A Sorry "Strike Three" for Children of the 1980s

Brian Gongol

I don't usually remark on the passing of celebrities because I'm not really interested in competing to be the first to spill my guts all over the Internet about what a Meaningful Impact This Celebrity Had On My Life.

In the case of the sudden passing of Alan Thicke, though, I'd like to make an exception.

If you see a child of the 80s having a strangely hard time grappling with this event, I think I know why.

There were really three iconic nuclear-family sitcoms of the 1980s: "Family Ties", "The Cosby Show", and "Growing Pains".

"Family Ties" was the edgiest of the three (if a word that like could even apply), mainly in that it brought politics into the sitcom family's living room. Michael J. Fox's character was funny because he was counter-counterculture: Alex P. Keaton was the preppy kid his hippie parents had tried to reject. Whatever you thought of the character, Fox's charm and likeability made him seem like a sibling you'd want to call your own.

For anyone who became a fan of Fox in that role (or in the "Back to the Future" trilogy), it's been challenging to face the idea that the one-time TV kid is now an adult who fights Parkinson's disease. He has been dignified in his fight, but it still rattles the Gen X'er to think that our TV big brother could suffer the cruel indignity of a debilitating condition that most of us associate with old age.

There's strike one.

Little can be added to the volumes that have already been written (literally, volumes) about the impact that "The Cosby Show" had on American life. Only the stone-hearted could have watched that show without liking the family -- anchored, of course, by the eminently perfect TV dad as breathed to life by Bill Cosby.

It was the sheer perfection of Dr. Cliff Huxtable as father figure that turns the dense fog of allegations and scandal surrounding Cosby into a depressing storm. Had Cosby's character been less perfect, the pedestal for Cosby the man would have been less high. But the sad story that has emerged in real life over recent years erases the innocence of that ideal TV dad.

There's strike two.

"Growing Pains" never seems to have commented as sharply as "Family Ties" nor did it break any of the ground of "The Cosby Show". It never tried that hard. Yes, its plotlines addressed "real-life" issues, but the central premise of the show was a basic sense of lighthearted family security, anchored by Alan Thicke. His Dr. Jason Seaver wasn't supposed to be challenging -- only reassuring.

And that is what makes this strike three.

If our TV big brother had to lose his youthful health, and if the facade of the ultimate TV dad had to be tarnished by allegations of truly wretched behavior, then for the gods to knock out the third leg of the stool by taking away the "no-worries" TV father far before his time...well, that's just too much.

Everyone likes to tell big stories about innocence lost, but the reality is that most things are more likely to erode than to explode. Whatever innocence was left in the heart of late Cold War Middle America seems to have evaporated at last. It had naturally been on the way out for a while. But this, it seems, is its final curtain call. And for those who were fortunate to have those years as a formative time in their youth, reality has brought an unfortunate coming of age.