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Family Matters made a glass-half-full sitcom out of black respectability politics

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Lifetime debuting The Unauthorized Full House Story, we take a look at some favorites from the TGIF era.

Family Matters, “Original Gangsta Dawg” (season nine, episode 10; originally aired December 5, 1997)

Vulture recently explained the rise and decline of the “very special episode” in a video that naturally took a few jabs at Family Matters, one of several Miller-Boyett sitcoms to come at the tail-end of the social-issues sitcom age. Of all the TGIF shows, Family Matters was in the best position to pull off a very special episode, given its focus on the Winslows, a Chicago-based African-American family with a police officer patriarch. To delve into issues around race, class, and gun violence in urban communities was no more challenging for Family Matters than for Good Times, another sitcom vision of black life in Chicago.

But Matters’ advantageous premise didn’t result in boundary-pushing work, which, granted, was hard to do to within the boundaries of the heartwarming, blue-skies tone that had become Miller-Boyett’s house style. The far bigger issue was that over the course of its nine-season run, as the show tilted toward breakout star Jaleel White and numerous iterations of his gimmicky Urkel character, Family Matters became completely untethered from reality. The show’s escalating insanity peaked in the final two seasons, the latter of was aired by CBS after the network purchased the show (along with Step By Step) from ABC in hopes of poaching the TGIF audience. By the end of season eight, Family Matters was essentially a live-action Family Guy. White played seven different alter egos of Steve Urkel, and the writers had blithely incorporated such elements as international teleportation and time travel.


Season nine would conclude with Steve and his life-long crush Laura Winslow (Kellie Shanygne Williams) falling in love after he returns home alive from a perilous trip to space, but before that, Family Matters took a detour into “respectability politics.” The term has come up frequently during the recent rash of anti-black police violence, a trend in which example after example has demonstrated that for black people, it’s not possible to comport yourself in a manner that will protect you from aggressive police behavior. When “Original Gangsta Dawg” premiered near the end of 1997, the argument around respectability politics had yet to be widely scrutinized. The idea was that anti-black police violence was related to negative stereotypes that could be overpowered by efforts to look, speak, and behave in ways that counter those harmful narratives.

“Original Gangsta Dawg,” named after White’s newly introduced seventh alter-ego character, advances the argument in an admirably facile manner. Steve’s wayward cousin Cornelius shows up, demanding the Winslows address him as OGD, including police officer Carl (Reginald VelJohnson.) Within minutes of meeting each other, OGD and Carl are at odds about police harassment of young black men and whether OGD brings the unfair treatment on himself by dressing like a corner boy. The episode takes a hard left by inducting OGD into the fraternity of Urkel alter egos vying for Laura’s attention. By the time the social-issue A-plot is brought back around, Carl has redeemed OGD’s opinion of police by arresting Fresh Squeeze, a violent bookie looking to settle OGD’s debt with him.

Few half-hours of television have been weirder than “Original Gangsta Dawg,” which includes a split-screen three-way call between OGD, who is pursuing Laura at a local nightclub, suave alter-ego Stefon, who is preparing to walk in a Milan fashion show, and Steve, who for some reason is on a nuclear submarine. Oh, and Missy Elliott is performing at the nightclub, because why not? But it makes for an interesting companion piece to Straight Outta Compton, which makes the exact opposite argument about anti-black police violence and whether specific standards of behavior can stave it off. There’s a poignant naivete to “Original Gangsta Dawg,” which aired during a time when shows with African-American casts weren’t four-leaf clovers, and there was greater hope that police officers could make peace with the communities they serve.

Availability: “Original Gangsta Dawg” is available on DVD and for digital purchase on Amazon Instant Video.