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Friday, July 15, 2011

TGIF: Steve Urkel from Family Matters

No pussyfooting around.  Let's just jump right into this blog entry.

Above, you will see the cover of the DVD set of the first season of Family Matters.  The show premiered on September 22, 1989 and ran until 1998 on two different networks. (The first eight seasons aired on NBC, and the last one was aired on CBS)

The bad news is that the first season DVD set is the only season that is currently available for purchasing.  For me, it's considered to be a good thing, since I enjoyed the earlier seasons more than the later ones.

Not many people seem to realize this little trivia fact right off the bat, but Family Matters was actually a spin-off of another popular Miller-Boyett program, Perfect Strangers.  Anyone who may have remembered watching the first few seasons of Perfect Strangers would remember that when Balki and Larry started working at the Chicago Chronicle, Harriette Winslow worked there as the elevator operator.  In the fall of 1989, when Family Matters premiered, Harriette was fired from her job as elevator operator at the Chronicle, and in the second episode of the first season, she was re-hired at the paper as the 'Chief of Security', effectively eliminating her from the Perfect Strangers sitcom and firmly putting her into place as the matriarch of the Winslow family.

The rest of the cast was put in place.  Joining JoMarie Payton (who played Harriette) was her husband Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), her three children Eddie (Darius McCrary), Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams), and Judy (Jaimee Foxworth), Mother Winslow (Rosetta LeNoire), Harriette's sister, Rachel (Telma Hopkins), and Rachel's young son, Richie (Bryton McClure).

In the show, you had similar plotlines to that of other shows on the ABC network's TGIF block.  There really wasn't much different between Family Matters and other shows such as Full House, Boy Meets World, and even its parent show of Perfect Strangers.

However, there was one thing that Family Matters had that none of the other shows really had.  And, that one thing has evoked a ton of controversy in how the show ran, and seemed to be the very focal point of the whole series.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself here. 

Why don't we flash back to the cover image of the Season One DVD?  You have the entire Winslow family scrunched up in the left hand side of the cover while you have one person who almost has a full on head shot.  What makes this whole cover quite hysterical is that the person who has the extreme close-up on the cover is actually a cast member who never became a regular cast member until season TWO!  Sure, he appeared sporadically during season one, but was never credited in the opening until season two.

Don't believe me?  Here's proof ( bad of quality as it can be, at least)

You'll notice that there's no visual proof that the character on the DVD cover even existed.  But, you know he did.

Who is this character?

Steven Quincy Urkel. 

Played by actor Jaleel White, Steve Urkel was in many ways both the blessing and the curse of the show that was Family Matters.  I should note that none of this was of Jaleel's own doing...he was given a job to do, and he did it quite convincingly.  It is however my own feelings that the addition of Steve Urkel did some great things for the program at first, but then the producers got waaaaaaaaaaaay out of hand.

And, yes, I did type the word way with twelve A's.  That just goes to show just how serious I am about this.

To begin our story, we need to go back to the very first season.  Episode 12 to be exact.

The episode was titled 'Laura's First Date', and it originally aired on December 15, 1989.  In the episode, Laura wants to go to a school dance, but has no date to go with.  Rather than run the risk of being a social outcast by going to the dance without a date (which in my opinion is NO BIG DEAL) she chooses to stay home.  Meanwhile, Carl and Eddie decide to try and set Laura up by finding prospective dates for her.  Carl's choice?  Steve Urkel.

Boy oh boy would that be a decision that Carl would live to regret.

It wasn't that Steve himself was a bad kid.  He really wanted to impress Laura and the rest of the Winslow family by doing good deeds with only the best of intentions.  Unfortunately, you all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Here's just one of the many examples of this.

No matter how well-being Steve might be, he always does something to screw things up.  He may end up electrocuting himself, or blowing up an oven in home economics, or flooding the senior prom with his balloon drop machine catching fire.

And, yes...all three of those things have happened to Steve Urkel.

He was your stereotypical nerd character.  Always into creating new inventions and having high intelligence compared to other people, what Steve had in book smarts, he sadly seemed to lack in social skills, and this proved a problem when going after Laura, who simply wasn't interested.

Nevertheless, the addition of Steve Urkel was only meant to be a one-off episode, but on the episode that Steve appeared on, the ratings spiked upwards.  On another episode he appeared in, the same effect.  By the time the second season rolled around, he had been given a spot in the opening titles, and when Telma Hopkins left the series midway through, Steve Urkel got the prestigious last spot in the credits while Rachel and Richie took a backseat and Judy Winslow disappeared into thin air.

