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DVD Review: Family Matters: The Complete First Season

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A spin-off from Perfect Strangers, Family Matters was yet another one of the now classic, family-friendly sitcoms from the late '80s and early '90s. And finally it’s on DVD.

Family Matters is, well, about matters pertaining to a middle-class African-American family from Chicago. The show’s original focus was solely on the Winslow family, headed by Harriette, the Chronicle’s elevator operator (where Larry and Balki from Perfect Strangers also work) and Carl, her police officer husband. They live with their three children: rebellious and slow Eddie, intelligent and devious Laura, and cute little Judy. Shortly before the series began, Harriette’s sister and nephew, Rachel and Richie, moved in with the Winslows following the tragic passing of Rachel’s husband. The series opens with Carl’s mother, “Mother Winslow,” also moving in with the family.

Of course the most memorable character in the show remains Steve Urkel (portrayed by Jaleel White). In fact, Steve Urkel is such an icon of the show that it’s rather shocking to be reminded that he was only a recurring character during the first season (Urkel became a regular character in season two). When the show first aired, he made his first appearance only in the eighth episode, “Laura’s First Date”; after the show was syndicated, a gag was added at the beginning of the fourth episode, “Rachel’s First Date”, which involved Urkel. Of course, this makes it seem like there is a huge continuity error for those watching the show for the first time on DVD, as Carl didn’t seem to know Steve despite their encounter four episodes earlier.

Despite this pretty important continuity error, the show must go on – and so it did. The Winslow’s next-door nerdy neighbour’s presence is felt more and more throughout the season until he becomes one of its main characters. While season one, particularly near its end, managed to integrate just enough of Steve to spice things up without quite losing the focus of the series, Urkel’s popularity with audiences ensured that his screentime steadily increased, which is the biggest mistake the writers of Family Matters made.

But despite this, the Winslow family stuck for quite some time in TV land; the show ran for nine seasons, from 1989 to 1997. The first season ran for 22 episodes, all of which are included in this DVD set. The series is worth revisiting (particularly the first couple of seasons) because of its focus on the family unit. It doesn’t come as a surprise, since Family Matters started off as a great exploration of family dynamics, between the members of a traditional nuclear family as well as that between the members of an expanded family living together under the same roof. Evidently, these dynamics are not only cleaned up for TV, but they are set in much simpler times. But the lessons they share are enduring ones.

For example, in the series premiere, Mother Winslow has a hard time accepting that she isn’t the head of the household and that her son, now a grown man, is the one to make the decisions. In the sixth episode of the season, “Basketball Blues,” Carl tries to pressure his son into becoming a basketball pro, thus living his own dream through his recalcitrant son. In the fifteenth episode, Carl’s anxiety over a high school reunion makes him work on losing weight to look sharp on the big night. Two episodes later, Carl and Harriette’s ‘no friends over’ rule while they are out for the evening gets overrun when dinner is ruined and Eddie’s friend comes over with pizza. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the music and the typically '80s fashion and hair, you wouldn’t know this series was set in that era in the first place.

It would have been great to have a special feature focused on the effect of shows such as Family Matters on its audience. Actually, it would have been nice to have any special feature on this DVD set. Unfortunately, it came with nothing more than the original 22 episodes. It was rather disappointing to be honest, as I’m certain there are plenty of gag reels as well as preserved interviews with the cast that could have been added as special features.

More than that, the DVD’s packaging reflects the mistake made by the show’s writers in the it puts way too much emphasis on Steve Urkel and forgets to put the Winslow family at the center of Family Matters. But despite this rather disappointing packaging and lack of special features, the episodes themselves are worth shelling out the money to become the owner of Family Matters: The Complete First Season.

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