn’t need new high-tops, he needs a new shirt.

In hindsight, maybe the story was a little too thin for this episode, but then again I am starting to realize that FAMILY MATTERS may generally have the problem of not having enough material to put into a narrative, which is why this episode felt only halfway filled up. A lot could have been done with Harriet and Rachel’s conflict, but the writers needed a while to even get to that premise, and suddenly the episode already passed the halfway mark. In addition, the other characters weren’t really involved in Rachel’s little problem. Granted, Eddie thought he was the man of the world and he needed to go on dates with all the women (especially that one specific girl he had a crush on), but that was just the comedy part of this sitcom episode, and it wasn’t particularly funny either. In fact, when he came back home with a ripped shirt, but otherwise completely healthy and fine, as if he didn’t get into a fight at all and instead just got stuck on a fence that ripped his shirt (it happened to me and my glorious Wonder Woman shirt — not there is a huge hole on the sleeve, because a tiny part of the fence was sticking out towards the walkway, and I was walking very close to the fence), I was actually wondering why someone would beat him up over asking a girl on a date. “Bubba” must not have been a considerate boyfriend for Eddie’s crush, and any guy who beats up another guy for asking a simple question should be checked for aggressive behavior.

Family Matters (“Two-Income Family”)

Season 1, Episode 2
Date of airing: September 29, 1989 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 21.1 million viewers, 12.8/24 in Households

Since I’m not black, I don’t know which stories are a predominantly black experience, or if those stories are being lived through the general population of the middle-class United States of America. Losing a job and feeling how tight the budget can be in your extended family seems like the perfect story for a middle-class, blue collar family, but Harriet having to deal with Mr. Seeger and giving him a speech that can change minds sounded like it could have come straight out of the life of an actual black family. Harriet may have never had the job at the Chronicles because she is a woman, and the 1980s didn’t like having women in executive and management position, but the way she gave her future boss her mind felt like it could only have come from the matriarch of a black family.

Rachel has her child slaves working for her.

And it definitely was a great speech. For once being the housewife and mother actually pays off, although it only does so in a scripted narrative, and luckily that also happens to a fictional black woman. I am wondering though if Harriet’s speech inspired a lot of other black women to do the same during job interviews, and how many of them were hired at the end of that process. Because I can’t really believe that 1980s white managers were thinking of black women who spoke their mind as managerial personalities, because really, who back then wanted to be bossed around by a black woman? It’s not like racism was gone at the time (hell, it’s still present today), so FAMILY MATTERS could essentially be seen as a fairytale television show for black families — for them to see what their lives can look like when they don’t have to handle with racist neighbors while also having a pretty-looking family house and kids who don’t annoy you all day and night.

But I liked the story of the episode in general. There was a sense of family unity among the Winslows after Harriet lost her job, even if the first part was sort of used to make fun of Carl (after all it was his fault why she lost her job). While I didn’t quite get what Rachel was doing with the girls (at first it looked like they were putting resumes and cover letters into envelopes for Harriet to send out, but that was never specified), the fact that everyone was hoping for the best and wishing Harriet luck made me almost feel at home. I never had that kind of family life at home, so in a way I’m living vicariously through the Winslows right now, which I was not expecting to say at all after just two episodes. Disney Channel family sitcoms already give me the good and positive feelings I need after following the news on television and Twitter, but now it turns out I can also watch FAMILY MATTERS. By the way, is that even correct behavior of your new manager to not tell you, but a different person on the phone that you got the job after all? Shouldn’t Seeger have told that Harriet herself? How much of a good manager can this guy be when he tells the wrong person that someone was just accepted for a new job?

Maybe that resume is not that bad after all?

Meanwhile, Eddie was saving money for some new high-tops, and of course I could not connect with that story at all, because I never saved money for specific shows. When I buy shoes, they just have to look not like crap and they have to fit, but Eddie apparently dreams of shoes from current basketball stars, which means the kid is very materialistic. I hope that’s a consistent character flaw for Eddie, because there are potentially funny stories in that, especially when he comes down the stairs to ask his father if he can have the latest tech from Radioshack. By the way, what exactly are Eddie’s interests? We might only be two episodes in, but at this point it’s time for the writers to get into who the character are and what they could be if they weren’t stuck in a primetime family sitcom. Who Harriet is we have seen already, and we sort of know who Rachel is (her writing hasn’t been mentioned here, so imagine my sad face), but the other characters are bland after 48 minutes. Hopefully that’s gonna be rectified soon, but if not, then I can understand why FAMILY MATTERS was later slightly retooled via Jaleel White.

