Own it on DVD on June 8th!
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Synopsis: “Hi, everybody!” Fans of ’90s sitcoms know those words mean Steve Urkel has come to call, bringing lots of geeky, goofy fun with him. A spinoff of Perfect Strangers, Family Matters began as the at-home adventures of elevator operator Harriette Winslow and her multigenerational family. But midway through the first season, Jaleel White made a one-shot appearance as neighborhood nerd Urkel. With oversized glasses, undersized body, screechy voice and indomitable self-confidence, Urkel proved irresistibly funny, turning White into an overnight sensation and a new star of the show. Join Urkel and the Winslows for the 22-episode debut season of the hit series that proclaims love matters, laughing matters, Family Matters!
Review: I am both an excellent and terrible person to be reviewing the first season of Family Matters on DVD, the former because when I was in elementary school during the height of the series’ popularity on ABC’s good old TGIF (and for those of you too young or too old to know it, that stood for for Thank God It’s Funny!) Friday night line-up and so was uniquely positioned to be absolutely obsessed with the show–uber-nerd Steve Urkel, in particular–as a kid, and the latter because I have fond, nostalgic memories of Family Matters that severely impair my ability, even in rewatching today, to be able to tell if it’s actually good or not. Before sitting down to watch the first episodes I’ve seen of the show in over ten years, I had already begun to brainstorm phrases that I assumed would end up going into this review, things like “hasn’t aged well” or “what was once heartwarming now feels cloying and anachronistic,” but only a few minutes into the DVD, I was struck by how compulsively watchable the show still remains. Objectively, I can tell that, compared to the television of today, it is often corny and unsophisticated, and I have absolutely no clue whether those who had not grown up with the show would also be able to find it enjoyable, but I can say that, although it may now qualify as “guilty pleasure” viewing at best for former fans, the emphasis is on “pleasure.”
Family Matters is an important show in the pop cultural landscape for two major reasons. Firstly, it was one of the sadly all-too-rare series in television history to focus on an African-American family, with a predominantly African-American cast, that became a mainstream hit on a major network. Secondly, two words: Steve Urkel. For the first half of Family Matters‘ first season, the ratings weren’t particularly strong and neither was the show. Although people who grew to love the characters in later years will find the first eleven episodes interesting, on a curiosity level, anyone else might find themselves scratching their heads as to why the show ended up lasting nine seasons. Although the cast has good chemistry, the scripts are mundane, the jokes lame, and the tone overly sentimental. This is something that could probably be said for most of the series, but what really altered the entire framework of the show was the introduction of the pint-sized, bespectacled Steve Urkel, the annoying, nerdy next door neighbor who appeared as a one-shot guest star in the twelfth episode and proved to be so popular with viewers, he ended up appearing in every episode for the rest of the season, soon becoming a regular cast member and evolving from a tertiary character to basically being the protagonist.
In the end, Family Matters ran far too long, forcing poor Jaleel White to don the spectacles, suspenders, and silly, high-pitched voice far past the character’s expiration date, but looking back on these early episodes, one can see why he became such a phenomenon. He was a supremely talented kid, with a fantastic sense of comic timing that often exceeded the adults around him, and certainly the other kids in the cast. From the first moment he enters the show, the energy in the air changes, and what was at first a rather generic family sitcom becomes sitcom gold. Urkel also became the catchphrase equivalent of a winning slot machine, his earliest and most recognizable line being “Did I do that?” along with his patented laugh and snort.
Again, though, I don’t know how people born past the Urkel generation will react to the show, with its simplistic moralizing and preaching, sappy lessons, and repetitive plots. Each episode is basically the same: Character does something wrong, usually thoughtlessly, Character learns important lesson, Cue “sad but inspirational” music, Character promises to never behave that way again, Character forgets the lesson by the next episode, only to start the cycle all over again. I can’t count the number of times over the course of the show Laura or Carl or Eddie or Harriette promises to never be mean to Steve again. Later on, the series’ plots would sometimes grow increasingly bizarre, with sci-fi twists such as–believe it or not–human cloning, time travel, space travel, and teleportation. At this point in Family Matters‘ history, though, it remains relatively down-to-Earth, and the writers and showrunners are only beginning to discover how fortunate they are that Jaleel White came into their lives. It’s an interesting look back at a show still finding its voice, before the unexpected popularity of one character would shift its focus and drive all together. Even looking at this DVD set, Urkel’s face is all over the packaging, even though his screen time in this season is fairly limited.
So, is Family Matters: The Complete First Season worth the purchase? If you’re a fan of the series, then, “Yes.” The episodes look as good as they probably ever did before, so if you want them, this is the way to get them. If you’re looking for extra features, you will be disappointed, though, as there are none here. It would have been nice for Warner Bros. to have included at least one or two commentaries, or a feature on what a cultural force Steve Urkel became, but I’ve also read that there was a bit of backstage acrimony surrounding how Urkel basically took over the show, and Jaleel White has not had any post-Urkel acting success, so it’s very possible that the lack of features is the result of the actors not being very interested in returning to speak about it. Either way, whether this show will ever win over new people is impossible for me to say, but it was a nice trip down memory lane for me.