This spin-off of the popular Perfect Strangers had something in common with another long-running comedy, Happy Days: A minor character eventually became the show’s focus, and ensured its long and successful life.
Initially, Family Matters focused on Harriette Winslow (Jo Marie Payton), a sarcastic elevator operator who was first featured on Perfect Strangers. In the fall of 1989, that show’s producers gave the popular African American character her own series. Harriette and her husband, police officer Carl (Reginald VelJohnson), headed their Chicago home and raised son Eddie (Darius McCrary); older daughter Laura (Kellie Shanygne Williams) and youngest daughter Judy (played by Valerie Jones in the series’ pilot, and replaced by Jaimee Foxworth who left the show after the fourth season). Telma Hopkins played Harriette’s sister, Rachel Crawford, who lived in the Winslow home with her infant son Richie. Also living under the same roof was Carl’s wise mother, Estelle (Rosette LeNoire).
During the middle of the first season, a new character was added: Steven “Steve” Urkel (Jaleel White), a nerdy teenager with a high-pitched voice who had a crush on Laura. His gaudy clothes and sweet disposition soon caught on, and Family Matters began rising in the ratings. It wasn’t long before Urkel became the show’s main focus, getting into situations with Carl and playing other characters such as Steve’s “lady’s man” alter-ego Stefan Urkquelle and Steve’s female cousin Myrtle Urkel.
Family Matters soon became the main anchor of ABC’s TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Friday) comedy lineup. But when ABC was purchased by Disney in 1995, producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett began clashing with the new owners. In 1997, CBS swooped in and offered Miller and Boyett $40 million for new episodes of both Family Matters and another ABC comedy, Step By Step. Both shows landed on CBS’ Friday schedule in the fall of 1997, as part of that network’s new “Block Party” Friday lineup, in direct competition with ABC’s still-potent TGIF players. But ratings fell due to the move, and CBS cancelled both Family Matters and Step By Step after just one season.
Running for nine seasons, Family Matters became the second-longest-running live action U.S. sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast, behind only The Jeffersons (11 seasons), and was the last live-action scripted primetime show that debuted in the 1980s to leave the air, outlasting all other primetime network debuts of the 1980s with the exception of The Simpsons.
Family Matters theme song for much of its run, “As Days Go By,” was performed over the opening credits by the song’s co-writer, Jesse Frederick.
In September 2017, Family Matters became available on the streaming service Hulu, but after the rights expired (in 2021) it transferred to HBO Max. In the UK it aired on Sky One whilst Perfect Strangers aired on BBC One.
Published on October 5th, 2022. Written by Michael Spadoni for Television Heaven.