A family-based sitcom is dangerous territory. If the kids are annoying, if the writing falls flat, if the family doesn’t seem real – all can lead to a quick demise. But every once in a while a show like Growing Pains comes along and proves that when everything clicks, the rewards can be substantial. This 80s series, which would go on to become one of the longest-running and most watched of the decade, seemed to have it all – clever humor that could elicit an unexpected guffaw, a cast of likable characters of all ages, and a family that never seemed too “Hollywood.” Growing Pains captured the trials and tribulations of raising a family, while never easing up on the laughs.
A reflections of the role-reversing trends of the 80s, family patriarch Jason Seaver was a stay at home dad who ran a home-based private psychiatry practice. Mother Maggie worked at a local newspaper and entrusted Jason with keeping an eye on their three kids. Mike, their teenage son was a handful. Between raging testosterone levels and a lack of scholastic ambition, he relied on his angelic good-looks to distract from the fact that he could find trouble at the drop of a hat. It didn’t help matters that he had a best friend named Boner who was perhaps the only person on the planet who possessed poorer judgment than Mike.
And when Mike wasn’t plotting and scheming with his friend Boner, he was fond of tormenting his younger sister, Carol. In contrast to Mike, Carol was a stellar student, although she lacked somewhat in the self-confidence area, which made her an easy target. As the middle child, she never quite got the same attention that her younger brother Ben received, nor the freedom that Mike enjoyed. Youngest son, Ben, was a good-natured, happy-go-lucky kid, although this could be deceiving. He had mastered the art of blackmail and wielded his power mercilessly against his older siblings.
Despite their professional responsibilities, both Jason and Carol took their parental duties seriously. Maggie was more of the trusted confidante – proud, protective, and when necessary, a firm disciplinarian. Jason was a little more fun-loving, although it was clear that he was well-versed in the ways of reverse psychology. With his corny jokes and overly casual attire, it was easy to perceive him as more aloof, less aware – but looks could certainly be deceiving. In the end, both Jason and Carol knew they had good children, even if the kids were relentless in driving their parents crazy.
Through the course of the series, there was plenty of family growing to witness, and plenty of the accompanying pains. Perhaps the most significant change occurred in the fourth season, when the Seaver family added a baby to the mix. Little Chrissie must have experienced some substantial growing pains too, considering that over the summer hiatus she went from being an infant to a precocious 6 year-old (anything is possible in the land of television).
There were other changes on the horizon for the Seaver siblings as well. Carol eventually broke out of her introverted shell and discovered the opposite sex, first with a rather dim-witted boyfriend named Bobby, and later with an older teen named Sandy (played by Matthew Perry) who would perish in a tragic auto accident. Carol would grow into a fine young adult who attended Columbia. And surprising the entire family, Mike did eventually did some growing as well. First he fell in love with the nanny and came very close to marrying her, then he found his true love – a respectable woman named Kate (played by Kirk Cameron’s real-life spouse, Chelsea Noble.) And, lo and behold, somewhere along the way, Mike developed a conscience. Putting aside his original dream of being a thespian, Mike eventually became an inner city schoolteacher. And when he noticed one day that a young student was homeless, he brought the kid home to live with the Seavers (that kid, by the way, was a child actor named Leonardo DiCaprio – perhaps the name rings a bell.) Even youngest son Ben managed to grow up to be a fine young teenager, although occasionally he had to show that he could be as foolish as his older bro.
All in all, the Seaver parents did a remarkable job of raising three wonderful kids, although the journey was an arduous one. And meanwhile, much of American tuned in each week to watch every moment of their lives. It remains one of the most fondly remembered series of the era. The cast reunited for a made-for-TV movie in 2000 to show everyone that the pains were over, they had finally grown up.
If you have fond memories of curling up to television to watch this beloved series, we invite you to share your memories in our comments section, as we pay tribute to one of the best shows to come out of the 80s.