When it debuted this past fall, there was nothing to suggest that ABC’s Family Matters would become one of the most enjoyable sitcoms on television. The show was a spin-off from the exhausted, overheated Perfect Strangers — executive producers Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett took Perfect’s amusingly blunt elevator operator Harriette (JoMarie Payton-France) and gave her a family and her own show. Appearing at 8:30 p.m. Fridays, it leads into Perfect Strangers.
Spin-offs are usually inferior to their source material, but Family Matters soon proved it had one of the best acting ensembles in TV comedy. The wittily dour Payton-France has been paired with Reginald VelJohnson as her husband, Carl. VelJohnson plays Carl like a latter-day Jackie Gleason — he uses his own bulk and Carl’s short-fused temper to create an expansive yet edgy comic character.
There’s a big family in Family Matters: three kids (including the marvelously un-cute, subtle actress Kellie Shanygne Williams as middle child Laura), a feisty grandmother (Rosetta Le Noire), plus Harriette’s sister Rachel (genially sarcastic Telma Hopkins) and her infant, Richie.
And let’s not forget the show’s break-out star, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), who combines prepubescent nerdiness with lover-boy amorousness (he has a wicked crush on Laura) in a strikingly original way
All of these characters interact with speed and snappiness — Family Matters is directed with the slamming-door precision of a good Broadway farce — and the writing is sharp. When Laura recently made a foolish remark, Harriette fixed her with a look of disbelief and muttered to no one in particular, ”I must have braided her hair too tight this morning.”
Family Matters offers a picture of black family life that takes its middle-class ordinariness for granted, which is unusual for TV. Even more unusual, it’s a show you can watch with your whole family, and chances are, everyone will get a few good laughs out of it.