Family Affair and Family Affair (2002)

Family Affair (1966-1971)
Family Affair (2002)
Type: Series Revival

   TV Sitcom Rule #147: When making a family sitcom be sure the family in the sitcom is anything but the typical family makeup.

   A family with two dads where who's the actual father is in doubt, a woman raising her son with the help of her male maid (also raising a daughter), a widower raising his daughters with the help of two wacky friends, a widower raising his son with the help of his Asian housekeeper, a dead man brought back as a flesh eating zombie to raise his children with the help of a wisecracking alien super chimp (Okay, that one's mine - nobody steal it! It 's gonna be a hit!)

   Well, one of the first non-standard TV family sitcoms was Family Affair. It told the story of bachelor Bill Davis whose life was turned on end when, after their parents' deaths, he found himself in the position of having to raise and care for his young nieces and nephew. Buffy and Jody were a young pair of twins. Cissy was their older sister (although the twins were the main focus of the show). Filling out the household was Bill's portly British butler Giles French (always referred to as Mr. French). The casting was great. "Uncle Bill" was played by Brian Keith, the same guy who played the cool dad role in the original Parent Trap. The twins were played by cute red headed Johnny Whitaker as Jody and the all too adorable Anissa Jones as Buffy. Whitaker became a big child star beyond Family Affair. Anissa Jones would likely have had similar success beyond the series had she not sadly died so young. Cissy was played by Kathy Garver who was a charming and attractive teen which is just what the part called for (And she went on to play the voice of Firestar on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends which is pretty geeky cool!). And Sebastian Cabot as Mr. French? Forget about it! The guy who narrated the Winnie The Pooh Disney films playing the biggest British teddy bear of a butler? Perfect cast.

   Oops. Forgot a member of the family. There was also Mrs. Beasley, Buffy's beloved doll. She was literally a sixth member of this odd family.

   The plots were solid, well, family affairs. The typical stories of the pains of growing up but well told and charming. They even managed to get into areas that most simple family shows might steer clear of. Uncle Bill tries to explain to Jody how another parent spanking their child is showing love only to have Jody try to force a spanking out of him as proof of his love? Strange and risky stuff. But true to life stuff. I can remember the perplexed look on my parents as they tried to explain to me their not interfering in another parent spanking their kid even as it was clear they weren't 100% sure of their moral footing. How about the kids becoming friends with a terminally ill kid? Real world that stuff sadly happens but it usually doesn't get shown on Leave It To Beaver. Again, we aren't talking huge daring leaps for television but for a family sitcom at that time it was admirable.

   The show ran an admirable five seasons ending at the start of the seventies at which point it took up residence in syndication. It never became a syndication staple along the lines of Happy Days or The Brady Bunch it did keep running. In my area it and The Courtship Of Eddie's Father both aired every Sunday morning before all the old western shows came on. Not prime TV time but unlike most other shows it didn't fall off the radar entirely either.

   Cut to 2002. Instead of three TV networks and some local TV stations supplying everyone's TV viewing needs there are six different networks and tons of cable channels all fighting for viewers. Looking for some way to start a show with some built in viewers the Warner Brother's Network - The WB - decide to do a new version of Family Affair. The theory is the public knows the title, they have fond feelings for the original, they'll come and at least give the show a try.

   And they didn't do a bad job in casting. Gary Cole was hired to play Uncle Bill. Gary Cole kicks ass! Just like Brian Keith he's a cool man's man who is also approachable and fatherly. He has played a huge variety of roles from drama to comedy, in stories ranging from science fiction to thrillers and he is always great. This time around Mr. French was played by the very funny (although not so portly) Tim Curry. The kids were all new faces but, hey, so were the kids on the original show when it started. But Gary Cole and Tim Curry were pretty big names. Oh, Mrs. Beasley's work was still outstanding.

   But now we get to where things fall apart. First, while the original show was popular in its time, it was "of its time". I don't know that anyone out there is a hardcore fan of the show. Lots of folks don't even remember it and those that do mostly remember liking it but aren't "devoted" to it. That built in audience? I don't think so.

   Plus the new show was a retread of a show more than thirty years old. While the original might have been mildly progressive for the late sixties, in the new millennium the same material might be considered quaint. So the show would need updating. Unfortunately it didn't get updated in the right way. The right way would have been to find ways to make the show relevant and topical without being preachy. Instead they opted to update this show by making it. safely edgier? Tim Curry is cool but he isn't the kindly Sebastian Cabot. He's the Grinch. He's the guy who on the surface is cranky but underneath it all has a big heart and cares for the kids. And maybe trying to keep the kids from being schmaltzy cute (which the original kids verged on and which trying to exactly recreat the characters could have lead to) the kids were made a little more, well, bratty. Not that that was what the producers were aiming for I'm sure.

   Even trying to lure audiences to the premiere by featuring an exclusive preview of the upcoming Harry Potter film though the new Family Affair failed to find an audience. It just didn't fly. After only a handful of episodes Family Affair went bye bye (and I wouldn't look for this one in syndication, even in the wee hours of the morning before Bonanza).

   The only good cool thing I can say about it ending was that luckily it didn' t disappear before they could air their Christmas episode, the final episode to air. Why is this cool? Well because the Christmas episode featured guest appearances by the only remaining members of the original cast, Johnny Whitaker and Kathy Garver. I mean, even if the new show didn't go over so great, ya gotta love the old cast popping in as guest stars. If you have to go out, that's a nice episode to go out on.

   Actually, and ironically, the WB already had a show on the air updating the Family Affair formula the right way: Gilmore Girls. Gilmore Girls had a single mom who got pregnant while still a teenager raising her now teenage daughter. You've got the imperfect family. You've got the single parent who should be living the single dating life but who gladly makes that secondary to her kid. You've got an imperfect family where the people in it make mistakes but truly care for each other. And the show plays cute while not going too far while managing to deal with tricky topics. You think trying to explain why people spank their kids is a minefield? Try going to career day at your daughter's school and having the class try to grill you about sex and having gotten pregnant at their age. And imagine a show handling such material in such a way that kids love it and family organizations praise you.

   While I am sure the new Family Affair is gone for good, if they decide to bring it back again I would suggest The WB make some fixes to it by cribbing off of their own recent non-traditional family show. And it better not come back with a zombie dad and a chimp who can read your mind. Ya hear me?

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