The Workplace Family

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009, the average working American spent two hours a day providing childcare for their children, compared to seven and a half hours per day in the workplace. Culture is changing; where family values were once the cornerstone of success in America, we are experiencing a shift towards greater importance being placed in the workplace. This change has even affected our media. As society has grown to value career aspirations over family values, the family sitcom has evolved into the similar workplace sitcom. When we once turned on the television to watch families like ours work out their problems, we now seek out depictions of workplaces we can relate to.  This growth within the genre is apparent when looking at archetypes presented, the cast of characters, and the narrative structures.

To get a full understanding of the sitcom evolution, one must look at genre theory. Genres are forms of classification. As Victoria O’Donnell defines it in Television Criticism, “These tend to be tried and true formulae that have certain predictability and familiarity.”  There are general genres found in television that can be instantly recognized, such as situational comedies, talk shows, news programs, or dramas. These can also be broken down into smaller categories, or sub-genres, such as medical dramas, cop dramas, or soap operas, for example.

Broadly, genre theory aims to classify different types of text into their own categories.

According to Jane Feuer, author of Genre Study and Television, a genre is “ultimately an abstract conception rather than something that exists empirically in the world.” Because of all these different classifications and the various ways they can be identified (such as theme, style, or formula), it is hard to nail the definition of a genre, and genres change as society changes. For example, O’Donnell brings up how the situational comedy used to deal with married couples comprised of a working man and his stay-at-home wife, as seen in I Love Lucy (97). But a modern day situational comedy often deals with working women, single parents, or even same-sex couples. In his book Film Theory, Robert Stam suggests, “while some genres are based on story content (the war film), other are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), locat[ion] (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema).”

Though there are so many different ways to classify television shows and other texts, being able to separate them into genres and sub-genres helps isolate certain types so they can be further analyzed as a group. These genres often reflect “cultural norms, concerns, and fears as times change” (O’Donnell 99). Genres can often reflect the times they are set in or were created in, such as the American western. They reflect different histories, morals, and values. Each different genre has its own identifiable characteristics – comedies make us laugh, dramas make us cry, news programs inform us, talk shows discuss. However, single texts found within these genres do not necessarily have all the possible characterizations of the genre – that would be impossible. Daniel Chandler, in the article “An Introduction to Genre Theory,” suggests that genres can be seen “as ‘fuzzy’ categories which cannot be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions.” They are fluid and ever-changing, but nevertheless an important way to classify and analyze text.

The situational comedy is an elastic genre, with many sub-genres branching off beneath it. Sitcoms began with family-oriented themes and “no matter the type of sitcom, each followed the same basic structure and its content was influenced by current events” (Smith 31). All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family; even the quirkiest of setups was most often filled in with actual family of characters. Some were large ensembles showing many different types of characters, such as The Brady Bunch’s overstocked cast of two parents, six children, and one housekeeper. Some were smaller, as in All in the Family’s two parents, one daughter, and one son-in-law. But the families reflected the times and different relationships, and different sitcom archetypes.

Also essential to understanding the shift from family sitcom to workplace sitcom is narrative theory. Narrative structure is a system of presenting a story; it “recounts one or more events, thus a story in a series of events arranged in an order” (O’Donnell 73). It is generally an identifiable pattern that helps the viewer interpret and understand the material. This comes across in many forms. Archetypes and characters show us people we recognize over and over in different media. Myths are cultural tales that are widely known and easily picked up on, offering classic insight into wrong and right. The narrative structure itself can be analyzed, as patterns between structures are formed and used to represent the narrative in a way that can be understood easily by the viewer.

For example, Aristotle presented his own theory – the most widely used theory – in his book Poetics. It presents a simple three act structure, with an emphasis on plot above all other elements (O’Donnell 74). The three acts follow a pattern each time: conflict, complications, resolution. It is quick and simple, and thusly it is often used in films or television shows as a means of following action. Another common theory is that is Vladimir Propp, outlined in his book Morphology of a Folktale. His structure begins with equilibrium, follows it into disequilibrium, and resolves by restoring the equilibrium (O’Donnell 75). The most important aspects of his structure are lack and or/villainy; the hero wants something he does not have, that the villain is possibly keeping away from him. There is also Roland Barthes’s theory, based around a “hermeneutic code” (O’Donnell 75). There is first an enigma that brings the audience to ask a question that will need to be answered by the end. Next there is a delay, which puts off a solution for a time. In the end, a resolution ends all curiosity over the enigma by fulfilling it. While these are some of the more common theories used, narrative structures are elastic and identifiable.

