Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sitcom Secrets: Mighty Morphing Siblings

In a sitcom, siblings are magical and can pop up, disappear, reappear, and do all kinds of bizarre tricks. Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself.

The Anti Chuck Cunnigham. In real life, you can't spontaneously get an older brother or sister. I don't care what they told you at the Big Brothers and Sisters of America. You only get new siblings who are younger than you in real life. I always wished for an older sibling, though--an older sister whose clothes and makeup I'd rifle through or an older brother who would beat up on any guy who dared to stand me up. (Having a younger sibling does have its perks, though--like the time I convinced my little brother that whiplash is when you get into a car accident and your neck falls off.)

But when you're in sitcom land, all bets are off. The best excuse for a spontaneously appearing older sibling is that they were away at school all this time and no one thought to mention them. Chip Crosswire of Arthur and Sondra Huxtable I'm looking at you.

Gretchen Witter also gets a nod because even though Pacey's older sisters are mentioned in a generic sort of way, we never get a real mention of her till season four when they retconned a whole "Gretchen was Dawson's absolute first love, before Jen or Joey, back when he was a horny preteen" to give Dawson something to do when Joey and Pacey were getting it on. Gretchen's also a reverse anti Chuck Cunningham because after she's had enough of Dawson, she returns back to Fictional U, never to return again.

Half brother (or sister) from another planet. This occurs when you realize that one of your parents has been catting it up on the side.

Like, if you're Shawn Hunter, you can go from having an off screen never seen older sister to having a cute, rich half brother from your father's first marriage which he decided not to say anything about for no real reason. And not just any half brother--one of the Lawrence brothers. And what luck--the one who didn't have "Whoa" as a catch phrase and who somehow wasn't traumatized by at one point having Sally Field as a mom and a cross-dressing, voice-acting, Scottish nanny for a dad. I used to pray that my dad had an undisclosed marriage that resulted in an older half sibling for me when I was a young teen, never realizing the icky Joe Jackson esque implications of it.

Or you can get really if your philandering dad had an affair with a carnie who rolled into town years ago. And the carnie gave birth to your half-brother who's the CEO of his own car company and who came up with an invention that translated baby speak.

Of course, it can also be sort of creepy. Like if you're the sexy blonde character at Capeside, and a blonde hussy with a pixie cut and a penchant for wearing bikini tops in New England autumnal weather shows up to bewitch, bother and bewilder every male thing in sight. (And to reveal, eventually, that Jen Lindley's mother gave up a child for adoption. Stupid B-plot that never went anywhere.)

Evil parents. If you have a long lost sibling, don't you think this is the kind of thing your parents should have maybe kind of brought up? Like Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and her parents who split up, each taking one twin girl until the two girls reunite as teenagers at summer camp, plotting to get their parents back together. (And no, despite my pop culture savvy, I refuse to pander to the young uns by replacing "Hayley Mills" with "Lindsay Lohan." Oh, fine, I will say this--back when Miss Bliss was Disney's Lindsay Lohan.)

As a child, I wondered if I too had a hidden away sibling because my parents weren't telling me something. But no. I didn't find anything incriminating when I searched the attic (after wearing out my copies of Face on the Milk Carton and Claudia and the Great Search, natch). No weird papers or notes. Not even a bucket of half eaten fishheads.

Aging at the speed of life. Sitcoms also taught me that it doesn't matter if you hate changing diapers or dealing with tantrums. You'll never have to. Audiences love cuddly babies but they grow weary of two and three year olds (Full House fans and pedophiles aside). After all, you need to be at least five to be able to coin your own catch phrase. Hence, the freakiness that was Nicky Banks and Andy Keaton, both of whom aged so fast that they either had the aging disorder that Robin Williams had in Jack or their moms had affairs with Klingons (which would explain why they axed the first Mama Banks).

Back in the closet. If you have a particularly boring sibling, sometimes the powers that be intervene and wish those worthless sibs into the cornfield. Like if you're Chuck Cunningham but Ritchie already has an older male influence in his life. Or if you're Nebula "Stop the War" Lawrence and you were only a walk on one joke character (and you were basically collateral damage when the writers decided to retcon that pesky "Topanga's family is a bunch of dirty hippies" trait). Or you're Judy Winslow and the producers of Family Matters erroneously think that Steve Urkel is cute and/or hilarious enough to carry the show and that they can 86 the adorable more laid back version of Rudy/Olivia.

However, my least favorite version of this is Phoebe Buffay's long lost brother, Frank, who appeared with his post menopausal wife asking Phoebe to be a surrogate mother for them, and then never appeared again. There was even an episode where we don't see Frank, but where Phoebe has to babysit for the triplets she carried and birthed. Frank, you deadbeat brother, you pretty much owe big sister Pheebs a kidney and a lung if she wants it. (I guess choice movies like The Other Sister and Lost in Translation made Giovanni Ribisi too good for the small screen.)

Did you cut your hair? You look...different. Off screen demands can lead to actor replacements. Cory Matthews got a new and (in my opinion, more obnoxious) actress to play the younger sister. I guess the old Morgan wasn't growing up cute enough for their liking. And of course, let's not forget Roseanne and the two Beckys. I never knew why they didn't do the same thing on Full House. So many opportunities to stop paying the Olsens a double salary and bring in an adorable four or five year old. (Hell, a twelve year old Macauley Culkin in drag would have been cuter than those two radioactive Cabbage Patch creatures.)

But to be fair, there was probably a good reason for it. You know how much the blind/deaf organizations are complaining about Helen Keller in the new revival of The Miracle Worker being played by a non disabled actress? You just know that the deformed lobbyists would have been pissed if Michelle had been played by a non-troll.

mary kate olsen, full house, troll doll

It'll bring us together! If you're just not sure your families are blending well, there's always one way to ensure that everything turns out fine. Pump out a baby! It'll belong to both of you and bond with both sets of siblings. See Lilly from Step by Step and Erin Silver from 90210 (the latter currently slutting it up on new 90210). Adopting a kid from Vietnam also works fine (see the Brewer-Thomas family). This usually works, oddly. I have no idea why--babies and toddlers are the greatest anaphrodisiac since imagining Patty and Selma naked.

Late in life sibling
. Even if you're over 40 and you've told all your drinking buddies you're an only child and that your dad is dead, you can always gain a sibling late in life by leaving your Boston bar based sitcom and setting up shop as a radio shrink in Seattle. Best of all, he'll love all the same pretentious crap as you.

The Brady Bunch from hell. I sure do love mixed families. Stepkids galore! And there's always a sexually charged atmosphere when two adolescents come into the same family. Josh and Cher. Kelly Taylor and David Silver (granted, one sided). Marsha and Greg. (Hey, I know nothing really happened but unless E! True Hollywood Story has been lying to me, more than one director had to throw some cold water on Maureen and Barry and tell them to project a brotherly/sisterly vibe that wasn't straight out of V.C. Andrews.)

Honorable mention to Bill Henrickson for saddling Sarah, Ben, and Teeny with five extra siblings, two extra sort of moms, a bundle of opposite sex issues that their significant others will be untangling for years to come, and in the case of his third kid, a horrible non-name.