TV Families: Bradys? Duggars? Which Are Your Favorites?

By Laurie Sanchez

My 13-year-old daughter was shaking her head at the tabloid cover at the supermarket, featuring the 19th child of the Duggar family. “It just seems a little weird. …” she said.

I nodded, but shrugged: The Duggar family seems like a very nice family, actually, and I have no qualms about how many children they want to have. My surprise, instead, is about how many families agree to be televised while trying to raise them.

There was, of course, the Gosselins (Jon and Kate Plus Eight). There are the Duggars (19 Kids and Counting). There was a show proposed about the Masches (Raising Sextuplets). And now there’s the Hayes family (Table for 12).

Of course, the fascination with big families is not new.

When I was growing up, we had lots of television families, too, but -- the big difference -- is that the families were fake: There was the Brady Bunch (combining a family! Imagine that!), the Partridge Family (performing with your family! Imagine that!), Eight Is Enough (eight kids! Imagine that!), and there were even a few movies about multiples, including the ever-popular Parent Trap (original 1970s version, thank you very much).

We were fascinated with what it would be like to be part of a large family, or part of a combined family, or perhaps a multiple. We watched all the childish hijinks and wondered what it would be like if we had a mom like Carol Brady or a brother like Keith Partridge. Maybe our fascination stemmed from coming off the "free love" 60s, in which the nuclear family took quite a beating. People doubted marriage, doubted the happy 2.5 kids. People were getting divorced in large numbers and having much smaller families. So maybe the flurry of '70s shows was in response to that -- showing us that combined families, even after divorce, could still be happy and normal and filled with a dog like Tiger jumping through the family blow-up pool. The most interesting thing about this, though, is that I now realize many of those stories were told from the point of view of the kids.

As the decades rolled by, then, and infertility treatments became common, and multiples … well, multiplied … large families became real. And television focused on reality. So it seemed an obvious leap that we’d get reality television about families of multiples. (Combining fascinations. Gotta love it.)

But the stories, now, are not romantic. They’re not filled with cute childish hijinks about a fountain filled with bubbles or wearing a pair of fake glasses to fool a date. They’re not designed to amuse, or entertain. Or maybe they are, but they don’t. And they’re now told from the parents’ point of view, not the kids’. The kids’ point of view is funny, but the parents’ point of view is … kinda painful.
How do you feel about the current crop of reality shows about families? Do you think the parent point of view is as painful as I do? Did you watch the “fake families” when you were a kid? Do you think we’re destined to make a fictional-family comeback? (I'm already watching Modern Family and thinking that this might represent our comeback -- the self-defined, no-definitions-attached version of whatever you call "family." Love it. ...)

Laurie Sanchez lives in Southern California with her not-made-for-TV family and is putting the polishing touches on her first contemporary romance novel. She also blogs as Mizwrite and blogs over at Health Bistro on Fridays.


  1. I did watch the Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough but didn't really relate to the kids or the adults - I was somewhere in-between. My growing-up families were the Andersons on "Father Knows Best," "Donna Reed," "Ozzie & Harriet," "Leave it to Beaver," and to be a bit more contemporary, "My Three Sons" - I wanted to be Katie. And now that you mention multiple births, they may have been one of the first when Rob and Katie had those triplets.

  2. I grew up watching all of those "fake family" shows - and not all of them were comedies - remember The Waltons? That show wasn't cutsie. Then there was the show actually called "Family" a lot of serious issues in that show too. The Cosby Show was a sitcom but often dealt with serious issues and it was primarily from the POV of the Dad. So I think we've always been fascinated by family shows - stories that reflect what is going on in our western culture at the time.

    But reality shows are cheaper to make. And they can be extreme and outrageous. Jon and Kate - I thought was kind of cutsie and boring until their marriage started breaking down off-camera - then suddenly the tabloids became an extension of the show - and then the show reflected that tension as well. I agree with you that the idea of "multiples" has created this sub-category of family reality show.

