For our Family Feud feature for Unconventional Families Week, every day The A.V. Club will select two families from a similar category. One of our writers will make the case for each side, and our fearless Editorial Director Josh Modell will make the call on the final victor. Whether you agree with Josh’s decision or not, be sure to add your vote to our online poll.
Yesterday, Lorelai Gilmore handily defeated Ann Romano in the battle of the single moms. Today, we look at blended families from different decades: The Brady Bunch of the ’70s versus the Step By Step clan of the ’90s. In both cases, two adults with children from a previous marriage wed, doubling their families and adding lots of extra siblings. And both these families, let’s face it, offered painful one-liners, sitcom contrivances, and a plethora of wisecracking kids. But our intrepid writers each make a case for the positive aspects of Brady and Lambert clans. Who will emerge victorious? Let’s play the Feud!
Here’s a point in favor of Mike, Carol, Marcia, Greg, Jan, Peter, Cindy, and Bobby Brady: Their seeming ubiquity was a posthumous phenomenon. The Brady Bunch only ran for five seasons on ABC—that’s two fewer seasons (and one fewer network) than the deathless Lamberts of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Only in syndication did the family become inescapable, their exploits the ideal programming for young viewers whiling away the half hours until their own moms, dads, brothers, or sisters came home. No incarnation of the Bradys ever cracked the Nielsen Top 30, but they found a loyal audience in kids who saw themselves in domestic squabbles about missing dolls, broken vases, and throwing a complete pass to your sister’s face.
And for all their oppressive wholesomeness, there was something radical about the Bradys. A newspaper statistic about the growing number of blended families in America inspired Sherwood Schwartz’s initial pitch; before network executives objected, Carol Brady was a divorcée. It wound up representing a squeaky-clean, no-worries fantasy, but The Brady Bunch started out by acknowledging the difficulty inherent in getting two separate groups of people—with their own established rhythms, customs, and expectations about bathroom fixtures—to co-exist under the same roof. Everybody’s smilin’ during The Brady Bunch’s “Sunshine Day”s, but they came by it more naturally than the Lamberts: Cindy Brady’s lisp was Susan Olsen’s lisp, and Maureen McCormick really stood in the path of that wayward football. [Erik Adams]
Step By Step brought blended families out of the ’70s and into the TGIF lineup when it debuted in 1991 on ABC. The sitcom featured Patrick Duffy as divorced contractor Frank Lambert and Suzanne Somers as Carol Foster, a widowed beautician. Frank and Carol wasted no time getting married after meeting on vacation in Jamaica, but getting all of their kids to get along proved to be a much more involved task.
The Lambert family initially comprised dad Frank, his son J.T., his daughter Al, and youngest child Brendan. Frank took a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting, which means Al started off as a tomboy whose behavior scandalized Carol’s daughters, Dana and Karen, and her nerdy son, Mark. Once all eight members of the family were under one roof, the oil-and-water shenanigans began.
The men were of the grunting, Home Improvement variety, but the show’s women were multidimensional. Carol ran her own business even after marrying Frank, Dana was smart and outspoken, and Al grew up to be a personable young woman who could still pitch a no-hitter. Yes, Karen was mostly a pageant-circuit dud, but she occasionally did nice things, which is more than can be said for Brendan, who literally just disappeared from the show.
And although the Wisconsin they lived in was laughably fake (that’s the Pacific Ocean in the opening credits), the family’s interactions were authentic. The kids acted like kids, and not like Hummel figurines brought to life. Dana and J.T. fought constantly, because he was a boor and she was a feminist. Al got a training bra, Mark went through puberty, and yes, Cindy, people even said the B word. Names were called, lamps were broken, and the goofy cousin that joined the mix became one of its most popular characters, instead of shorthand for a bad idea. [Danette Chavez]
Less annoying: A judge should really hear both sides of the case, and weigh all of the evidence before making a decision. Once again, I have proven to be a terrible judge, having never seen a single episode of Step By Step. (I have, however, been to Port Washington several times. Did you know that the legendary blues label Paramount Records began as an offshoot of the Wisconsin Chair Company, based in Port Washington? It’s true.) Anyway, the question here is about which family is less annoying. Having watched lots of Brady Bunch in my youth, and with only those memories to go on, I will have to say that the Bradys are less annoying. I’m basing that on two things: One, I never found them particularly annoying in the first place. Two, look at the fucking kid with the glasses in that Step By Step picture. He’s not even talking and I’m already annoyed. [Josh Modell]