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Sinister hands and full nests: 14 types of family dysfunction

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When it came time to map out The A.V. Club’s Unconventional Family Week, a roadblock was reached: What makes a family unconventional, anyway? Do makeshift clans, like the gang at Cheers or the Toy Story toys, fit the bill? In an effort to dispel confusion on all sides, we decided to define our terms, beginning with the one thing that’s present in all unconventional families, from Adam and Eve’s sibling-slaying brood to Casual’s divorced-mom-with-a-brother-staying-over: Dysfunction. The list below compiles a few of pop culture’s most prominent dysfunctional families, helpfully identifying the specific dysfunction that has befallen them.


1. The Sinister Hand

Identifiable traits: Manipulation; paranoia; deceit; hiding large sums of money
Example: The Bluth family, Arrested Development
Trust is in short supply among members of the Bluth family, who don’t have enough faith in their fellow Bluths to mail an insurance check, let alone run the family business. And so they control one another from near and far, employing tactics that range from pitting brother against brother (a method colloquially known as “boyfights”) to appeasing a familial adversary while simultaneously circumventing their will (a.k.a. “the old reach-around”). A master manipulator like Bluth matriarch Lucille can actively keep the family in line for decades, but even an outwardly noble son like Michael can passively exploit his family’s vulnerabilities to his own advantage—and The Bluth Company’s disadvantage.
See also: The Sopranos, in which The Sinister Hand of Livia Soprano reaches so far, she can order a hit (through her brother-in-law) on her own son from the comfort of a nursing home. [Erik Adams]


2. So That’s How It Is In That Family

Traits: Incest; more incest; stuff that skirts the borders of incest
Example: The Lannisters, Game Of Thrones
Incest is such a huge taboo in Western society that it’s become a pretty tidy narrative tool for marking characters as either hopelessly corrupt or hopelessly warped, depending on their ages and how voluntary the incest was. In the TV series Game Of Thrones and the books it adapts, the long-running sexual relationship between Cersei Lannister and her brother Jamie serves a whole host of narrative purposes. It speaks to Cersei and Jamie’s warped upbringing and their selfishness and sociopathy—they’re willing to casually kill a child to protect their secret, for instance—but also to such a strongly blinkered, insular sense of family that they can’t even care for outside lovers. The fact that Cersei and Jaime have multiple children together, and the rest of the family knows and tolerates the situation, suggests a clan morality as contemptuous toward the outside world as their relationship: It isn’t just one couple’s secret sex life, it’s a way of life that defines non-Lannisters as lower life forms. Underlining the point: When Jamie isn’t available, Cersei takes up with her cousin Lancel. And even her father Tywin steals a lover from his own son, Tyrion. After all, the family that beds together chops off Stark family heads together.
See also: Flowers In The Attic, True Detective [Tasha Robinson]

3. Inherit Vice


Traits: A criminal empire as family business
Example: The Corleones, The Godfather
There’s a reason the “crime family” is a cliché—in fiction, crime lords tend to hand down trusted places in their crime syndicates to their kids. It’s like any business a hard-working mook builds from the ground up: He wants to hand it off to his children so they have stability and a future. (And plenty of guns.) In The Godfather, aging Mafia don Vito Corleone faces a syndicate war, and his son Michael reluctantly steps into his shoes. Michael had hoped to escape being part of a criminal empire, but he’s drawn in to protect his father from assassins, and to avenge his brother, and he shows a ruthless knack for the mafia-don life that makes him a natural to take over the family business. Generational crime sagas like The Godfather assume that crime is a sort of genetic inheritance, and that everyone in the bloodline should be in the business. But they also assume that family ties are as important as inherited aptitude, and a kid raised around the family business will grow up embedded in it and loyal to it.
See also: Virtually any film or show involving the Mafia, the yakuza, Chinese triads, etc., though there are also fantasy and comedy versions of the story: Scott Evil following in Dr. Evil’s footsteps in the Austin Powers movies, for instance, or the entire Malfoy clan being evil servitors of Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise. [Tasha Robinson]

4. Full Nest Syndrome

Identifiable traits: Grown children never leave the house (and often actually bring other people into the household)
Example: The Huxtables, The Cosby Show
While the 1980s’ biggest sitcom was always light on plot, the later seasons did at least have a theme—funky-sweater-wearing patriarch Cliff Huxtable’s attempts to “get all of the children out of the house.” The good doctor, of course, failed miserably, as not only did college-bound Theo never leave, college-dropout Denise came back, with husband and stepdaughter in tow. Even a never-before mentioned distant cousin, Pam, moved into the Huxtable brownstone for the last two seasons. So at a time when most families see their kids head out into the world, the Huxtables ended up with more kids than they started with. As expensive as New York real estate is, they’re probably all still living at home all these years later.
See also: Full House [Mike Vago]