    But adults on reality shows can make their own decision to be on or not - for whatever reason. Kids don't really have that option. Their parents decide for them. Kids on reality shows aren't actors - they aren't getting paid to play a role - at least perhaps not in the beginning - who knows what they begin to think about what is actually going on - what is real and what is not - and who knows what the long term effect is on all the kids on these shows.

    Interesting post! Thanks for this. ;)

  3. I, too, watched and still watch those old "cheesy" shows. I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I suspect because they represent for me a much more carefree and irresponsible time. Like most people my childhood was not idyllic and I suppose that I liked these shows because their situations weren't idyllic but they made the most of it and made it work (Bradys and Partridges, heck even the "Courtship of Eddie's Father"). I know it's as fake and cheesy as can be but people read novels for escape...
    Today's shows, while facinating at times, depress me. For one thing, I'm sure they're not as real as the "reality" label wants to make them and secondly they are subjecting their kids to all this. My kids have a hard enough time being kids on their own without having half the country judging them-and their parents. I'm conflicted; I watch with a judgemental eye and then feel guilty because if I and millions like me didn't tune in, then maybe they'd die off altogether.
    If only I could call up Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady for some advice-they'd know what to do!


  4. Kathy -- Ah, those were the families that preceded the '70s onslaught, huh? And those shows I think all showed traditional, nuclear families, right? And the parents always had the answers? ;)

    Joanna -- True, there were some dramas, too, with the bigger families, but they were traditional, nuclear families, right? The Brady Bunch and Partridge Family and Eight is Enough, I think, created a subcategory that was responding to the "broken family" dialogue that was going on at the time -- one parent removed from death or divorce, but the family is able to go on with charm and humor and hijinks. And I agree with you about the kids on the reality shows now -- maybe that's why they feel so "painful" to me. Maybe it's not the POV, it's that the parents have all the control and the kids have no say in it. Maybe that will be the new trend in 10 years -- the grown-ups who were kids on reality tv! Gah. ...

    Christopher -- I totally agree. I think I like my "family viewing" to be completely fictional because it can be idyllic. I think the reality thing is a bit too intimate a look! So what do you think will be the next "trend" that we'll be responding to (as far as what we want to see in a family)?

  5. As the oldest of two, I too was fascinated by big families growing up. I watched the Brady's even though it was cheesy. And the original parent trap is still one of my favorites. Gotta love Haley Mills.

    But I don't know, somehow it just seems different with the reality large families. Yes I'm still fascinated, but it's a whole new ball game when parents are raising their kids in front of the camera. I wonder if the kids will ever have a chance at normalcy.

  6. We need more family shows on tv. I loved the Brady Bunch and watched it all the time with my kids. I am from a family of 13 kids so life is fun as well as hectic. susan L.

  7. Definitely loved my fictional families, growing up. The Partidge Family - besides dreamy Keith, I liked the fact that their manager, Reuben and mom, Shirley were able to portray an opposite-gender friendship without having to turn it into a romantic partnership.

    Loved the Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough. But nothing can touch Little House on the Prairie for me - except The Waltons! Charles Ingalls was the dreamiest father figure ever. And as an eldest and a budding writer, older brother John-Boy Walton felt more like an alter ego for me, even though he was a guy.

    Today's reality families don't actually make it onto my radar, as I'm not a fan of reality shows. More importantly, as a former Early Childhood Educator, I fear for the psyches of those tiny TV personalities.

  8. I watched the Bradys and the Partridges growing up, but not because they were bigger families. I'm not even remotely interested in the latest crop of 'reality' families. I don't get the appeal. Maybe because I'm not much of a kid person, who knows, but it escapes me.

