March 31, 2014

TV audiences in love with annoying children, the second wave

Here is a New York Post article reviewing some of the many annoying child and teenage actors on hit TV shows right now. I haven't seen any of them, so I'm not sure how central they are, but it sounds like they're at least regular cast members, some of them at the core.

If there are so many of them littered throughout popular shows, the general audience appreciates it, notwithstanding a vocal minority. And even if the general audience doesn't care for a particular character, that's more of a failed attempt at the goal of creating the "prominent child character" that the audience craves. In today's climate of nuclear family-centric cocooning, viewers just can't get enough of watching children.

However, this isn't the only time when you would have been assaulted by annoying kids when turning on the TV. During the previous heyday of permissive parenting in the Mid-century, one of the most popular shows was Dennis the Menace, starring a more sympathetic but still off-putting Baby Boomer brat who couldn't act. The less popular yet more iconic show Leave It To Beaver starred an even more annoying kid who couldn't act.

Circa 1960, status-striving and dog-eat-dog competitiveness was nearing a low point, so at least those earlier examples would not have made you angry with their smug dismissive attitude. Still, they were children who couldn't act, they were central characters, and they were going to get on your nerves for being so dorky, bratty, and wussy.

As Mid-century cocooning had all but melted away by the 1980s, it was damn unlikely that you were going to suffer annoying children on television. Here is a site that lists the top 30 shows in the Nielsen ratings for each year, which you can browse if you're unfamiliar with them.

For the early and middle parts of the decade, there was nary a child to be seen, let alone a central character whose immaturity and inability to act would have made you change the channel. There was that blonde daughter from Family Ties who was a mopey sourpuss, but she was mostly out of the picture before she got to high school. I'm sure there are other marginal examples like that, but none where they're one of the main characters.

What's striking about the hit shows back then is how grown-up everyone is. Dallas, Magnum P.I., Cheers, Miami Vice. Viewers then were so maturity-minded that they put The Golden Girls, a show about four senior citizens, into the upper layer of ratings. Directly related to that is how unrelated most of the characters are — annoying kids tend to crop up in shows that focus on families.

Toward the end of the '80s, as cocooning is about to set in, there were still only a couple of annoying kids on TV — the son Jonathan in Who's the Boss? and Rudie from The Cosby Show.

Then as the family-centered shows of the '90s rode the wave of helicopter parenting and cocooning, we got a deluge of annoying kids. Darlene and DJ from Roseanne, the little boy from Family Matters, the Olsen twins and Stephanie from Full House, the blond nerdlinger from Step by Step, and all of the kids from Home Improvement.

Everybody's favorite show about nothing, Seinfeld, was a holdout in this regard, and in hindsight was a key factor in making the show so enjoyable — no fucking kids. Not even teenagers. It was more of an ironic and self-aware incarnation of Cheers adapted for the postmodern Nineties.

These changes back and forth are the result of folks being more community-minded and public-oriented vs. more family-minded and home-oriented. The community and public places are not made up of children, but adults (mostly). Only when people start locking themselves indoors do they dwell on the ankle-biters that are part of private, family life.

7 comments:

  1. The early years of Family Matters, Step by Step, etc. were made during an outgoing time, so I assume they toned down the brattiness. Yeah, Steve Urkel was annoying, but he was supposed to grate on the nerves of the audience. He wasn't a depiction of a normal teenager. It wasn't until the mid-90s that those and others shows started passing off bratty kids as being normal.

    (Granted, I have nostalgia for the early years of those shows)

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  2. Joffrey Baratheon doesn't really fit the annoying kid trope. He's evil, and his brattiness just makes him more pathetic and hateable. He also qualifies as an adult (perhaps not in the books, but the characters are aged up in the show), whose arranged marriage was held up by the youth of his intended bride.

    My understanding is that the annoying kid on "Leave it to Beaver" was Eddie Haskell.

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  3. Your bit about Seinfeld reminded me of its evil twin: Friends. It represented the worst of sitcom cliches, but it also focused on childless yuppies. As did the Cheers spinoff, Frasier. The lord of awful sitcom cliches nowadays is Chuck Lorre, and while Two and a Half Men does have the titular kid, I don't think Big Bang Theory or Mike & Molly does, nor did Dharma & Greg. Looking at modern single-camera sitcoms, 30 Rock was and Brooklyn Nine Nine is pretty good as a workplace sitcom (I don't think the Office had kids either, but I didn't watch that). Arrested Development & Louie were/are good and contained kids, but they're not really annoying.

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  4. Only slightly related, but what about Justin Bieber?

    Seems like a bratty child.

    It's amazing to me how many grown adults are focused on him and his on/off GF Selena Gomez. Both of them are now adults, but they come across as emotionally physically immature.

    I think they might fit into your observations.

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  5. Yeah, I do seem to see TGGP's observations here as more fitting to reality than agnostic's here.

    Not too familiar with American television pre-late 1980s, but looking at your lists, seems like there's a lot of annoying family focused sitcoms in the mid-late 1980s (1985) and then early 1990s.

    Family Ties, Kate & Allie, Cosby Show, Who's the Boss, Growing Pains, all by the mid 1980s, then Roseanne and Wonder Years by late 1980s, the less popular Family Matters and Full House and more popular Home Improvement and Grace Under Fire in the earty 1990s.

    Then when you're back to the late 1990s, the family sitcoms have disappeared again in favor of groups of adults, other than the Everybody Loves Raymond show in which the kids aren't real characters. 1996 seems representative

    http://www.classictvhits.com/tvratings/1996.htm

    Seems like the same story in film. You've got your Home Alones and your Problem Childs and your Bart Simpsons and your annoying Dennis the Menace reboot pretty much around 1990 (at the very end of rising murder rates), then not so much after.

    Doesn't really seem to fit a pattern where this stuff is more prominent in the early phase of a falling murder cycle than the late phase of a rising murder cycle. Maybe you could kind of build a theory where late high murder rate period people have a kind of self conscious focusing on family subjects to get out of the risk taking, sociable, young adult focused personality patterns they were previously...? Seems a bit tenuous.

    What do the lists look like from the 2000s on? Present day top 20s seem mostly like mixes of "reality" / "talent" and cop / detective (there are some shows with a kid on there, but they don't really make the top 10).

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  6. Guys like Bieber and Brown being popular among teen girls despite being base scumbags who aren't even cool seems like it might come from today's normal "boy crazy" girls being

    - shallower about looks over personality in our era (so they are willing to excuse his tarded behavior and lack of genuine charisma), due to less social experience. It's hard to really get how good being close to and understanding someone really feels if you're rarely in that situation, unlike image.

    - and longer rising inequality normalizing contemptuous, status conscious, dismissive behavior by "stars". although this is harder to read, because stars in a much more status competitive market where they're commodities probably pander more and whore themselves out more as well. either way there's less of a naturalistic, spontaneous egalitarian relationship between them and others.

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  7. "Home Alones"

    The first Home Alone is def. a product of the rising crime rate. Afterall, the plot is that some criminals case a friendly suburban neighborhood to burglarize one of the houses while the owners are on vacation.

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