Pilot Episode: Season One, Episode One: “The Mama Who Came to Dinner.”
Family Matter is the television show I most associate with my childhood and by childhood, I’m talking mostly around the ages of 10-16. Earlier than that would’ve been defined by Rugrats. All throughout those ages professional wrestling is present and formative, but that’s a given.
And it has that quality of being a show that I can watch now at the age of 27 and not feel cringey or think it was some show better left to nostalgia and watching it now would ruin it. Rather, it holds up for me. I still laugh at the jokes and situations I laughed at before. I still cry and get emotional at the lines and situations I cried and got emotional at before. And most of all, I still enjoy it for the fun, silly escapism it is.
I need that unplugging at times. But this time, I decided to plug in to my unplugged brain by liveblogging my renewed binging of the entire nine seasons of Family Matters, or all 215 episodes. I’m not exactly sure how this will play out just yet or what the format will be, i.e., if I’ll literally do a separate blog post on all 215 episodes or just pop in on general storyline arcs and character growths or what, but I’m excited to try what may come.
The show started in 1989 as a spin-off from Perfect Strangers and according to Wikipedia, Family Matters was part of ABC Network’s TGIF lineup: The programming block that defined ABC in the 1990s (as it essentially book-ended the decade from 1989 to 2000). Most of the programming were shows like Family Matters – situation comedies for a family audience, often interspersed with life lessons that get wrapped up neatly by the end of the 20-22 minute episodes.
Along with Family Matters, the rest of the block consisted of Perfect Strangers (not seen it), Full House (another childhood staple of mine), Mr. Belvedere (not seen it), Just the Ten of Us (not seen it), Dinosaurs (not seen it), Step-by-Step (my sister was a big fan, so I saw it at times, but wasn’t invested in it myself), Boy Meets World (another staple), Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper (not seen it), Sister, Sister (see: Step-by-Step explanation), Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (another staple), and Clueless (not seen it).
The show fascinates me on more than just an entertainment level, too, as I’m fascinated by the turn the series takes from what its creators originally conceptualized to where it would move to. But at the beginning here in 1989 with the original pilot episode, “The Mama Who Came to Dinner,” Carl Winslow, wife Harriette, son Eddie, daughter Laura and younger daughter Judy, along with Harriette’s sister Rachel and her son, Richie, all live in the same Chicago house. Carl’s a Chicago cop and his mother, Estelle, is coming to live with them.
It should be noted: The original episodes don’t have the classic Jesse Frederick opening theme, “As Days Go By.” Instead, it’s Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” which really sets the tone for what the creator of the series had in mind from the onset: Exactly what the title gives away and we see shots of just a wholesome, loving family.
Also, the house is setup differently here. For instance, the stairwell that leads to the second story is different and there’s not even the additional kitchen stairwell we would see later in the series.
From the get-go, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of who Carl and Harriette are: Carol is like a clean version of Eddie Murphy and Harriette plays the equal parts more laid back one (she’s not worried about Carl’s mom coming), but also the one that is clearly the pants-wearer in the Winslow household.
Carl, as played by Reginald VelJohnson, most noted for Die Hard a year prior, is a bundle of charm and him and Jo Marie Payton (Harriette) have such obvious chemistry together. The first 20 seconds of the pilot establishes as such and we even get a formidable running gag of the series introduced: that Carl is overweight.
Eddie and Laura are immediately defined, too: Eddie is getting older and wants more autonomy, which naturally rubs up against Police Officer Carl Winslow But Also Dad. Carl calls him Edward.
Laura is essentially the authoritarian big sister to Judy in an easily recognizable space. And essentially, Judy exists merely as a person for Laura to play off of.
Rachel exists as the foil to Harriette’s more rigid characterization: She seems born out of the hippie age (she’s a writer, which is associated with (in this era) with loftiness and a whimsical nature in a sense), goofier and sure to butt heads with Carl.
And Estelle is everyone’s favorite grandma, who says what’s on her mind, seems like she’d fight a bull and also delivers life lessons and wisdom when necessary.
It’s hard to imagine after seeing the pilot how this grounded black middle class family sitcom would end up dabbling in cloning, elaborate Bruce Lee-like fighting scenes and focusing primarily on a nerdy guy not yet seen in this episode.
I hope you’ll join me for the nostalgic ride.