Family Matters is the cornerstone of many childhoods. A positive portrait of Black familial love that we all used as a yardstick by which to measure our own lives, and hold as an example to others. A great achievement in Black American television. Well, when it wasn’t just seen as The Urkel Show.
I jest. Though Steve Urkel possessed a laugh that will never cease to haunt me for the rest of my days, growing up a child of the 90’s, Urkel was an important pop cultural figure. In many ways, he was the media prototype for the Blerd, the first of his kind on TV. A chance for the diversification of the Black experience as filtered through the eyes of the media, and eventually, a character so iconic and pervasive it would drive a stake through Jaleel White’s acting career (R.I.P, Me, Myself and I). I will say something possibly controversial: Urkel was a step forward for Black representation, as over-the-top as he was.
Which is why, in this nostalgia-fueled era, I feel that it’s finally time to take a look back. A look back at all the things about this show that made us laugh, cringe, and want to punch Steve Urkel in the throat.
It’s Family Matters Episode Zero, the pilot of an unlikely spin-off of a show about a simple immigrant named Balki Bartokomous.
Let’s start from the beginning, when the Winslows were but a simple middle-class family living in Chicago, dealing with normal problems, like paying the bills — not cloning chambers and nasally weapons of destruction.
Hearing that ‘choochoochoochoochoo’ before the credits brings back so many memories. Probably because of this being the very first episode we get a special extended version of the theme song, along with extra little vignettes of the Winslows engaging in innocent family-friendly activities, like bicycling and playing a pick-up game of hoops. It really drives home what a different show this was conceived to be.
You know what is also different? The cast portrait for Judy Winslow:
Poor, neglected Judy Winslow. A tenuous existence from the beginning. Judy was the original Meg.
We open on the living room set of the Winslow house, and despite the fact that it ends up changing a bit from this episode, I really love the design. It’s homey and traditional whilst being a tad bit more realistic in scope than most family sitcom homes.
We meet our first of the main characters – Ma and Pa Winslow of course. Possibly my fav TV mother, the beautiful, glamorous Harriette Winslow —- who was originally the character from Perfect Strangers for whom the series was developed for in the first place. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Harriette and her husband Carl are arguing over what is a typical sitcom storyline trope — a troublesome relative (in this case Carl’s mother) is moving in to live with the family. My lord, I forgot what a wet blanket Carl was. He’s not exactly the bumbling but well-meaning husband archetype, but he really gives off the impression that his first duty upon waking up in the morning is to whine about how the universe is out to get him while reminding his wife to fix him pancakes for breakfast.
The kids file in for their introductions, and proto!Judy is cute, not that great an actress, and interestingly enough, has more lines in this episode than regular!Judy’s entire time on the show.
The only son, Eddie is doing chores around the house in a bid to earn his parent’s approval to stay out late for a party. The thing about Eddie is this: he is an endlessly problematic (man)child. The kid’s character sheet for the writer’s room was: Laura: good child; Eddie: problem child (and Judy:?). But seriously, Eddie does some amazingly dumb stuff on the regular, but he’s just a boy so I guess we’re gonna excuse it as part of the growing up process.
Grandmama Estelle Winslow makes her appearance and she is just the most adorable thing ever — presumably to cover for her ‘bad side’ — that she reveals later is in all honesty not that bad. Her only flaw is that she’s a little blunt and assertive which makes you wonder how she ended up with such a dishrag of a son.
I almost forgot Rachel was a character on this show until her intro scene. There is really less justification for her being on the show than Judy. I’m thinking, and I can’t recall a single significant thing she brought to the show. Well, she’s Hariette’s sister, and she sings. And she has a baby, Ritchie, who she’s feeding in the kitchen. Even her son will become more of a major character once he gets a magical age lift next season. And starts morphing into Michael Jackson for some reason.
Enter Laura and proto!Judy for some sibling squabbling. So far, Laura comes across as a bratty half-pint whose primary job is to bully proto!Judy about being young. And you know, that kind of sisterly sibling rivalry could have been an interesting dynamic if the writers/producers could have been assed to do anything with Judy besides shoving her in the attic once Urkel came along. I might be doing a little much over Judy here, but I secretly always mourned her absence because I could never relate to Laura. Especially after they morphed her into a Mary Sue boy-magnet later on (Maxine was where it’s at).
Grandma has a little pow-wow with Eddie and through logic and sound reasoning agrees that he should go to the party. ‘Uh oh!’ indicates the 80’s sitcom music.
Though Mama Winslow does step a bit over the line here — the ultimate problem is that if Carl was less of a passive aggressive twat he would have the foresight to see that there’s room for compromise in the situation.
Whoops! Forgot Rachel is a writer/singer/songwriter whatever. She’s writing a novel in her room that is predictably horrible. Rachel has more than a few things in common with fellow perennial failure/family leech “Uncle” Joey from Full House, but at least her family is honest about her lack of talent. No wonder she jumped on that cruise ship gig as soon as she had the chance.
We also get some backstory about Rachel, as she and Laura mention that Rachel is living with the family because of her husband’s untimely death.
Soon it’s time for dinner and for everyone to complain about all the things grandma’s not doing because the truth is she’s not really doing anything other than refusing to be a damn doormat in her own family. Then here comes sad sack Winslow who whines about grandma taking “his” chair, and proto!Judy and Laura engage in some more sibling rivalry.
And here’s something we’re not liable to see on a family show in 2017 — prayer. Although to be fair, the prayer around the dinner table is clearly a coded “Black” thing to add to this Black family sitcom. Never saw a Tanner family prayer, is all I’m saying.