Archetypes are an important aspect of narrative theory, and a clear way to identify how family sitcoms have influenced workplace sitcoms. Archetypes are “recurring patterns of actions, character types, or identifiable images whose expression is an unconscious product of the collective experience of the entire human species, an unconscious mental record of such experiences, the uncollective unconscious” (O’Donnell 83).

Some typical classic character archetypes are the hero and villain, the mother and father, the leader and sidekick, the wise elder and foolish youth (O’Donnell 83). In family sitcoms specifically, the archetypes often rely on status within the family. An early stereotypical take on the family can see seen in a show like Leave it to Beaver, where the father is the authority figure who goes to work, the mother is the housekeeper that dotes upon the boys, and the two sons are the cute children who learn lessons every week. This was the American Dream, the “perfect family,” the nuclear family. Sitcoms in these days often ignored social issues occurring in the world and focused on upholding moral standards. No one discussed the unequal gender roles or how minorities fared. Television families were successful, white, and straightforward, and it is clear who had the power, what the gender roles were, and the type of clean-cut family image that was being represented.

The family sitcom itself has changed since then. It went through years of change with minority families on shows such as Good Times, which showed an African American family living in a low income Chicago neighborhood, and social issues were talked about, as seen when All in the Family’s bigoted Archie bumped heads with his liberal son-in-law. Family structure itself took new forms and changed; no longer was the nuclear family the only structure that was seen. However, the patterns found in the earliest sitcoms still translated to the current ones; there were still parents, children, and extraneous family members that fell into the same patterns, albeit in more modern situations.

The archetypes seen repeated in family comedies can be applied similarly to an ensemble of employees. According to the website tvtropes.com there are plenty of different family archetypes. The Patriarchal character is the father: a man of authority, the overprotective father who always ends up warming hearts in the end. This can be translated over to the boss figure in workplace sitcoms, as a person who holds authority but also cares for his employees. The Matriarch is the mother: caring, protective, and generally good natured until provoked. This can be translated over to a boss figure or the most caring person in the workplace; essentially, the glue that holds the work family together. Children archetypes vary depending on the character. There is the dork, a smart underdog. There is the precocious child, who is the youngest child in the family; this character is purely innocent and used for the cute factor. There is the teenager, who is prone to fighting and defying authority. Various employees in a workplace sitcom can take on any of these, especially if they are especially cared for by the boss. Various other characters can be seen in family series, such as the loser, the bully, the charmer, or the goofball, among others. Often times, characters like aunts or uncles (in family sitcoms) or people outside the staff (in workplace sitcoms) fill these roles.

The characters themselves are hugely important. While you can trace archetypes between genres, it is also easy to see similar characters between specific shows. This in particular highlights the similarities between the characters needed to fill a sitcom family, and the characters called on to fill a sitcom staff.

Take the late ‘80s/early ‘90s family sitcom Full House. Compared to the television families of the ‘50s, the Tanners were a highly unorthodox family. However, there were still the recognizable family figures within the ensemble. The father figure was represented by Danny Tanner (Bob Saget), a widowed father who was good-natured, caring, and somewhat goofy. In place of the deceased mother, he was joined by two friends, who became Uncle Joey (Dave Coulier) and Uncle Jesse (John Stamos) in the pilot episode. They were the show’s odd-couple duo, Joey being the typical goofball while Jesse was the slick ladies’ man. Eventually, Jesse married, and his wife Becky (Laurie Loughlin) became the show’s first and only consistent mother figure, as she related to Danny’s daughters in ways the men couldn’t. And the three girls – DJ (Candace Cameron), Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin), and Michelle (Mary Kate Olson, Ashley Olson) – each had their turns at being the dorky child, the popular child, and the precocious child as they grew. They even used outside players, such as Kimmy (Andrea Barber) the neighbor, the five-minute character that no one wanted around, or Steve, DJ’s boyfriend who was not the brightest crayon in the box. The family, while being unorthodox in terms of nuclear family structure, still retained many of the typical family roles, and certainly the sitcom archetypes.

