“It’s a rare condition, in this day and age, to read any good news on the newspaper page. Love and tradition in the grand design some people say is even harder to find. There must be some magic clue inside these gentle walls. Because a gentle heart’s an opportunity.” Obviously, it’s a demonstrable fact that the true genius behind ABC’s powerhouse TGIF lineup of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was theme song composer Jesse Frederick, a genius who could survey three men raising three daughters in San Francisco and muse, with his distinctly adult-contemporary drollness, “Whatever happened to predictability?” Who could counteract the dances of joy executed by a self-propelled, manic Euro-vague in his cousin Larry’s uptight flat by going on about “the wings of our dreams.” Who could somehow possess the foresight to realize that a spinoff show about a middle-class black Chicago family even more boring than the Tanner clan would, at some point in its first season, take a hard left turn into the sort of violent surrealism only children seem capable of processing.
Watching Family Matters emerge in its first season, you get the sense the show was never actually meant to do more than retain maybe 60, maybe 65 percent of the audience tuned into its lead-in Full House. The first dozen episodes are formulaic to a fault: befuddled husband, sassy but wise wife, dumb jock son, sassy but wise daughter, rough and ready grandma, sassy but wise aunt, baby, and disposable extra child to be utilized whenever it would make for cleaner blocking. The plots lacked even the characters’ nuance: report-card jitters, first dates, lost jobs, bosses treated to dinner at home, family bonds torn asunder over bowling competitions, family heirlooms accidentally sold at family rummage sales, dogs hidden from the one family member who supposedly hates dogs but actually secretly loves them so much they can’t bear to lose another one, bathrooms remodeled unadvisedly without contractors’ involvement to save a few pennies and boost egos.
Come to think of it, take all the dicks out of the house, lighten skin tones to creamy beige, lose the occasional Bobby Brown on the soundtrack, and invite one or two more gays to the writers’ table and the first half of the first season of Family Matters is The Golden Girls. Which is to say the show was pleasant and diverting in the sort of diluted, Yasujiro-Ozu-sans-surprise way certain American sitcoms can approximate. The sort of show you could watch until tranquilized if you found your Friday-night social calendar unexpectedly barren.
And then audiences and show producers alike were handed a surprise of their own when a day player named Jaleel White stepped on the set for a one-off bit as the nerd next door, Steve Urkel. Like an early Christmas gift, Urkel pushed his oversized glasses up his nose, hiked up his high-waters, and begged for cheese on the show’s December 15, 1989 episode, in which pudgy patriarch Carl Winslow, feeling sorry for his sassy daughter Laura’s inability to get a date for the school dance, recruits Urkel to take her out. What’s surprising about watching that first Urkel appearance now is that he seems almost sedately indifferent to Laura and the gang. But by January of 1990, he was pestering them on a full-time basis, transforming a would-be heartwarming sitcom about the bonds and gentle walls that keep a loving family together in George Bush Sr.‘s kinder, gentler nation into a sitcom about a runty boy so irritating to his own neglectful, abusive parents he has no choice but to seek kinship with his neighbors.
Ignoring the lesson that a little of anything potent will go a long way, the suits at ABC pushed Urkel into the spotlight until various family members, frustrated by the lack of screen time given them in their own home, began defecting without explanation (a situation almost knowingly exploited on the DVD cover, with the family, barely in focus, situated well behind a mugging Urkel). It wasn’t long before the absurdity of it all began creeping into the show’s gestalt and it wasn’t enough to just give over the bulk of the storylines to Urkel. Nope, that’s when the writers introduced Steve’s Southern-belle cousin Myrtle Urkel, to soon be followed with Urkel’s own Buddy Love, Stefan Urquelle, and his thuggin’ other cousin Cornelius “Gangsta Dawg” Urkel. All iterations of the Urkel DNA seemed increasingly hell-bent on turning the life of the Winslows inside out, so much so that the show itself ultimately wound up some sort of nutzoid sci-fi freakout, with Urkel inadvertently inflicting abuse on the increasingly violated Carl, in particular. The first season doesn’t quite edge far enough into the show’s no-turning-back era of geek Dada, but it shows the seed planted. As days went by, it was the bigger love of TV ratings that destroyed this family.
Do you honestly care? It looks and sounds like it looked back when it first ran on standard-definition TV. You want more? Drop acid before viewing.
Nothing but some delightfully terse episode descriptions. For "The Party" (airdate 2/3/90): "With the adults gone, Eddie decides to spend the evening with a good book…not!"
It's a predictable condition, in this day and age, to see Urkel look-alikes on the LATFH.com page.