Okay, there’s a lot of crap on television these days. From “reality” shows that follow around people that are famous for simply being rich to competition elimination shows for every possible profession (there was one for America’s Next Top garbage man at one point). So much so that there are probably a lot of people rolling their eyes at this article, but the original purpose of television was to bring families together for entertainment (and to sell washing detergent, but not the point). Shows like Star Trek and The Cosby Show provided family safe entertainment while educating us about the world happening outside of our respective bubbles. Today it seems that if it has any worthy entertainment value that it is worshipping at the altar of the anti-hero (The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men…) and none of these are really family appropriate viewing, and for the most part they are still telling the stories of well-to-do caucasian males who have diverted from the normal path for varying reasons.
Still, in the middle of all this there are a few shows that are striving to tell new stories in interesting ways. They are getting back to the roots of old school television that strived to teach us valuable lessons about people that are different from ourselves (and that valuable lesson 99% of the time is that they aren’t different from us at all, really). With spring premieres just around the corner, I’ve compiled a list of shows that might strike your fancy or intrigue your curiosity. So get your remotes ready.
1. Orange is the New Black – (Netflix)
Okay, this show also falls into the category of not-family friendly, but the inspiration for this list came from a Facebook debate I had about the merit of this show. OITNB centers on Piper, an affluent white girl who hooked up with a lesbian drug lord when she was in college. Ten years later, as she’s planning her wedding to an aspiring newspaper writer in New York City, Piper finds out that her ex girlfriend gave her up and she’ll have to spend a year in prison for aiding and abetting years prior. The show starts with Piper’s first day in prison and we follow as she tries to acclimate to her new surroundings. Then the show takes a sudden turn – instead of allowing us to see the prisoners through Piper’s eyes, which would inevitably leave them painted as caricatures and stereotypes, we visit flashbacks into the past lives of each of them in each new episode. This shows gives in-depth back stories and character arcs to not only women, but women of color and various races. The most intriguing of which is played by Laverne Cox, a transgender woman who plays Sophia, transgender prisoner on the show. Some of the most gripping episodes of the show are the ones that chronicle Sophia’s transition from male firefighter and family man to fierce hairdresser. It doesn’t shortcut around the difficulties Sophia’s family faces in light of the transition, the alienation she feels as her young son struggles to accept that his father is now a woman.
This show is definitely one you want to save for after the kids have gone to bed (or when your parents are out of the room), but the rave reviews you’ve heard aren’t lying when they say you’ll get started and binge watch all 13 episodes in season 1. It’s a harsh look at the lives and stories of a population we so often ignore as part of our society. It humanizes characters that have previously been boxed in by stereotypes and tropes, and they are stories you should hear.
New episodes of OITNB return in 2014. Season 1 can be found on Netflix.
2. Switched at Birth – ABC Family
To be perfectly honest, I started watching this show expecting it to be another ABC Family guilty pleasure (like it’s predecessors Greek or Make It or Break It), but what I got thoroughly surprised me. While ABC Family has been known to get a little overly preachy and unrealistic with its family dramas (Secret Life of the American Teenager, anyone?) Switched at Birth is the story of two 15 year old girls who discover they were, well, switched at birth. One grew up in the affluent surroundings provided by her retired baseball player father (Bay) and the other grew up with a single mom on the “wrong side of the tracks” (Daphne). When the switch is revealed thanks to Bay’s high school biology assignment, the two families decide to try and raise the girls together to try and make up for lost time with each of them, and naturally conflict arrises.
What makes Switched at Birth really special though is that when Daphne was three years old she contracted meningitis that left her completely deaf. So half the show is told via sign language (with subtitles!). It gives you an inside look at the deaf community like you have never seen unless you’ve been part of that culture. Each actor had to become fluent in sign language for their parts. And last season the show made history by having an entire episode done in sign language. The show requires a whole new dimension of acting by incorporating this new language and showing the nuances of this incredible culture. And since it’s on ABC Family it definitely works for prime time family viewing.
The Switched at Birth spring premiere is January 12 at 8pm on ABC Family.
3. The Fosters – ABC Family
I promise this post is not sponsored by ABC Family, and everyone I know rolls their eyes when I try to convince them of the good work this network is producing in terms of television. The Fosters premiered last summer as the #1 new cable show amongst viewers 12-34, which says a lot when you consider it’s a show about a bi-racial lesbian couple and their mix of adopted children. The groundbreaking thing about The Fosters is that it shows this family as a normal family (because it is!). But this is the first time that a gay couple has served as the primary focus of a primetime show without being the gimmick of a comedy series. Of course there have been shows like Queer as Folk and The L-Word on premium cable, but those served to show the “sexier side” of LGBTQ lifestyle, and definitely not suitable for family watching. This is a serious show about a normal family of mixed races, and the parents just happen to be two women. What.
The most striking thing about the show is how realistic the conversations they have about sexuality, prejudice and race. I got extremely emotional during the episode when Leena’s mother told Leena that she’d never be a real black woman and understand their struggles because she’s only half black. Not only did the issue hit so close to home but I had never seen a television show address it so bluntly or even attempt to address the type of politics that happen between black women over skin color. Then it was such a relief to see these two moms have real conversations with their teenagers about safe sex rather than preaching abstinence and pretending to be shocked when they find out their teenage son didn’t listen. In the wake of so many LGBTQ reforms and the crusade for marriage equality beginning to reach critical mass, The Fosters is doing a remarkable job of giving a realistic look at an LGBTQ family without any jokes, gimmicks or preachiness.
The Fosters returns January 12 at 9pm on ABC Family.
4. Parks and Recreation – NBC
Disclaimer: I absolutely belong to the church of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, but it’s because they are awesome and stand for really amazing things. Parks and Rec got a bad wrap during it’s first season as being a rip off of the office. When the writing staff of the show heard that audiences thought of Leslie Knope (played by Amy) as ditzy they knew they had to make a change. Rather than changing Leslie’s core personality though, they simply changed the way that people around her reacted to her go-get-em attitude and borderline manic enthusiasm. You have probably seen more than one Ron Swanson meme or a Tom Haverford “TREAT YO SELF” gif around the internet, but make no mistake that this is a show centered on Leslie Knope and the pursuit of her dream to become the first female president.
Parks and Rec makes this list because it’s a show about team work. When discussing this show with my friends (it’s a universal favorite) the point often comes up that it is one of the few shows on television where you root for everyone. The members of the Pawnee parks department walk over coals for each other on a daily basis and in each episode all you want is for them to succeed. You have a genuine emotional love for each of them, and it mirrors the affection they have for each other. It’s a show about building people up rather than tearing them down. It’s also about empowering women and showing them in positions of authority, breaking glass ceilings and refusing to take no as an answer when it comes to achieving their dreams. Just as Leslie covers her city hall office with pictures of her female political inspirations, every ambitious, driven girl out there should carry around a picture of Leslie. Not to mention it is one of the funniest shows on the air right now, and then remember that Amy also writes and directs several of the episodes. This show stars a woman who is doing it all about a woman who is doing it. Win.
Parks and Recreation returns for it’s 100th episode on January 7 at 8:30 PM on NBC.
What shows do you watch with your family that you think should make the list? Share with us in the comments below!