Conversely, when looking at a workplace sitcom ensemble, the same character types can be seen. For example, Parks and Recreation is a mockumentary set in a small-town government’s parks and recreation department. At the center of the show is Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deputy director of the department, who’s optimistic, hard working, and naïve. She’s what keeps the entire department motivated, with her positive energy and endless faith in change. Therefore, she takes on a motherly role, often taking care of the other characters and looking out for them. In the season two episode “Christmas Scandal,” the rest of the department takes on her workload when she has a day off, and when she comes back, they find an appreciation for her as an authority figure in their workplace. Department director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is her opposite, a libertarian who proclaims no interest in caring for other people, but does so reluctantly, and therefore becomes the department’s father figure. While there is nothing romantic about Leslie and his relationship, it is reminiscent of an Odd Couple archetype, where they butt heads but ultimately care about and support one another. The season two episode “Ton and Tammy” finds Ron butting heads and nearly reuniting with his abusive ex-wife; Leslie ends up getting him out of the situation, wherein he realizes that she’s the only person who’s ever cared enough about him.

Younger department employees Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) take on the role of the children. Tom is intent on being the suave one, the unsuccessful ladies’ man, who likes to appease Ron (like a son would want to impress his father) and tease Leslie. April is the unaffected youth, the blank-face teen who wants nothing to do with the parental figures, but actually gets advice and protective care from both Leslie and Ron. The four of them, while not always the central focus of the show as a group, form a sort of representation of a nuclear family, albeit a dysfunctional one. Ron’s role as the father is unintentional but apparent, as in the season three episode “Harvest Festival.” Everyone in the department is bickering while stuck on a ferris wheel, and Ron takes it upon himself to scold them, even telling April, “Quit being a child.” His form of discipline for the immature employees is similar to that of a father.

Similarly, Leslie’s motherly side is highlighted the most in the episode “Fancy Party.” When April announces a very sudden wedding, Leslie is worried for her well being and attempts to talk her out of it, eventually boiling over until she scolds, “You need to go to bed!” And in the end, April embraces her and admits that she loves Leslie and is happy she is there.

These story ideas and character types were carried over from family sitcoms. Even the other characters have similar roles – co-worker Donna (Retta) is the “cool” aunt, underdog Jerry (Jim O’Heir) is the overlooked uncle, shoe-shiner Andy (Chris Pratt) is the goofy neighbor, Leslie’s best friend Ann (Rashida Jones) and love interest Ben (Adam Scott) are the outsider voices of reason. And at the end of each episode, they are a family coming together to care about each other.

Narrative structure is applicable to the sitcom, in order to see the similarities between the two. The pilot episodes of Parks and Recreation and Full House are similar in nature. When we meet the Tanner family in the episode “Our Very First Show,” Danny needs help raising his daughters, and Jesse and Joey step in to give it a shot. The family comes together under one roof, where they begin to drive each other crazy. The uncles do not know how to take care of three young girls, and the comedy arises from the situation. At the end of the day, everyone comes together because they are family. They care about each other and need to support each other so they can continue to function. The need to raise the girls brings everyone together and gives them a central focus. They even come together to sing the Flintstones theme song, solidifying the fact that they are, indeed, a family.

Now, in “Pilot,” the first episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie learns about an abandoned pit in town at a public forum. She wants to do good for her town, so she vows to get the pit filled in and have a park built on the land. However, she needs the help of her department. Even though everyone is there out of obligation to their jobs, they all join her “task force” and begin the journey to bring the park to fruition. Ron eventually approves of their committee due to his reluctant care for Leslie, and everyone supports her because she is the glue that holds the department together. They come together, like a family, to achieve one goal. And at the end of the day, they have fun together and care about each other. Funnily enough, it even ends in song.  Both shows used their pilots to unify the characters, and it works out the same whether they are blood related or being paid to be there. The ensembles are a family, a group of people who have to get along and care for each other, no matter what the situation.