  9. Kelly, you just said something that really rang with me (when you said you're not much of a "kid person")! I think THAT's what it is -- the current shows seem to be more about "parenting," while those other (fictional) shows I mentioned were more about "family." ... And I think the reason fiction works better in a show about "family" is that you want to make certain points, or draw attention to certain truths -- whether it's about mom or dad or grandma or cousin Emily or the kids -- but they're not always in the everydayness of reality. They're often few and far between, and they're hard to "catch." So I think that's why fiction is a better vehicle for it. Yes! That's why I want fictional families back! Thanks Kelly Boyce! :)

  10. Susan -- You should write one of those shows! Sounds like you'd have tons of fodder! 13 kids. Wow. ... It does seem fun.

    Julia -- For some reason, I never watched the Waltons, but I wish I had because so many people loved it. But I'm with you on the Ingalls family -- loved them! And you're SO RIGHT about Shirley/Reuben! In fact, I was just thinking about that when I wrote this, how they were an interesting (and rare) platonic relationship! Hmmm ... maybe another good post. How often do we see that on TV?

    Nana -- Hello! Sounds like you and I had the same taste in shows, and I was also from a small family, so maybe that's partly why it had so much appeal for us. :)

  11. I've watched a few of the reality shows you've mentioned and what I found surprising is that they all have different parenting skills. Some communicate well, some not so much (Kate and John kept yelling at each other). What they all do have in common is the love they have for their children, that is quite evident.
    Now do I think this is healthy for the children? Not on a constant basis. Should the cameras always be on? Absolutely not. There are things we don't need to see or know. John and Kate plus 8 did a few shows featuring toilet training. I'm sorry but we don't need to see that.

  12. I grew up the youngest of seven, so those big families seemed the norm to me! I did love the Partridge Family too, and watched the Brady Bunch. Later, I loved the Gilmore Girls.
    Hate reality shows, sorry. I wanted to vote Jon and Kate off the airwaves after the news media decided they were a "real" story. Arrgh.

  13. Thank you for your post and comments, Laurie and everyone. I can't comment on reality TV families because I don't care for reality TV. But I know enough about it to say this: Thank goodness I'm not one of those kids!

    I'll probably date myself by saying this, but the TV families I remember were a little older than the Bradys, Waltons, Ingalls, or Partridges. I recall, even if vaguely, watching "Father Knows Best", "Make Room for Daddy," "The Donna Reed Show", "My Three Sons", and of course the series that started it all, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet".

    But the one that sticks in my memory the most is "Leave it to Beaver". Over the decades it's taken on a cult status, so I'm not the only one.

    Why? Perhaps because Beaver Cleaver was so easy to identify with and otherwise relate to. Each week he'd get into another adventure---really misadventure. He always screwed up, faced the consequences, paid a price, and learned a lesson---or was supposed to. If he really learned from his mistakes, that series wouldn't have lasted even one season!

    Beaver acted on impulses we all had, and in some ways still do. Through him we could do what he did vicariously, but without the consequences. We could share in the enjoyable parts of the experience and leave it to him to put up with the rest. Hence the title, I think.

    Did I get a little psycho-babblish? Whatever. It's still a fun show.

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Great post!

    Hmmm, dad died when I was a kid and of course, my mom then had to work so those television families seemed like a dream. How cool if Mom married a guy with kids and we formed a big happy family (this is assuming Alice would be thrown in too, Mom would have loved that!)!

    I loved to sing and was a huge Beatles fan so when the Partridge Family came on with the yummy David, how cool would that be?!? *laughs*

    As to reality shows, I'm not a fan. I know that puts me out of the loop but there's just little that appeals to me. And as a writer, well, I have to say I have a vested interest in Fictional Shows Written By Writers. *grin*

    And I loooooved Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Too sweet! And of course, the Brady Bunch movies are Heeee-larious. :-D

    Caught all the early family shows in re-runs too. And now, I'm hooked on 'Modern Family' and also 'The Middle' which is perhaps the most fun dysfunctional family ever. (repeated in a gutteral whisper, "ever...") Hah!

    Fun article!!



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