Spinoff Stories -- Perfect Strangers Addresses Family Matters (Article I)

Written Multiplying History by Bridger Cunningham

Take a ride through the rich history of television, as TVRG begins exploring spinoffs of successful sitcoms and their triumphs and trounces in network efforts to expand successful sitcoms and create franchises.  Article I explores the success story of ABC Friday hit Perfect Strangers spawning one of the 90's greatest icons, Steve Urkel, in Family Matters.

The Original Hit Machine -- Perfect Strangers (1986-93)

Image result for perfect strangers -- harrietteDo many fans remember once upon a time, Steve Urkel showcase Family Matters derived from another TGIF favorite, Perfect Strangers?  Few can recall when JoMarie Peyton graced the shafts as elevator operator Harriette Winslow in the career backdrop, The Chicago Chronicle.  Her sassy, wisecracking demeanor gave the opportunistic Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) a level-headed foil, whilst giving naive immigrant Balki Bartokomous a supportive push to engage in American culture.  Peyton joined the cast in 1987 as the 3rd season gave the series a slight retooling as cousins Larry and Balki quit their photo shop jobs and went to work for publishing outlet The Chicago Chronicle.  Several supporting character emerged, including Peyton's Harriet Winslow.  The retool paid off, as Perfect Strangers became Friday's most successful sitcom in the 1987-88 season.  Little was explored with Harriette's life beyond the Chicago Chronicle, save for an early 1989 episode when her police officer husband, Carl (Reginald VelJohnson) made a guest appearance.

The Spinoff -- Family Matters (1989-98)

Image result for family matters -- harriette steve carlABC managed to create a successful Friday comedy block, birthing the franchise TGIF in the fall of 1989.  During its first season under the branding, mega-hit Full House, Perfect Strangers and Growing Pains spinoff Just the Ten of Us graced the comedy block.  ABC moved the aging Mr. Belvedere to Saturdays, opening up a development bed at 8:30 for Perfect Strangers spinoff Family Matters, centered on Harriette and her family.  A wholesome entry focusing on a black middle class family, Carl and Harriette dealt with career woes and raising their three children, Eddie (Darius McCrary), Laura (Kelly Shanygne Williams) and Judy (Jaimee Foxworth).  Carl's senior mother, Estelle (the late Rosetta LeNoire) was hardly a slow, sour lady and quite worldly with maintaining a youthful lifestyle.  And Harriette's widowed sister, Rachel (60's singing sensation Telma Hopkins) was raising an infant son, Richie.  The show's first season delivered wholesome, grounded laughs and made a companion piece to family sitcom Full House. 

Image result for family matters -- harriette steve carlLike Perfect Strangers, the format of Family Matters changed direction and tone over the course of its 9 seasons.  Nerdy nuisance and neighbor Steve Urkel's (Jaleel White) disruptive antics earned a contract position and became the breakout star of the vehicle, veering plots toward slapstick and later outlandish plotting.  Rachel's son, Richie was recast with child actor Bryton McClure during season 2 as well.  As seasons progressed, Shawn Harrison was upgraded to contract status from 1991-96 as Eddie's best friend, Waldo Renaldo Faldo.  From 1990-95, the series finished the seasons between 22nd and 34th Places.

Image result for family matters -- harriette steve carlThe 1993-94 season drastically revamped the roster, as Telma Hopkins left the series to costar with Laverne and Shirley alum Cindy Williams in Getting By.  Rachel subsequently disappeared with few mentions until guest appearances in 1995, and her son Richie remained front and center in the household with few mentions of his mother.  That same season, showrunners chose to axe Jaimee Foxworth as Judy, subsequently dropping the character and never mentioning her presence again.  Laura and Steve's love/hate dynamic became the focal point of the series, which offset Steve's outlandish inventions to occasionally address topical issues such as police profiling and gun control.  By 1995, the show was merely the Urkel machine, focusing on scientific experiments such as creating a clone named Stefan Urquelle. 

Come 1997, the TGIF block began to fade and falter, and ABC chose not to renew the series.  CBS thrifted Family Matters and fellow TGIF sitcom Step by Step for a failed Friday night competitor to TGIF, cancelling both series by 1998.  By this time, JoMarie Peyton quit the series late in 1997, and few of the original cast members remained intact except VelJohnson, McCrary and Williams.  The finale featured Laura and Steve finally becoming engaged, ending a 9-year evolution.

Crossovers

Following Family Matters' debut, connections and continuity between Perfect Strangers and its spinoff severed with the characters never interacting again.  Harriette was subsequently fired from her job at the Chronicle in Season 1, and Mark Linn-Baker made a guest appearance as a new character on the spinoff in 1997.  However, ABC managed to create successful crossovers between Family Matters and fellow TGIF sitcoms Full House and Step by Step between 1990-92

Success Factor 

Part of what made Family Matters work so well was audiences knew Harriette for two years on Perfect Strangers, albeit in a supporting role.  Enough character development occurred, enabling writers to explore Harriette further, as well as delivering a welcome, diverse showcase of a middle class Black American family.  Unlike NBC's upper middle class offering of The Cosby Show, Family Matters explored a blue-collar family and its everyday issues.  Outlandishness stretched the ever-evolving premise, only grounded by exploration of urban issues.  The greatest success, however, was writers explored annoying neighbor Steve Urkel, creating an icon against what could have been another ho-hum wholesome sitcom.  The foundation began with an established character and evolved into the newfound comic success of Jaleel White's addition, paying ode to the 50's in a similar delight to Lucille Ball's various characters in her successful series.  While the original cast faded around White's sudden fame, the series managed to create one of TGIF's greatest icons

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