Many successful TV dramas and sitcoms generated spinoffs, most of which became smash hits in their own right and enjoyed a reasonably good run on the air.
Family Matters, a sitcom about a middle-class African-American family in Chicago, is one of those successful sitcoms of the 1990s. It was a spinoff of Perfect Strangers which slowly but surely inched its way into American pop culture. Up to now, it’s been discussed among fans on social media who have been hit by a massive wave of 90s nostalgia. They’re sharing trivia bits and episode clips, hold discussions as well as their own personal experiences and memories they had when Family Matters went on its original broadcast.
Family Matters also introduced the nerdy pre-teen character Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White), who was supposed to appear in one episode only. However, Urkel quickly became popular and was eventually made a mainstay of the show’s cast. It may not be too surprising that Family Matters would soon morph into “the Steve Urkel show” because of his massive popularity that even overshadowed the show’s original characters.
The sitcom originally aired on ABC from 1989 to 1997 before moving to CBS from 1997 to 1998, having enjoyed a total of nine seasons and 215 episodes. It is one of the most successful sitcoms (or scripted TV shows for that matter) that featured a predominantly African-American cast.
Family Matters origins and early history
Family Matters began with the family’s matriarch, Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Payton-France), who appeared on Perfect Strangers’ third season as an elevator operator at the building of the Chicago Chronicle, the fictional newspaper where the series’ main characters – Larry Appleton and his distant cousin Balki Bartokomus – worked. Harriette’s husband Carl (Reginald VelJohnson) was a police officer who appeared in the series’ fourth season.
ABC’s big bosses and producers loved Harriette’s character and decided to create a show that would focus on her and her family. The Winslow couple’s children would complete the would-be new sitcom’s main cast: Eddie (Darius McCrary), Laura Lee (Kellie Shanygne Williams), and Judy (Valerie Jones in the first season and Jaimee Foxworth in the second to fifth seasons before she was eventually written off from the show).
Other cast members consist of Carl’s mother, Estelle (Rosetta LeNoire), and an adult sister (Telma Hopkins). The show’s pilot episode was aired on September 22, 1989.
Although it’s now difficult to imagine Family Matters without Steve Urkel, the Winslows’ nerdy neighbor, he was never intended to be the sitcom’s regular character, let alone its main character. Urkel was originally written to appear in one episode only. But just like Henry Winkler’s Fonzie who unexpectedly stole the thunder from his Happy Days co-stars in the 1970s, Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel quickly became Family Matters’ breakout character and eventually its main character.
Urkel was introduced midway through the sitcom’s first season and was originally slated to appear in one episode only. But with his oversized glasses and suspenders together with his bungling, goofy charm, the teen became an instant hit with the audience. He became so popular that he started a craze called “The Urkel Dance.” His popularity even extended beyond the TV screens by launching short-lived merchandise in which several products – such as cereals, dolls, lunch boxes, and even a T-shirt line – officially bore his name.
Popularity and impact
Steve Urkel also appeared in other sitcoms such as Full House, Step by Step, and Fuller House.
Broadcast between Full House and Perfect Strangers on ABC’s family-friendly “TGIF” lineup every Friday, Family Matters was a predominantly African-American sitcom that found popularity among white audiences. It’s a shame that the show didn’t win an Emmy (it was nominated only once – for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Special Visual Effects). Still, Family Matters warmed the audience’s hearts and became a consistent favorite in the primetime slot.
From ABC, Family Matters moved to CBS in 1997. Upon completing its final episode and ninth season in 1998, Family Matters became the second-longest-running sitcom with a primarily African-American cast, only behind The Jeffersons with 11 seasons (1975 – 1985). And even after its original run ended, Family Members has continued to be popular on cable and streaming services.