Family Matters (“The Mama Who Came to Dinner”)

Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: September 22, 1989 (CBS)
Nielsen ratings information: 21.9 million viewers, 13.9/25 in Households

Sitcoms with an African-American cast were airing on German television and I was watching them, but for obviously white reasons, I never considered those shows important enough to watch them on a regular basis, let alone own them. I have tried a few of the black sitcoms that FOX was still airing (the last one being BROTHERS from 2009, which wasn’t a show worthy of anyone’s time), but at the end of the day the cast was black and I am not. A decade later and I see FAMILY MATTERS has been re-released in high definition, which I find to be enough of a reason to consider bringing the show into my schedule. And here we are now — the only thing I can remember about FAMILY MATTERS is Steve Urkle, but other than that it’s like I am watching this show for the very first time. After all, it has been about 20 years until I last saw the show, when it aired together with other American sitcoms in a daily repeat rotation in the late afternoon, early evenings on German channel ProSieben (the only show still airing on that slot today that also aired back then is THE SIMPSONS). And it’s probably a good thing I’m getting acquainted with this show, because I always believed that the particular character who was being made the star of the show in future seasons was only included into the narrative, because ABC needed a little retool of it to save it from a crash and burn in the ratings game. Turns out that Urkle will be introduced halfway into this season, which I did not know before I started watching. And that makes me wonder how different the show will be in its first few weeks, when its greatest star hasn’t even been thought of.

Sure, get the younger one to carry all the heavy stuff!

And honestly, FAMILY MATTERS doesn’t really have a unique element to it in its first episode. The African-American cast could be considered unique, but it’s not like the cast makes the show. Story-wise, this episode was like any other family sitcom in existence, and writing-wise, it didn’t have the special comedy skill set that could make FAMILY MATTERS an absolutely hilarious show. I chuckled once or twice throughout the episode, but if I were to compare it with today’s sitcoms, I have to say that some Disney Channel shows are more hilarious than these first 24 minutes of FAMILY MATTERS. But things could still get better. After all, FAMILY MATTERS was on the air for nine years, so something must have worked (and I really hope that something won’t be Urkle). But what I got after one episode was an extended family whose members weren’t properly introduced, and with stories that could have been confused for any other sitcom with a white family. FAMILY MATTERS could in fact be a white family sitcom, but the characters are played by African-Americans. There isn’t much value behind all of it, making the premiere episode as generic as possible, which would make the show as difficult as possible to find entertaining.

It wasn’t even much of a pilot episode, although Grandma Winslow moving into the Winslow household could be considered an entry point into the narrative, as the house was just enriched by a new character who is about to stir some trouble. Other than that, when you don’t even give two of the characters you consider central to the family names in this episode, then one might question whether this was a truly well-written episode. Not only did Rachel’s baby boy not get a name during these 24 minutes, but Eddie and Laura’s little sister also remained nameless for this episode (probably because she was recast after this half hour), which begs the question if the writers even cared establishing a base for this show and make the audience care about the characters. In sitcoms you have a bit of leeway, because most viewers tune in to laugh, which means the jokes have to work, but the jokes were only so-so white, and a quarter of the credited cast members remained nameless. I’m actually impressed that this pilot was winked through the development stage at ABC, but then again, maybe the African-American cast helped to get this show on the air, considering the criticism broadcast networks must have been receiving over always casting white people.

Mother and son have reunited and buried the hatch.

There are still a few things I liked about the episode. Rachel turns out to be my favorite character after the first half hour, even though I’m not quite sure whose sister she really is, Carl’s or Harriet’s (it’s assumed that she and Carl are siblings, but then again, Carl told his mother that she was raising five boys, so she might easily be Harriet’s sister). Her attempt at writing a romance novel was intriguing, because not only was she treating her story like a soap opera, including hungry sharks who like to eat people, but also because here is a character who is working on an established career. It is said that Carl is a cop, but he was never put in uniform to put this character background into a visual theme, but at least Rachel was actively trying to write and think about where her story should be heading. Also, I loved Rachel’s talk with Laura, even if it barely happened to be about anything. When they were talking about Rachel’s book, they essentially repeated what Harriet was already telling Rachel. And when Laura wanted to get more serious and talk about the trouble in the house with Carl and his mother, it was used for a joke only. Here is to hoping that FAMILY MATTERS will not only get more into the characters over the next couple of episodes, but also deliver a reason for its existence beyond its cast. Because after 24 minutes, FAMILY MATTERS is pretty much a white family sitcom dressed up in a black cast.