Eddie tries to slyly bring up going to the party and Mama Winslow cements her spot as my fave cast member on this show forever and ever by brilliantly shoving Carl’s rules in his face by revealing that his concern over his son’s welfare is all based on a bed of lies. The boys are watching Rambo and drinking Crystal Pepsi. I mean really, it’s “almost the nineties.”
To Carl’s credit, after Grandma gives her opinion he calmly rebukes it like an adult. When Eddie does the typical sitcom “I don’t wanna live here anymore” storm out, Harriette predictably runs after him, and Mama Winslow reiterates what we all knew from the beginning: Carl’s a crappy father.
Harriette comes down from talking to Eddie to speak with Carl. Carl bitches some more about how his mother is taking over his life, though all she did was make a couple of comments about his parenting choices that he didn’t agree with. It’s not her fault Eddie is looking for more independence as a teenager. As a father, Carl should be the one dealing with that. And enough with the damn chair, Carl. No one takes you seriously as the leader of the household anyways (which explains how Urkel was able to summarily take over his house, family and, TV show).
Harriette finally stamps her foot down and tells Carl to get a damn grip and talk to his pain in the ass bad-ass awesome mother and stop being a child. Pity Harriette for having to deal with this man-baby of husband, but that is the eternal suffering of all sitcom wives, isn’t it?
Harriette is EVERYTHING. Check out that animal print. She’s the leader of this pride.
We’ve come to the confrontation/reconciliation portion of our sitcom arc, and Carl goes to see Mama Winslow knitting or sewing something on the back porch. He tries to wimp out, saying he’ll come back because she’s busy. In a genuinely funny line, Grandma says it’ll be a long time because she’s knitting a rug (you gotta hear her say it. Mama Winslow is one of the few actors on a sitcom that can make these one-liners not cheesy).
Carl drags his feet, and Mama is keeping it real as usual. Then we get the all-in-one explanation: Carl’s dad recently died, which is why Mama is moving in — she’s used to wearing the pants in the house (and the crown, and the scepter) so naturally she’s acting the same way at her son’s. But Carl is a big boy and Mama needs to come to terms with that.
You need to see this woman’s face as Carl sitcom mansplains at her.
For one glorious moment, I almost believed Mama Winslow would throw down her rug, say “screw this mess” rent a condo in Miami (perhaps next door to the Golden Girls), and keep it moving.
But the “sweet music of understanding” begins to play and of course Carl and his mother make up and agree to respect each other’s boundaries in cohabitation.
And finally, Mama Winslow is able to get it through Carl’s big head that Eddie is mature enough to go to the nerdiest boy’s party this side of wherever it is in Chicago they live.
Now bringing resolution to our B plot, we switch to our pubescent boy Eddie totally earning that parental trust by being a peeping pervert. Boys, right? It’s the 80’s, so the way to show that Eddie is a healthy growing boy is to show him being a creepy pervert with no sense of boundaries. Dang, maybe Carl was right.
Carl comes in and we learn that clearly, Eddie is the least-loved of the Winslow children because he has to give up his room to his grandmother to live in the trashy-ass attic. Considering all the bitching and moaning Carl does, honestly, if anyone has a right to be resentful of Mama Winslow it’s Eddie. Of course, Eddie doesn’t mind, because he’s a budding teenager who will be relentlessly cat-calling girls “because they like it” in a couple of years.
Carl raises Eddie’s curfew to 11 and makes an exception so that Eddie can go to the party. Then Eddie and Carl do that whole family sitcom routine, where the father just gives the teenager more freedom but the teenager tries to push the boundaries by asking for a little more and the parent raises an eyebrow and goes “don’t push it” and I swear this scene has been done exactly the same way in every family sitcom since the dawn of time. I wouldn’t bet my savings on it, and I’m sure as heck not researching it because I know it to be true.
And because this is officially Episode 0 of the Pre-Urkel era, we have to remind everyone watching TGIF that this is a BLACK family, so we’re all crowded around the piano singing “He’s got the whole world in his hands” as we American families of African descent are wont to do.
I will admit that the camera pull-out at the end with the Winslows singing and their dark silhouettes framed by the window, pulled at my heart a little. Anyway, enjoy this version of Family Matters because it won’t be around for long. (T-minus 11 episodes).
Things I learned: despite it seeming corny now, sitcom dialogue can be satisfyingly fun and snappy when done right (by a certain talented Mama Winslow). It actually gives me a new appreciation for sitcom writers, because as it’s become clear over the years, it’s a lot easier to write crappy dialogue than good.
Also, you may have noticed that in Carl’s very first scene, he is wearing a sweatshirt indicating his job as a policeman. However doubtful the idea that Carl would ever pass police academy, the very capable actor Reginald VelJohnson has found himself in similar territory before:
His best-known cop roles were in the Die Hard movies, but, VelJohnson has put also on the badge for: Plain Clothes, Turner & Hootch, Ghostbusters, and an episode of the television show Chuck.
I’ve never undertaken a writing challenge such as this before (though I was inspired by the great Teebore of the legendary Full House Reviewed blog) and I hope this can be an entertaining endeavor for the readers as well as myself. I love and hate this show in somewhat equal measures, and I expect any less honesty from my readers than I would expect from myself. I am always open to constructive criticism, so critique away!
Finally, you may or may not have seen this, but let it be required viewing, as we go forth into this journey together.
Ashley Turner is a lifelong Blerd that is happy to finally have a name to place to her nerdy tendencies. She enjoys, video games, K-pop, reading everything that can be read. She believes there are never enough hours in the day to write. You can follow her on Twitter @AsheDT.
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