Television shows nominated for the Emmy Awards have included plots in which a prude daughter of a British lord sleeps with a Turkish diplomat (“Downton Abbey”), a doctor observes a lesbian prostitute perform her services through a brothel peephole for research purposes (“Masters of Sex”), and a bisexual woman is reunited in prison with her former girlfriend, who happens to be a fellow narcotics trafficker (“Orange is the New Black”).
Which begs the question: whither traditional values ? That is, in a sea of social liberalism dripping off televisions screens into Americans’ homes, how can Americans reclaim a strong sense of faith, fidelity, and family in pop culture? Where can we locate socially conservative principles—which used to be American principles, supported across ideological lines—in a deluge of cultural relativism?
One answer is to recover the lessons of “Full House,” a sitcom that was the glue of ABC’s “TGIF” family-friendly television lineup in the 1990s. The show’s premise did not scream traditional values. But it revealed undercurrents of a dynamic social conservatism that serves as an antidote to the cultural liberalism of contemporary televisions shows, whose faux-edgy plotlines expose an impoverished understanding of what T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk called the permanent things in life. Love. Happiness. Human fallibility.
An Modern Take on Family Values
Yet we begin with the fact that “Full House,” at first glance, was no “Leave It to Beaver.” Danny Tanner, a television talk show host whose wife, Pam, had died in a car accident before the first episode, enlists the help of his brother-in-law, Jesse (John Stamos), and Danny’s childhood best friend, Joey (Dave Coulier), to raise his three children: D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle. In essence, three adult males with no female presence (until Jesse’s future wife moves in) try to cook, clean, and diaper-change their way toward providing a nurturing home environment for three adolescent daughters—particularly Danny, an OCD neat freak. The Tanner household smacked more of “Modern Family” than the nuclear family.
But the artistic beauty of “Full House” was that it articulated and elevated the permanent things above the noise of mundane life and the seemingly unconventional nature of its family structure. Consider one of these permanent things described by Kirk, the chastening effect that an understanding of human fallibility has on our expectations in life. “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created,” he wrote.
One episode in Season Four, among many, captures this theme. Stephanie becomes upset one night that she does not have a mother to take to a mother-daughter sleepover. Joey tags along with Stephanie to the party, and he tries with all his goofy might to play with the other mothers and daughters. Yet he fails to blend in. (His last-place finish in the high-heel egg relay race should have been a warning sign.)
Stephanie returns back to the Tanner house devastated. D.J. attempts to have a heart-to-heart with her, but Stephanie, anguish swept across her face, asks why she couldn’t have a mother to take with her to the sleepover. Why couldn’t life be fair?
D.J. responds by urging Stephanie to cherish the gifts that they are blessed with, such as three loving male guardians, and each other—even if they didn’t have a mother. Her suggestion to Stephanie that life is not perfect expresses the principle of human imperfectability, and further shows the liberating effect that such an understanding wields on our expectations of life’s potentialities and limitations. This lesson is reinforced in a different episode. When Stephanie is despondent after losing her favorite stuffed animal, Danny, Jesse, and Joey remind her and her two sisters that they should remember the warm moments they shared with their mother when she was alive, and how each one of them resembled Pam’s character traits in some profound way. Pam was the compass of their memory.
A cursory explanation of these scenes would argue that they demonstrate families do not need a mother and father to flourish, thereby confirming the postmodern narrative that all types of social arrangements are acceptable as long as they are supportive and loving. But the larger message, consistent with the social conservatism spanning from Kirk back to Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” is that life is not perfect. Tragedies like Pam’s death signify the utter frailty of the human condition. Our fate may not necessarily be in our hands. We should, therefore, cherish the life that God gave to us. And we should honor our loved ones who passed away by reaching back into the mist of history and pulling out those little moments that give meaning and comfort to our lives, and that connect us to that mystical compact of past, present, and future generations of family and community.
Understanding Love and Happiness
This insight shines light another difference between “Full House” and Emmy-nominated shows. While the sitcom acknowledged the inescapable social diversity in life, it did not trumpet diversity as the ultimate end of human existence. For instance, Danny strives earnestly to find that lifelong female partner for everlasting love, and for a mother to help raise his daughters. So when he does try to act the playboy in one episode, and when he dates a college intern in another, he falls flat on his dustbuster. Danny realizes that hollow, temporal pursuits of pleasure do not give him fulfillment. Thus Danny’s noble quest toward a single soulmate in the sitcom symbolizes another touchstone of social conservatism, first painted vividly by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave: an embrace of recognizing the permanence of the Good. Rather than settling for the seduction of fleeting passions, as do many characters on modern sitcoms, Danny remains committed to finding that lasting expression of unchanging reality, eternal love.
Danny’s pursuit also suggests a subtle repudiation of the argument that “Full House” was the modern precursor to “Modern Family.” This argument holds that these sitcoms meant to prove that unconventional families could still flourish. But Danny’s search for a wife, and his daughters’ struggle to grow up without a female presence in the household, underscored that a father-mother household was still the preferable arrangement for the Tanner family. Once again, the end of “Full House’s” social structure was not diversity, but a permanent thing. The traditional family.
Reviving the lessons of “Full House” is not a mere exercise in nostalgia, nor wasthe sitcom the sole proprietor of such lessons in the coming-of-age Millennial generation. (Such as “Boy Meets World” and “Family Matters” also come to mind). Rather, it offers an instructive message for current Emmy Award-nominated shows, and for Millennials who grew up on family sitcoms but have graduated to ostensibly more sophisticated television viewing: The end of human existence is not to promote shifting sexual desires or social arrangements or genders or ethnicities, but to achieve something greater, something lasting, something final.