Misty watercolor memories: rediscovering “Family”

I haven’t caught much on daytime for eons. Sometimes a scene or story makes me want to tune in here and there. (Of all shows, GL’s nemesis GH has me the most curious lately, first with Laura’s new family members, and now with the sure-to-be-delicious confrontation between Laura Wright and Cynthia Watros.)

I haven’t really found a soap, day or night, that hits me square in the feels, though “Ted Lasso” has certainly had me in tears too many times to count, and “Hacks” delivers more than just jokes.

But a few months ago, I discovered a show that has been living rent free in my head since the first episode I watched. That show is “Family.”

Home sweet home

Many of my readers will be familiar with Family, but I’ll give you the details anyway: The show ran on ABC for five seasons in the late 1970s. It featured veteran actors Sada Thompson and James Broderick, as Kate and Doug Lawrence. The show also gave Meredith Baxter a higher profile, and launched Kristy McNichol’s career into the stratosphere.

The title was, well, the premise. The reputation of its lead actors, as well as the “A Mike Nichols Production” credit that appeared on screen, gave the show some extra luster – in the T&A TV era that very much was the late 70s, Family appears to have been ABC’s entry in the prestige drama sweepstakes.

It was an episodic series, but it did have some continuing elements. The romantic trials and tribulations of Nancy (played by Baxter, then known as Meredith Baxter Birney) and Willie (Gary Frank) were often the center of a given episode.

I found it interesting that Nancy was often depicted as a selfish princess, disconnected from the needs of other family members. And Willie – I mean, there’s a whole lot of therapy sessions needed to analyze his issues – a high school dropout whose main characteristic seems to be playing the knight in shining armor for women in some kind of trouble – the “injured bird” syndrome.

While some episodes are straightforward for that era, many episodes had nuanced and powerful stories and depictions – for that era, and even for now.

One episode, where Kate serves jury duty, seemed a bit lurid at first (as a soap fan, it screamed “SWEEPS MONTH!” to me.) While some of the language and attitudes in the episode feel outdated now, it made one of the earliest arguments I’ve seen that respectability politics shouldn’t be playing into whether someone gets a fair shake by the police or a fair trial.

The one that really amazed me was an episode from the second season where Willie’s friend is arrested in a gay bar, and forced to come out to Willie. I’ll try to save you some of the story to discover for yourself if you watch it, but the jaw-dropping moment was watching two characters – Willie and his father – talk about times in their own lives where they experienced same-sex crushes.

Like I said, nuanced and powerful.

There’s been no shortage of soap actors on the episodes I’ve viewed so far. The professor chasing after Nancy (clearly pre-MeToo era) was played by David Hedison, later AW’s Spencer Harrison. The shameless hussy who tried to hit on Doug? Pat Crowley (the original Rebecca on Generations).

Some of the writers also have daytime connections – Bethel Leslie, who was one of the Maggies on The Doctors for several years, co-wrote the gay-themed episode mentioned above, and Anne Howard Bailey, who wrote for numerous daytime shows, wrote the episode featuring Crowley. I’m sure I’ll find more connections as I go along.

It’s all new to me – I was too young to watch and too young to stay up late enough to see this the first time around – and some things clearly hit my emotional buttons. The Lawrence’s house reminds me a bit of my neighborhood – well, a much nicer version of it, anyway. The beautiful theme music and set design takes me to a time and place.

I mentioned to my husband how I was responding in such an emotional way to so many episodes. With his customary clarity, he hit the nail on the head.

“Well, I know. Kate is reminding you of your mother.”

Bingo.

Somewhere, I have photos of Mom with this same haircut……

Kate is the glue that holds Family together. She’s calm, cool and collected most of the time, but do NOT mess with Kate, because she WILL cut you. There are so many layers to Kate, and Sada Thompson plays them all perfectly.

Kate reminds me of many women in my life – a few of my friends’ moms, for sure, and yes, even a few daytime moms as well. (hello, Kim Hughes and guten tag, Bert and Maureen Bauer).

Mom wasn’t fond of a house dress, and while she had many talents, cooking was NOT one of them! But some of the other parallels between Kate and my mom are almost eerie.

Mom was the mom that the other kids could talk to and confide in. She was fond of her youngest, understanding and empathetic when that youngest child felt out of place with the others. (Not that I ever had a cool nickname like “Tizzylish.”)

And, like Kate, Mom decided to return to school.

There are many more parallels I could list, but I suppose that was the very point of these characters, that so many of us would find the happenings within these walls to be so universal.

So far, I am glued to the TV (Tubi, to be exact) to see what happens next.

EDITED TO ADD: Many of you know Lynn Liccardo, a fellow fan and P&G scholar. She and I often find ourselves in “great minds think alike” moments.

Lynn wrote about the show in an earlier essay that does a great job of drawing parallels to a soap family. She also reminded me that Family producer Mark Rydell was another soap connection (see her post for details). The connections between ATWT and Family are fascinating.

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