No reasonable person would claim that the late-'70s TV drama Family was the equal of Yasujiro Ozu's work, but comparisons to the late Japanese master of the domestic sketch aren't completely crazy. At a time when television was obsessed with the changing nature of the American family—in shows like the PBS reality series An American Family—Family was still fairly radical, in that it set out to deal with the everyday problems of ordinary upper-middle-class Pasadena suburbanites. Among those problems? Adultery, divorce, alcoholism, rape, homosexuality, and speed addiction. (So maybe the producers fudged a bit on the "everyday" and "ordinary.")
What's remarkable about Family even now is how that creative team—including Jay Presson Allen, Mike Nichols, and Aaron Spelling—integrated controversial topics into flat melodrama. The 28 episodes on the Family: The Complete First And Second Seasons DVD display an almost ruthless economy. A day begins. Lawyer dad James Broderick, stay-at-home mom Sada Thompson, divorced eldest daughter Meredith Baxter-Birney (or, in the first season, Elayne Heilveil), restless grown son Gary Frank, and tomboyish teenage daughter Kristy McNichol eat breakfast together, then go their separate ways. One of them learns something troubling about a close friend. They discuss the subject extensively in their tastefully decorated A-frame home. A resolution is reached. Time for bed.
Family doesn't feature much shouting—maybe one loud confrontation per episode—and most of the major crises happen to people outside the immediate family circle, which frequently requires guest appearances by actors on the rise, like Tommy Lee Jones and James Woods. The dialogue is well-written, but it's delivered without much juice and with overlong pauses. A lot of the drama plays out in body language and blocking, like something out of, well, Ozu.
Watch enough episodes of Family, and gradually the questions about whether mom will go back to college or sis will come to grips with puberty fall away, replaced by more important things. Family is really about screen doors, grandfather clocks, beauty salons called "Genevieve Coiffeurs," Chinese cooking classes, well-tailored clothes, and the way a judgmental mother and her self-absorbed clan relate to each other in terms of physical space. It's a how-to model for living well in the 1970s.
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