I noticed a long time ago that the best and/or longest running TV shows all related to real life, whether you realize it or not. Through these similarities, we can obtain important life lessons about behavior, if we look hard enough. For example, some of the best marriage advice you can get comes from sitcoms. Especially when trying to understand human behaviors that can make or break a marriage. But just in general, TV can be more than just a “waste of time”, if you pay attention.
The primary TV spouses, usually the titular character or the bigger star, are dependent on their spouse’s help to maintain a normal lifestyle. They typically focus excessive amounts of time of their careers, interests, vices, or general feelings and issues. The secondary TV spouses typically have a very common characteristic, especially the wives if they are not titular characters (e.g., Roseanne, Lucy); their struggles never really take center stage, unless it’s a special episode. Then it’s back to everyone else.
Behaviorally, this socially conditions us, the viewers, to accept this as the societal norms in marriage. Marriage is being taught as acceptance that one person is the primary spouse, whose feelings, emotions, and behaviors have center stage, while the other spouse must accept this circumstance until they can no longer cope and engage in extreme behaviors.
Example: Marge Simpson (the Simpsons)
Only one or two episodes a season focus on her specifically, otherwise the show just revolves around Homer’s storylines. Typically Marge requires a health concern (physical or mental) to shift the focus on her, primarily because her health wasn’t a large enough concern to be attended to earlier. She normally tolerates Homer’s antics in quiet frustration until she has some type of mental or physical breakdown. She’s suffered in numerous ways, from all her hair falling out in patches, to stopping her car in traffic and sitting there unable to cope. And after each episode in which she is finally a focus, she spends another season ignored.
A quick irony of note. While the stereotype about TV shows is that the husband is always the primary spouse, historically it has always been women who starred in the family sitcom. While Ralph Kramden was the focus of “The Honeymooners”, Lucille Ball was the #1 TV star in “I Love Lucy”, and Donna Reed starred on her own show (“The Donna Reed Show”).
Example: Lucy (McGillicuddy) Ricardo (I Love Lucy)
The most obvious of all titular character exceptions is Lucy from “I Love Lucy”. The first TV star in the history of TV, Lucy is one of the examples of the wife being the primary spouse. Every episode of I Love Lucy revolved around her adventures and hi-jinks. Even episodes and storylines that focused on Ricky emphasized Lucy’s side of the story. Ricky is to become a Hollywood star … the focus is Lucy running around Hollywood. Ricky is on a Hollywood set … Lucy “wants to be in the show” (waaaaa).
Life Lesson #1: Don’t do what Kevin James does!
Essentially, take time to focus on your partner regularly. If you often feel like your life is too stressful and time consuming to have enough time to devote to your spouse, schedule the time. Literally, add a specific time to your daily/weekly calendar that WILL (not can) be devoted to your spouse. This will help create a behavior (i.e., learned conditioning) that you can keep track of, and be mindful of, to visually see how often you are keeping this commitment.
I specifically cited Kevin James, as his character on “King of Queens” is notoriously unable to create a behavioral history strong enough to allow consistent time devoted to his wife, despite having a regular work schedule without many other commitments, except personal recreation. However, he can regularly schedule time for his friends, specifically attending or watching sporting events, outings with friends, and planned dining appointments, either alone or with others. He does spend time with his wife, but it is usually shown to the viewers that he will put his personal activities ahead of his joint marriage activities, or any activity that focuses on his wife in general.
Unlike a Homer Simpson or a Peter Griffin, who share similar behaviors, he is not a cartoon character. While cartoons do affect our mindsets of possible behaviors that may or may not be acceptable, we don’t generally view cartoons as accurate or appropriate behavioral models. While cartoons are more outlandish in their behavior variability, the only real cartoon husband who was similar to Kevin James’ King of Queens character was Fred Flintstone, who was the foundation this stereotype was built on. Fred differed from Ralph Kramden because we did not see Ralph and Alice’s lives outside of their apartment setting, so all the storylines were primarily based on Ralph venting his day to his wife Alice and best friend Norton. Although Fred was the first model of a selfish spouse who put all his needs and wants above his family’s, Doug Heffernan (Kevin James’s character) took this to a whole new level. So much so, that this stereotypical “TV Husband” behavior has become paired and expected with Kevin James’s movie and TV characters (e.g., “Kevin Can Wait”, “Grown Ups”), even though he has many roles without this trait (e.g., “Here Comes the Boom”, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”, “Pixels”).
Every family has a wacky side character. If you let them take away your focus from what’s important, you’ll jump the shark. You find this hard to believe, but “Happy Days” was a show about high schooler Richie Cunningham and his wacky adventures, based on the movie American Graffiti (both starring Ron Howard). However, the first thing people think about in regards to the show is Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli. “Family Matters” was about a Black family in Chicago, focused on the parents who were spin-off characters from “Perfect Strangers”, but everyone’s first thought is Steve Urkel. “Step by Step” was about a blended family in Wisconsin, and ended up focusing too much on the cousin Cody, who lived in a VAN down by the Driveway! (Chris Farley voice)
The common trait with all 3 of those shows …
- The core family was the focus of each show.
- Each family allowed someone else and their life to become a major storyline.
- Each family slowly allowed the side character’s life to become more and more important than their current story.
- The core family’s lives become irrelevant, except for furthering the side character’s storylines.
- When the side character moves on to become their own lead elsewhere, it is too late to refocus without a complete refresh.
- The show comes to an unsatisfying end, or the family tries to refocus on another side character.
Life Lesson #2: Don’t jump the shark!
Don’t allow others to take away your focus on your family and goals. It’s easy to allow ourselves to use the lives’ of others to create an escape for us from our problems. If you focus on the problems of others too often, you stop working on your own problems and goals.
Friends and Neighbors
The shows that allow everyone to shine are the ones that can have successful spin-offs and grow to become more than what they started as. For example, “Boy Meets World” was about Corey Mathews, a boy from Philadelphia, and journey through life. But instead of forcing everyone’s problem to somehow be about Corey, we watched as he learned life lessons from observing the behaviors and lives of others. Shawn Hunter, Corey’s best friend, could have easily been a Steve Urkel; he had the eye of female fans (i.e., good looks), a deep and traumatic backstory, and storylines that captivated the audience.
However, instead of being 100% Shawn focused or Corey-driven, the episodes that focused on Shawn allowed him to shine, while showing us the lessons Corey was learning, which had nothing to do with Shawn’s lessons. While Shawn learned to cope with disappointments and tragedies in life, Corey learned to be there for his best friend, without making situations about him, and without having to learn the same lesson. For example, when Shawn was learning how cope with his failed romantic relationship with Angela, Corey was learning how to maintain friendships with both Shawn and Angela without losing one or both as friends. And vice versa, throughout Corey’s journey in life, he had several breakups with his eventual wife Topanga. When he was learning to cope with his many lessons of love, friendship, and maturity in regards to Topanga, Shawn was learning how to maintain his roles as Corey’s best friend and Topanga’s lifelong childhood friend, without losing their trust or friendship.
Life Lesson #3: Let everyone shine!
When you allow others in your life to be impactful, without the focus of your life, you can learn, grow, and develop into a better person. Behaviorally, we learn about behaviors through both direct interactions and observations. Allow yourself to have a healthy balance of both, and allow others to learn from you.