Until you are mired in the center of a large family, it’s impossible to truly understand how complicated interpersonal relationships can get. This is doubly true for broods complicated with divorce and remarriage, blended families and shared custody. People feel slighted, passed over. Spats grow into feuds, goofs turn into recurring jokes, stories morph into legends, and you laugh as much as you cry. From the outside, it’s difficult to see all of the nuance. There’s no telling what the story is with the new family next door, whether they get along or fight all the time, whether they have family meals together or all fend for themselves, why the youngest son is so blond compared to everyone else.
Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That may be true, but what he neglects to note is that behind every unhappy family is a happy family, and behind every happy family is an unhappy one. They exist in the same space, a double image that wobbles toward resolution but never gets there.
This was something the sadly departed comedy Sons & Daughters understood inherently, something many of the series that play in the same sandbox never really had a handle on. This is no surprise, considering the show was, at heart, an epic Russian novel, as adapted by Robert Altman, and populated with the country’s finest band of improv players.
Created by Fred Goss and Nick Holly (and produced by Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels), the 2006 ABC series acted as a kind of trial run for the megahit Modern Family, while maintaining an emotional richness that the latter has only managed a shadow of—and then only in a handful of early episodes, before it became a staid, conventional juggernaut. But it’s also possible that depth of emotion was exactly what doomed Sons & Daughters from inception. It may have been too real for TV, too comfortable with the uncomfortable corners of life and love. So it was canceled. The finale never even aired. (It can now be found on the internet.)
Like Curb Your Enthusiasm before it, Sons & Daughters was filmed in a semi-improvisational style. In lieu of a script, the cast was given something akin to a short story as a jumping-off point. This resulted in a casual and convivial feel, reminiscent of the natural one-upping that occurs inside rambunctious families. The cast was sprawling, and each episode is the result of hours and hours of footage edited down into a single 22-minute showing. These elements—the improvisatory notes, the overlapping conversations, the restless camera prowling a huge ensemble cast—were surely Altman-esque, but perhaps nothing was so reminiscent of the famed director’s work than the way the show mucked about in the inanities of life and found something fresh and true, examining the complicated relationships that bound these characters together for better or worse.
Looking back at the show through the lens of Modern Family is illuminating, but it’s also helpful to look at Sons & Daughters as audiences must have upon its premiere. The first episode aired in early March 2006, less than a month after the demise of cult favorite Arrested Development. While the shows had little in common, outside of single-camera filming styles and a single weird family at their centers, Arrested Development zigged toward satirical surrealism while Sons & Daughters zagged toward biting humor with a deep core of humanity. At the time, the recent cancellation of Fox’s critically acclaimed sitcom was too big a blow for fans of acerbic sitcoms, who were not ready to love again.
Also not in the ABC sitcom’s favor was the fact that because the “modern” family dynamic was so complicated, the show actually used footnotes in the opening scenes of the first handful of episodes to remind audiences of the complicated web of relationships stretching out from protagonist Cameron Walker (Fred Goss). The characters included his mother Colleen (Dee Wallace-Stone) and stepfather Wendal (Max Gail); Cameron’s wife, Liz (Gillian Vigman) and their children, Marnie and Ezra; Cameron’s estranged teen son from a previous marriage, newly installed in his home, Henry (Trevor Einhorn); Cameron’s sister Sharon (Alison Quinn) and her husband Don (Jerry Lambert), as well as their children Carrie (Eden Sher) and Jeff (Randy Wayne); and, finally, Cameron’s half-sister Jenna (Amanda Walsh), her son Wylie, and her ex “Whitey” (Greg Pitts).
The fact that the family in question was so seemingly complicated was what made the show so unquestionably realistic. While the description seems unwieldy, the events that lead to such sprawl are quite commonplace. A divorce and remarriage. More children. More divorce. More children. All it takes to end up with a twisty family tree is a few bad relationships. These complicated bonds make for strained interactions from time to time, and family members make no attempt to mince words when they’re annoyed with each other. As the talk was blunt and always very pointed, the frankness rubbed some reviewers the wrong way, like Entertainment Weekly’s Henry Goldblatt, who found much of the humor to be disgusting and disdainful.
And the extended Walker family is sometimes rude. They are sometimes creepy and inappropriate and mean. But portraying them as such works in the show’s favor in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it showcases the sometimes unpleasant backbiting that can take place in families, as no one knows how to annoy you like those who share your family tree. But unlike other sitcoms where there’s no fallout for dickish behavior, the emotional beats on Sons & Daughters always remained very pure. You could absolutely be an asshole on the show, but you would be treated like the asshole you were, and people would react accordingly.
Those exacting emotional beats make the show memorable, despite its abbreviated run. In only 11 episodes, it built a world populated with a flawed, frustrating family whose members, despite all the unpleasantness they created for themselves, were trying to support each other the best way they knew how. All of the characters on the show (save for maybe the kids) were actively confronting the question of whether they were happy in their lives and whether they had done enough to prepare themselves for that mythical happiness in real and concrete ways.
