Entertainment

How Strong Teen Characters Are Making Sitcoms Better

Family sitcoms like 'Black-ish' and 'One Day at a Time' are benefitting by depicting progressive, intelligent teenagers.
January 20, 2017, 5:00am

The family sitcom is one of TV's oldest chestnuts. It's a format that has been around for nearly as long as TV itself. For many years, it had a strict formula that went nearly unchanged. Whether it revolved around a typical nuclear TV family or a "non-traditional" family arrangement like Full House or The Brady Bunch, the format remained mostly the same: There would be two (sometimes more!) strong parental figures and their well-meaning (if occasionally rebellious) children. Episodes would often center on those parental figures having to teach their children some kind of "lesson" about life that would be quickly resolved by the end of the episode. It was a time-tested format that rarely made for great TV but provided a certain warm comfort that remained appealing for many decades.

The current crop of family sitcoms, though, has largely flipped that format on its head. Sure, they still retain the basic format, but they change it enough that they don't feel like the kind of shows we've seen time after time, over and over again. Much has been written about these shows' incredibly diverse viewpoints, giving them the ability to discuss issues that have rarely been covered on TV before—but one aspect of these sitcoms that's received less attention is their treatment of their younger characters. While the kids and teenagers of past family sitcoms spent most of their time being lectured to, the youth of today's family sitcoms are strong-willed, independent thinkers who often teach their parents lessons rather than the other way around.

The most prominent example of this trend is Elena Alvarez of One Day at a Time, a 15-year-old feminist who is dedicated to fighting misogyny, protecting the environment, and standing up for human rights. Elena's progressive politics do cause her to butt heads with her parental figures quite often—her interactions with Lydia (her traditionally minded grandmother) and Penelope (her more understanding but often exhausted mother) become one of the main driving forces of conflict throughout the series. However, Elena's strong-willed political views aren't seen as something that need to be "fixed," and the show never condescends to her or forces her to change. Rather, it often presents Elena as the one in the right, and finds her elders picking up lessons from her. In the "Bobos and Mamitas" episode, Elena's rallying against misogyny and mansplaining inspires Penelope to ask her boss to be paid and respected the same as her male co-worker. Meanwhile, Lydia forces Elena to wear more makeup and dress more "ladylike" only to come to the realization that Elena feels as uncomfortable in makeup as Lydia does without makeup, and forcing her granddaughter to be uncomfortable isn't right.

In "Sex Talk," Elena comes out to both Penelope and Lydia—and while both maternal figures have to come to grasp with the revelation, they ultimately love and accept her for who she is, and learn to question their own pre-conceived biases while doing so. The season ends with Elena's quinceañera, which winds up being a celebration of who Elena is rather than who her elders want her to be, complete with Lydia putting together a pantsuit and Doc Martens for her rather than a dress and high heels. It sends the message that, even if Penelope and Lydia don't agree with every single choice Elena makes, Elena is the one in charge of who she is, and she doesn't need to be taught otherwise.

While Elena is perhaps the best example of how family sitcoms improved treatment of their young characters, it's also on display on plenty of other shows. On Black-ish, the Johnson kids are consistently bringing a modern, level-headed perspective to the various issues the show tackles, particularly in Zoey, who often feels like the show's "voice of reason." In the recent "Nothing but Nepotism" episode, Dre bemoans Zoey for taking advantage of nepotism after he pulls strings to get her an internship at Teen Vogue, and she winds up easily getting a promotion. But the lesson is turned on its head when it turns out Zoey only got the promotion due to her hard work and Dre's "star power" had nothing do with it. "I'm going to work just as hard to get where I want to be as you did to get where you are. Just let me do my thing. I'll figure it out," she explains to him, in a scene that feels a lot like a reversed version of the many "lessons" scenes you might find on an episode of Full House or Family Matters.

A similar dynamic provides the backbone of the show's acclaimed "Lemons" episode—Bow spends much of the episode worried that Zoey isn't taking the results of the election seriously enough and finds Zoey's decision to bring lemonade to her school's healing rally to be an insufficient method of letting her voice be heard. But at the end of the episode, Zoey fights back: "You don't want me to have a voice. You want me to have your voice." Zoey explains making lemonade was her way of coping with the election results—she made it with love, for everyone, and it's how she responded to the chaos and uncertainty of the results. She's able to comfort her distraught mother with some of the wisest words spoken in the episode: "Our values don't disappear because our side lost one election. And in the next one, me and my friends will be voting. We're going to pick up right where you left off."

That line itself encapsulates the approach that so many of these family sitcoms are taking with their younger characters. Elena and Zoey stand out as the most prominent examples, but they can be found in nearly any great family comedy right now. From the way the Hecks embraced Sue's teenage quirks on The Middle to the way the entire Belcher family is constantly willing to go to bat for Tina on Bob's Burgers, these shows understand that their teenage characters aren't dumb or oblivious or wrong about everything just because they're young. They're self-assured, confident, and the future of the country. They don't need end-of-episode lectures about underage drinking or skipping school or cutting your uncle's hair without his permission (yes, that was a real Full House lecture)—they're smart, they'll do their thing, just let them figure it out. And that's partly why these shows feel more relevant and more forward-thinking than any family sitcom has in a long time.

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