5. Negative Property/Family Values

Identifiable traits: Unsupervised kids (and lots of ’em); inappropriate nudity; rusting cars and broken toilets in front yard
Example: The Gallaghers, Shameless
Woe to anyone sharing a neighborhood with the Gallagher family (in original British or Americanized formula), the unruly, larcenous clan headed (when he’s awake) by an irresponsible alcoholic and peopled by a brood of children of various ages forced to fend for themselves, usually by stealing neighbors’ property, dealing dope, or running any number of scams. If you’re lucky, they’ll just swipe your cable and electricity. If not, look out for your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, car, or credit-card information.
See also: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Royle Family [Dennis Perkins]


6. The Etch-A-Sketch family

Identifiable traits: Short memories; inability to learn or change; occasional asides about never learning or changing
Example: The Simpsons
When you’ve been acting out your family dynamic more than 27 years and nearly 600 episodes, it helps to start from scratch every day, which is the seemingly inescapable fate of the Simpson clan. Sure, a few character traits stick—Lisa’s still a vegetarian, the detritus of the family’s adventures keep piling up in the basement and Homer’s trophy closet—but, for the most part, the Simpsons clan themselves are jerked back to the starting line at the start of the every episode, their fates at the whim of unseen (and sometimes uncomprehending and careless) gods.
See also: Family Guy [Dennis Perkins]


7. The family that slays together stays together


Traits: Murder; insanity; insane murders
Example: The Sawyers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series
Whether psychopathy is a matter of nature or nurture, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a group of related people growing up under the same conditions would all share the same flavor of insanity? At least that’s the vague idea behind murder families like the Sawyers, a kill-happy cannibal clan with noticeably bone-and-skin-focused ideas of what makes good home décor. Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn’t get much into their backstory, apart from making it clear that the mysterious chainsaw-wielding Leatherface came from a household of likeminded murderers who used to work in a slaughterhouse. Later sequels, remakes, and reboots fleshed out the family in more (heh, flesh) detail, and added or subtracted members. But the basic idea remained: In an eerily rural backwater, it feels like everyone’s crazy and like everyone’s related, because they are.
See also: The Cabin In The Woods, House Of 1000 Corpses [Tasha Robinson]

8. The Non-Orphaned Orphan

Identifiable traits: A child is raised by non-parental family members despite having one or more perfectly good parents
Example: The Banks-Smith clan, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air
For Viola Smith, sending her teenage son Will off to spend some time with his wealthy relatives after a run-in with neighborhood toughs was a responsible short-term measure. Except he never comes back. Will’s effectively an orphan, whose Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv take over his upbringing through high school and even college, as if his mother was no longer around. Except she is. She makes several appearances over the course of The Fresh Prince, and yet there’s little to no discussion about the woman who raised Will for 17 years ever stepping back in to finish the job.
See also: King Of The Hill [Mike Vago]


9. Hangin’ By A Thread

Identifiable traits: Distinctly middle-class; the sheer discomfort of watching a family barely function as a unit
Example: The Patakis, Hey Arnold!
Maybe it was a good thing that Nickelodeon passed on The Patakis, the potential spin-off of Hey Arnold! starring Helga and her family, because what’s seen of them in the original series is absolutely devastating. Bob (the overbearing, loud-mouth, controlling patriarch) and Miriam (the meek, “smoothie” abusing, disheveled mother) only seem to pay attention to Olga, their perfect, wonderful, slightly ditsy eldest daughter, leaving Helga to barely fend for herself. How the Patakis manage to stay together despite the sheer, depressive dysfunction of their every appearance is a miracle in itself; part of that may be due to the small, intimate moments of understanding among the members of the family. Those moments just happen to be really, really rare.
See also: The Amazing World Of Gumball, in which the insanity of The Wattersons’ middle-class dysfunction actually allows them to thrive within the city of Elmore’s absurdity. [Kevin Johnson]