But Sons & Daughters dealt with other serious issues beyond existential malaise. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about S&D’s swift cancellation was the fact that the show appeared uniquely insightful about what it was to live on that precarious bubble of the upper middle class in the mid-’00s. Airing in 2006, the show unknowingly existed in the final days of the housing bubble, just a year before the beginning of the subprime mortgage implosion.
Though it couldn’t have been consciously aware of the dire straits the middle class was headed toward, the series displayed the financial situation of Cam’s family incisively. Cameron and Liz were always dancing just ahead of bill collectors, living paycheck to paycheck, despite having a huge, gorgeous house. At one point, thanks to a number of unexpected accidents, they’re forced to borrow money from Cam’s sister (who borrows it from their mother) and jump through all manner of hoops to pay it back. That doesn’t even touch on the terror later in the season when Cam is unceremoniously laid off from his longtime employer.
Far from the comfortable excess displayed in a typical modern sitcom, Sons & Daughters worked to display the wealth disparity within the extended family itself. Everyone had a nice home, yes, but they also lived in Ohio. And within that structure, levels remained. Sharon and Don had more money, as they owned their own successful business. Cam and Liz did okay, but were clearly spending beyond their means. Jenna was a waitress and still lived at her parents’ house. Said parents’ wealth clearly stemmed from the retirement funds that still existed before the recession.
This ultimately makes the show a different animal from most every other sitcom in recent memory. Where other shows, even similar shows with significant acclaim, like Arrested Development or Modern Family, or really any single-camera sitcom, busied themselves with farce-based comedy, Sons always remained committed to extracting humor from the horrifying situations that arise in day-to-day life. Neither comedic route is superior, of course, but using farce limits a series to more fantastic avenues of humor, places where persistent economic dilemmas can’t be explored.
Sons & Daughters’ realistic approach to comedic conflict dealt with the fallout from many topics, like marital separations and sexual discordance. But perhaps the show’s most notable considerations were of the strain and complications that can stem from divorce, particularly when it involves children. In the pilot, Cam’s youngest son, Ezra, asks why he calls Wendal “dad” even though he’s not his real dad, and Cam explains that Wendal had been there since he was 2, so he considered his stepfather his real dad. The story sweetly clarifies how strong the bond of step-families can be. But the show doesn’t stop at easy platitudes. Eventually we learn that Henry has only recently come to live with Cam’s family, having not seen his father, Cam, since he was 2. Cam blames this on the instability of Henry’s mother, who is, legitimately, mentally ill, but the years of distance have fractured the relationship in a fundamental way, something that Cam should be particularly sensitive to, given his own history. But because he’s blinkered, he’s often blind to the reality of his son’s situation.
This material comes to a stunningly painful, but perceptive, point in both the final aired episode and the unaired finale. In the former, Cam and Sharon’s father shows up at the house unexpectedly, to mixed reactions. In the latter, Henry’s mother comes back to reclaim custody and take him to Florida. These episodes rip into what it is to have a void where you should have a parent, and what you do in the meantime to keep yourself sane.
In Cam’s case, he closed the door to the man who conceived him and moved on with a new father figure. In Sharon’s, she lived in boundless hope for the return of the father she created for herself. The episodes also address the burden some children of divorce subject themselves to, with Henry having to decide whether or not he stays with Cam and the family (which he wants to do) or go with his mother and take care of her, knowing that she’ll be alone otherwise (which he feels compelled to do). Each episode ends with a bittersweet moment that sitcoms only achieve when they’ve built something real and human with their show, something Sons & Daughters accomplished in spades.
In just 11 episodes, Sons & Daughters developed rich and layered characters capable of evoking deep emotional resonance. Unfortunately, thanks in part to a time slot directly opposite American Idol at its most dominant, Sons & Daughters was gone before it could ever find an audience of its own. (Though it may be worth mentioning that Goss recently sold a pilot to ABC that has remarkably similar beats to S&D.) The finale, one of the series’ finest blends of humor and heart, never even made it to air. ABC only canceled the show at the absolute last minute — obviously proud of it but also obviously not sure what to do with it. And when Modern Family debuted, it seemed like an attempt to revisit the ground this show had broken, but also an attempt to smooth out the rough edges, at least a little bit. There, when a long-gone parent has mental health issues, it’s time for wacky laughs. On Sons & Daughters, even the biggest belly laughs were bittersweet.
That bittersweet quality might have been the show’s most realistic, significant quality. There’s something beautiful about the imagined comings and goings of the overgrown family next door, those whose names you all know but whose relationships you’ll never quite understand. Sons & Daughters took us into that family, in all its messy complications, and it found the heart of what it is to feel both lost and found in such a space. It opened the door and let us in, if only for a little while.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Wonder
Next time: First Superman. Then Batman. Then viewers in 1990 were treated to the original TV version of The Flash. Zack Handlen uses his own super-speed powers to travel back 25 years, to a superhero series before its time.