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Family Matters: Why It Was One Of The Greatest Sitcoms Of All Time

By Edited May 28, 2016 1 0

Sears Tower

Everybody watched TV sitcoms when they were younger. After the success of the sitcom Perfect Strangers, TV executives decided to create a spin-off of the popular TV show. This eventually led to the creation of Family Matters. Family Matters ran from September 22, 1989 to May 9, 1997 and was a sitcom created from the 1990 Children's Television Act. 

The show's original theme song was Louis Armstrong's “What A Wonderful World”. The song was later scrapped and replaced by "As Days Go By," written by Jesse Frederick, Bennett Salvay and Scott Roeme, which then became the permanent theme song. As of today, most people automatically think of the sitcom when the song is heard.

The sitcom takes place in Chicago, Illinois and is centered around the Winslow Family. Initially, the main character in the show is a police officer named Carl Winslow (played by Reginald VelJohnson). Officer Winslow made an appearance in Perfect Strangers in the 1988 episode "Crimebusters". His wife, Harriette Winslow (played by Jo Marie Payton) was also in Perfect Strangers. Carl and Harriette both have a son Eddie and two daughters Laura and Judy.

The family also opens up their home to Carl's mother, Estelle Winslow. Harriette's sister, Rachel Crawford and her infant son, Richie, also move into the Winslow household after the death of Rachel's husband.

The beginning episodes focus on Carl's career as a police officer, and how he has to support the entire family. Although Harriette and Rachel also work, Carl is the breadwinner of the Winslow household.

Family Matters is different compared to the other sitcoms that aired around the same time. The show focused on serious issues that no other sitcom came close to. In certain episodes, racism is a major obstacle that the characters face. Other areas that the sitcom focuses on deal with gun violence and gangs. For example, there is one episode where “Rachel's Place”, a local restaurant owned and operated by Rachel Crawford, is completely vandalized by a local Chicago-based gang. Which other sitcoms have ever had something happen on a scale like that?

Police Car

In another episode, Steve and Laura are locked in a bank as a robber holds both of them and other customers hostage. After a standoff between police and the robber (which lasts for several hours) the police finally decide to enter into the bank. Who agrees to go in alone? Carl Winslow. He decides to dress up as a pizza delivery man. He then opens up two pies, which are ordered by the robber, and toy snakes jump out of one pie, temporarily frightening him. Carl then puts him down on the ground and arrests him. Steve is then upset that he couldn't intervene and solve the crisis, but Carl later explains to Steve that he was also extremely scared and he was trained for these types of situations.

In addition, there is another episode where Eddie is pulled over by two white cops. He is handcuffed and interrogated as if he was a criminal. Carl later confronts both police officers and asks them why they harassed his son? Carl explains to them that his son didn't look anything like the suspects on the list of carjackers in the neighborhood where the crime was committed. These are serious social issues that still occur today, and Family Matters was the only sitcom to ever address them. 

Obviously, the sitcom became even more popular when Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White) joined the cast as a major character. Surprisingly, Urkel doesn't appear until the middle of the first season. Some believe that Urkel's character was needed in order to create a more comical atmosphere. Some also believe that the show was going to continue to have Carl as the main character, but they feel this would have led to a continuation of issues that were too serious and may have forced an older audience to only view the show.

As the show progressed, episodes began to center more on Steve Urkel. Eventually, Jaleel White also played Steve's suave alter-ego Stefan Urquelle as well as his female cousin Myrtle Urkel. Although Urkel does attend the same school as Carl's children, he also lives next door. Even though he is known for his clumsiness, Urkel is supposed to be an ingenious scientist. Throughout the show, his scientific experiments become his primary focus. Again, this is believed to be a way to create a diversion from the serious issues that occur throughout the sitcom.

As the sitcom continued on, serious issues continue to arise that other sitcoms never came across. Issues included fighting Middle Eastern terrorism, anti-gang incentives, and drug use. Typically, during these episodes, Urkel was preoccupied with either convincing Laura to date him or he was working on another scientific experiment.

There are some that believe Stefan Urquelle and Myrtle Urkel may have been irrelevant characters. Later on in the sitcom, both characters became more significant over time. Stefan Urquelle ends up falling in love with Laura and Myrtle Urkel falls in love with Eddie. These characters had the ability to create comical material to counter the realities of the serious issues faced in the sitcom.

Family Matters was praised by many because of its life lessons and family oriented values. Furthermore, the sitcom differentiated from shows such as Saved By The Bell and Full House because it was more realistic. Family Matters may have touched on some uncomfortable issues, but the show allowed viewers to experience what life was really like growing up in a middle class African-American household that lived in Chicago.[1]

Some critics of the sitcom felt that Urkel's character was way too silly and his scientific experiments were not worth mentioning. Moreover, they felt that Urkel's character should have faded away as the sitcom kept moving on. On the other hand, many supporters of the show believed that Urkel's character  became the primary character later on, ultimately replacing Carl as the main character.

Family Matters ran for nine seasons, and became the second longest-running U.S. sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast. The sitcom is ranked third after Tyler Perrys's House of Pain and The Jeffersons.

Jaleel White received the “Outstanding Youth Actor” at the NAACP Image Awards in 1994 and 1995. In addition, he also won the “Outstanding Young Comedian in a Television Series” at the Young Artist Awards in 1991.

Whether you enjoyed Family Matters or not, one must have respect for the writers, especially for expressing to the audience the realities of growing up as an African-American family living in a major American city. Today, Family Matters is still shown in dozens of countries. If you get a chance to see this sitcom in the near future, try to focus less on Urkel's character and more on the issues that occur in each episode. You will then see why Family Matters is one of the most informative and genuine sitcoms ever created.



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  1. Ken Bloom Sitcoms: The 101 Greatest TV Comedies of All Time . New York City: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers , 2007.

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