Steve began to take on a more dominant role in the series, and because of this, his popularity grew.  He made guest appearances on 'Full House' and 'Step By Step', and he even had a breakfast cereal named Urkel-O's!

It's a wonder it wasn't cheese flavoured.

He even started up a dance craze during the early 1990's.

I'll admit to it.  When Family Matters first came on, and Steve was brought on, I liked it.  Keeping in mind that I was barely ten years old at the time, I thought Steve brought a lot to the show.  He was quick with the comebacks, and he caused a lot of hilarious happenings on the show.  But, what a lot of people don't seem to realize was that Steve had a good heart underneath the argyle sweaters and suspenders. 

For instance, he once saved Carl's life after he fell through the ice while fishing.  He got revenge against Laura's nemesis, Cassie Lynn Nubbles after she tried to sabotage her election campaign for class president.  And he has proven to be a good sounding board for Harriette and Mother Winslow whenever they need one.

He even managed to get the last word against Laura a couple of times, despite his obvious crush on her.  When Laura desperately needed a ride to a cheerleading competition, Steve selflessly offered to take her.  When Steve's car broke down outside a motel, Laura was pretty nasty to him until he decided that enough was enough.  I regret that the video feature is kind of wonky tonight, so I'll have to post the link instead.

See...even the biggest nerds can have one heck of a backbone when pushed.

At any rate, the introduction of Steve Urkel probably helped get the show renewed season after season.

Then the producers got a little bit...too silly, and capitalized on Jaleel White's fame a little...too much.

Okay, so when they created a cousin for Steve Urkel named Myrtle (also played by White), it was kind of milking the Urkel cash cow for all it was worth.  Still, it wasn't overly obnoxious, and in the few episodes that Myrtle did appear in, it did make some sense.

But then around season five, this guy came onto the scene.

Recognize him?  Believe it or not, this is Steve Urkel.  Kind of.

During season five, Steve created some sort of potion known as 'Cool Juice' that would alter his DNA and turn him from geek to chic with one simple chemical compound.  He downs the potion and immediately becomes the alter-ego of Stefan Urquelle.  Immediately, he wins the heart of Laura...something that Steve Urkel himself could not do.  During a party at the Winslow house, Laura makes her feelings known and is happy to be with the new Steve.  However, Stefan has one major difference compared to Steve Urkel.  Whereas Steve was kind and compassionate to others, Stefan is self-centered, and a smidgen on the narcissistic side.  Seeing the true colours of Stefan, Laura wants Stefan to turn back to Steve, and he does.

This would have been fine if it were a one-off episode, but before you knew it, it wasn't long before the whole show began to have Steve/Stefan plotlines.  Stefan would appear more often, then Laura would sabotage the transformation chamber to have Stefan forever, then Carl would accidentally turn into a nerd, and then somehow, Stefan gets cloned, and it was just one big mess that viewers tuned out of really quickly.

Steve Urkel may have brought the show to new levels.  Stefan Urquelle brought the ratings down in a BIG way.

The ratings got so bad that in 1997, ABC dropped it from its schedule, only for CBS to pick it up for the 1997-1998 season.  It wasn't enough to save it though, and in May 1998, Family Matters went off the air forever.

You can't blame Jaleel White for trying though.  Jaleel even admits that sometimes he found it hard to mingle with the other cast members, and he sometimes felt that there was a divide between him and the other cast members, in particular with VelJohnson.  These days though, Jaleel White is still acting (his latest acting role was in the summer movie Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, which admittedly was a flop), and he is busy raising a daughter (amidst some drama with the mother of his child involving the police).

(I'm trying to keep a positive spin on this, people...I really am!)

I guess the one thing I can say about the Steve Urkel paradox is this.  He was a good character if you could overlook the squeaky voice, cheese cravings, and endless 'DID I DO THAT?' utterances.  He probably had more character development than a lot of the current sitcom characters have.  I mean, if you take into consideration that his own parents seemed to have no relationship with him at all, it's a miracle he turned out as well as he did.  Having the Winslow family as a sort of back-up family may have caused Carl to down the ulcer medicine a bit faster, but in the end, Steve was all the better for having them in his life.  And maybe, just maybe, the Winslows became better people by having him in theirs.

Even if they didn't want to admit it.

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