In her article “‘What have you ever done on the telly? The Office, (post) reality television and (post) work,” Tara Brabazon looks at the evolution of The Office as a result of reality television. While the narrative structure of The Office is set up like a documentary in the popular form known as “mockumentary,” that is not the defining aspect of the show. The characters within do not reflect those of a reality television show, but those of an unorthodox family, brought together not by relation, but by circumstance. While the voyeuristic approach to storytelling in a mockumentary lends itself to parodying reality shows, the situations and characters reflect those of a family.

In the season two episode “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” socially oblivious manager Michael Scott announces his role as the group father, and his outlandish exploits to make the office an entertaining place for his employee’s kids shows him having the desire for parental authority and affection. And his employees act like his children; faithful Dwight supports and helps him, like a child eager to please. Jim and Pam, the two level-headed, precocious young employees, clean up his mess, they play out the archetype of children being smarter than their parents.

When Michael Scott left the show in the season seven episode “Goodbye Michael,” the characters reacted as though losing a father. Dwight finally gets the chance to play paintball with him, as if he were a child finally earning the attention and praise that he always wanted from his father. Reality television rarely aims to show warmth between characters; it reaches for conflict that does not always need a resolution.

But The Office and other similar workplace comedies, show a group of people working together, having affection for each other, and resolving their problems like a family. If the point of the show was simply the mockumentary structure, it would not have the heart that it is known for. The familial relationships are what make the show work.

Parks and Recreation has a similar heart. Rather than show the severe conflict that reality television feeds off, the show aims to show a warmer side to the workplace ensemble. “For storytelling purposes, there has to be conflict,” says the show’s creator Michael Schur, “but that doesn’t mean the people have to be mean.” With the notion of keeping the characters friendly and the conflict purely situational, the ensemble forms the makeshift family. Many episodes of the series exist simply to show people coming together. “The Camel,” an episode in season two, finds the department trying to create a new town hall mural for a contest. Initially there’s conflict among them, as everyone believes their ideas to be the best for the project, but Leslie eventually brings compromise to the group, with everyone coming together to make the mural together, defending each other’s ideas instead of fighting them. When the show always aims to reach such a warm place, there is hardly anywhere for the ensemble to go but to become a family.

American society has been evolving and changing from the moral family values of yesteryear to the career-driven aspirations of modern day. People are spending more time than ever with their co-workers, and starting families later to make time to get work done. Sitcoms have picked up on the trend; truly, the workplace sitcom is a direct descendant of the family sitcom. As America spends more time at work, our favorite fictional characters spend more time bonding with their coworkers. This change is important because it shows how our media reflects our society; when the culture shifts, what we watch on television shifts to compliment it.

3 thoughts on “The Workplace Family

  1. I’ve been in love with “workplace over family” comedies since Cheers. I don’t think shows about people you’re stuck with by birth are as interesting as shows about people you’re stuck with because you work together. In Television World, these people don’t ever leave their jobs, just like we rarely see family members run away from their disfunctional relatives. The model of a family doesn’t resonate with todays generation as much as a makeshift family made up of coworkers. These are the people gen x’ers consider to be family, the people they spend all of their time with, the people they can relate with about their less than conventional families. Rather than getting mad at “dad” or “mom”, coworkers bond over the hatred of their boss. They’re trading environments, and implementing nuclear bonds within coworkers in the place of siblings.

    1. I have watched shows based on family for as long as I can remember. Some of my favorites were Boy Meets World, Full House, and Growing Pains. However, as time has gone by I have noticed that they are hard to come by these days. The only show I can think of that incorporates family is Modern Family on ABC. I am glad that writers are incorporating a “family feel” into shows even though they do not focus on the typical family.

  2. I think this article is fascinating at directly pointing out the correlation between the old family sitcoms of yesteryear and the modernized workplace sitcom. The workplace sitcom may have replaced the traditional family sitcom, but I think in today’s society the workplace is slowly becoming our family. As stated in the article we spend seven and half hours in the work place. All that time that we spend with and building bonds with our co-workers, the relationships are in fact growing stronger. If we heard a story about inviting a co-worker or boss over for dinner, it would not be considered abnormal. Culturally is is now acceptable in comparison to say, the fifties. After reading this article I believe I will become more analytical while watching my favorite shows and be able to spot out the various characters that are now reversed to the modern workplace family.

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