10. The Single, Superheroic Patriarch


Identifiable traits: Extreme trust by way of dangerous feats of heroism, sheer egotism
Example: The Mallards, Darkwing Duck
There’s something wonderful yet terrifying about a crimefighting father taking the steps to adopt a troublesome but loyal daughter. But to encourage her to follow in his footsteps? That’s another matter entirely. Drake Mallard, a.k.a. Darkwing Duck, tries his hardest to stop Gosalyn from taking up the mantle of “Quiverwing Quack,” a prepubescent Hawkeye analog, but soon learns to trust her instincts and her spirit, allowing her to thrive heroically in the comically seedy underbelly of St. Canard. Hidden in this story lies the struggles that any adoptive parent will know: raising a child and trying to connect to them despite the lack of a biological connection.
See also: Batman and Robin [Kevin Johnson]

11. They’re Altogether Ooky


Traits: Weirdness; morbidity; a cheery closeness; some monsterism
Example: The Addams Family
Like criminality, oddity is apparently a genetically inheritable trait, even if it doesn’t express itself in as predictable and repeatable a form as blue eyes or dark skin. In the TV and film versions of The Addams Family, none of the family members look or act much alike: They’re a strange collection of visual extremes: tall and skinny, short and rounded, pale and deathly, gibbering and hairy. But they all share a fondness for the macabre and creepy, and they’re all deeply weird, whether they’re welcoming strangers with a hearty introduction to the family’s man-eating plants, or just burying those strangers as an experiment, possibly while they’re still alive.
See also: The Munsters [Tasha Robinson]

12. The Impromptu Parents

Identifiable traits: Suddenly finding themselves taking care of a young ward, being really awkward at it
Example: Baloo, Kit Cloudkicker, Rebecca Cunningham, and Molly Cunningham, TaleSpin
Ignoring the fact that father-figure Baloo allows Kit to glide on a thin piece of metal while hanging out of the back of an airplane, the Jungle Book bear makes for a goofy, if warm-hearted, guardian of the young cub who once lived with air pirates. Baloo never had any intention of raising a kid—he never had any intention of being a contributing member to society, really—but after an insanely daring run-in with Don Karnage and his crew, he wound up with the young Kit. Now they fly the skies together as pilot and navigator, with the help of Rebecca Cunningham, Baloo’s boss at the air-cargo service Higher For Hire. Being a single businesswoman with a child of her own, Rebecca is no slouch, so while collectively the Higher For Hire team makes for a wildly discordant group, together they make for a passable facsimile of a family unit.
See also: Steven Universe, in which three alien heroes known as The Crystal Gems also care for the young and lovable half-human, half-Gem, Steven. [Kevin Johnson]


13. The Cheerful Self-Saboteurs

Identifiable traits: Overexuberance, incompetence, short-term attention span
Example: The Belchers, Bob’s Burgers
Families are supposed to support each other through the rough times, but in the Belcher clan, the problem is that support often leads to the roughest times. Every Belcher is prone to grand flights of fancy, and rather than talk them down or quash their dreams, at least one other member of the family gleefully enables this type behavior. They’ll cheer Linda on whenever she has the itch to perform, willingly support Tina’s misguided quests for boys/zombies/horses, follow Louise on one of her get-rich-quick schemes, or allow Gene to pursue crises of identity that turn him into Beefsquatch or Li’l Bob. And because no member of the family is more sensible than the others—even family patriarch Bob regularly gets wound up to the point of insanity—their involvement amplifies bad ideas into worse ones, and the more Belchers you add, the bigger the explosion. It’s a wonder Bob’s Burgers stays open on a daily basis.
See also: Raising Hope, where none of the Chances are bright or persuasive enough to show a family member the error of their ways. [Les Chappell]


14. Bloodline Of The Gods


Traits: Immortality; immense power; control over the mortal realm; petty infighting

Example: The Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
Like so many major myth cycles, the comics series that made Gaiman’s name centers on a group of relatives far above the mortal realm. In this case, it’s seven siblings, who between them have power over seven aspects of mortal existence. Dream, Death, Delirium, Desire, Destiny, Despair, and Destruction have immense cosmic power and responsibility for their various aspects, but while they’re all defined by their areas of affect, they’re defined just as much by pride and their feeling for each other. Even overseeing all death or desire or dreaming in the universe still leaves plenty of time for meaningful family relationships, whether that comes in the form of brother-sister pep talks or petty millennia-long grudges and hateful schemes. In other words, even immortal creatures who preceded and outlasted gods still can’t get around behaving like family, with all the closeness, frustration, and resentment that involves.
See also: Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology, as well as any fiction derived from or inspired by them. [Tasha Robinson]