Family, a weekly prime-time drama about a Southern California suburban family, ran from 1976 to 1980 on ABC. The show's pilot, which became the first episode of a six-part miniseries that aired in March 1976, was created by novelist and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Forty Carats), directed by film director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), and produced by film director Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate) as well as television moguls Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg (Charlie's Angels, Starsky & Hutch). The success of the miniseries--it recorded an astonishing 40 share in the ratings--led ABC to pick up Family as a regular series for their 1976-77 season. During its five seasons Family received fourteen Emmy Award nominations, three of them for Outstanding Drama Series. The show won four awards all in acting categories: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Sada Thompson in 1977), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Kristy McNichol in 1976 and 1978) and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Gary Frank in 1976).
Family's initial success came from the creative forces behind the project. These artists and producers, nevertheless, had to fight for three years (beginning 1973) before convincing ABC to give the series a chance. As Rowland Barber explains in "Three Strikes and They're On," during development ABC found the family portrayed in the series "at various critical time, (1) too well-educated and too well-dressed, (2) too true to life for Family Viewing Time and (9) simply 'too good for television'" (24). These attempts to dismiss the project were discarded once the miniseries proved to be a hit both with audiences and critics.
Family also became a success due to the renewed interest in dramatic shows during the mid-1970s (as witnessed by the huge success of the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man). In general, police/detective shows like Police Woman, Charlie's Angels, S.W.A.T., Starsky & Hutch, Switch and Kojak dominated the televisual panorama of the 1976-76 season. The appearance of non-violent, well-crafted and well-acted programs like Family constituted a refreshing alternative to the predominant action-packed TV scene, which was readily embraced by TV audiences.
Family followed the saga of the Lawrences, a middle-class family from Pasadena, California. The clan was constituted by the parents, Kate and Doug (played by Sada Thompson and the late James Broderick), and their three offspring: Nancy, divorcee lawyer and mother of infant Timmy (originally played in the miniseries by Elaine Heilveil, Nancy was portrayed in the regular series by Meredith Baxter-Birney), Willie, a high school drop-out who was nevertheless a talented and idealistic aspiring writer (played by Gary Frank), and free-spirited teenager Letitia, better known as "Buddy" (played by Kristy McNichol). During its 1978-79 season, a new regular character joined the series: Annie Cooper, an 11-year-old orphan girl whom the Lawrences decide to adopt (played by Quinn Cummings)
Throughout its five seasons, the series engaged a range of contemporary social issues within the parameters of its melodramatic structure. For example, the miniseries began with a pregnant Nancy discovering her husband Jeff(played by John Rubinstein) in bed with one of her girlfriends. This situation led to a divorce. Subsequently, the series explored, through the character of Nancy, issues related to the social position of a divorced, professional woman who was also a mother. On a couple of occasions, the show dealt with issues pertaining to homosexuality. In one episode, Willie's best friend came out of the closet forcing Willie to reconsider his positions about both friendship and homosexuality. In another episode, Buddy had to face issues about bigotry when the school attempted to fire a teacher she admired who turned out to be a lesbian. On several occasions, the Lawrence matriarch found herself in difficult social, moral, and ethical positions that resulted from her situation as a middle-age woman. Once Kate faced the dilemma of possibly having to have an abortion when she discovered she was expecting a child at an age when risks and complications related to pregnancy are higher (she was over forty). In another episode, Kate had to confront her insecurities and fears when she decided to take a job outside the house. At one point in the series, Kate had to deal with the fact that she had breast cancer.
Not only did Family reclaim a place for hour-long (melo)dramatic series dealing with contemporary everyday topics during a time when action series ruled, but it also prepared the ground for the explosion of prime time soap operas such as Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest that appeared during the late 1970s and 1980s.
-Gilberto M. Blasini
Kate Lawrence................................... Sada Thompson
Doug Lawrence.................................. James Broderick
Nancy Lawrence Maitland (1976).............Elayne Heilveil
Nancy Lawrence Maitland (1976-1980)....................................... Meredith Baxter-Birney
Willie Lawrence......................................... Gary Frank