As a kid, I grew up watching what I call “table families” on TV. Television is full of them: proper families that eat dinner at a specified time around a table, discuss their lives, and ask to be excused at the end. It’s one of the simplest ways that I classify family types. Some people are from a table family, while others are from its unspoken alternative—a “TV family.”
I touched on “table families” before in The Atlantic Daily:
They might sneak scraps of food to their Saint Bernard under the table (Beethoven) or debate proper table manners (Home Improvement). But proper families always ate dinner at a table.
Except my real-life family never did. To this day, I don’t take a bite of my food until someone presses play.
Eating in front of the TV carries a stigma—antiquated views say it’s unhealthy and is even correlated with laziness and kids eating fewer vegetables. The most enduring assumption might be that TV-watching families don’t talk when the TV is on, but I don’t think that’s true either. Our conversations are just different than they would be at a table: We’re arguing about plot, predicting betrayal, or discussing the real stories behind historical fiction.
If you watch enough entertainment, TV families can start to feel like a cultural dirty secret and a failure to live up to the American dream. Table families live in a house, while TV families rent apartments; table families are proper, while TV families are slovenly; table families are aspirational, while TV families deserve a little pity. I couldn’t explain it growing up, but the messages about what made a suitable American family had certainly sunk in. I wanted to be a table family.
When I became an adult, the habit of eating dinner in front of a television stuck with me, though I didn’t realize that some of the embarrassment stuck as well. When I started a new relationship, I found myself walking to the couch for dinner while she was setting the table, and then trying to explain.
“There are two kinds of families,” I said, and went on my spiel.
Table families have well-known rules that have been reinforced through pop culture, such as “No phones at the table” or waiting to be excused. But TV families come with our own rules that are just as common, only much less known. TV-family norms include knowing who sits where, how the family decides what to watch that day, when to talk during the show, whether to pause to talk through complicated plot details, and whether to explain details that another person missed.
If those norms sound strange to you, you likely grew up in a table family, but I’m just one of many who grew up in a TV family and stayed quiet about it. We stayed quiet for good reason: Today’s adults grew up when the relative newness of television gave it the stigma of being lowbrow. Television was called “the idiot box,” and pop culture so often depicted table families that eating dinner at a table was seen as the cultural norm.
Recently, when my girlfriend convinced me to watch Reservation Dogs on Hulu, I noticed a brief scene that depicted family dinners with a tone I rarely see. The series is about four Native American teens—Elora, Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese—who commit petty crimes in hopes of saving enough money to one day leave their reservation in Oklahoma and move to California. Episode 7, “California Dreamin’,” starts with Elora nudging her friends to hang out a bit longer:
“Hey, let’s go for a walk,” Elora says. She looks at Bear, expecting him to join.
“Yeah, I can’t,” Bear says. “My mom’s making me eat at the dinner table tonight—some new stupid thing we’re doing. But you guys can come if you want.”
“You own a dinner table?” Cheese asks.
“Yeah, there’s usually clothes on it,” Willie Jack answers for Bear. Then Bear looks down with a hint of embarrassment.
“Yeah, I got a table,” he says.
I loved the scene for turning the cultural norm on its head. In Reservation Dogs and rare shows like it, atypical or underrepresented families can feel as normal as all-American suburban table families. For 30 minutes to an hour, the proper American families are the weird ones, and wanting to be like them is a little embarrassing.
Reservation Dogs isn’t for everyone—you have to be able to enjoy a brand of Taika Waititi silliness that includes blending reality with the absurd. But the series excels at showing a kind of American life that is both familiar (wanting to leave your small town to chase your dreams in a new place) and wholly unique in its story about growing up on a Native reservation. A second season is coming to Hulu on August 3, giving you enough time to catch up if you haven’t already.
Lately, my girlfriend and I compromise by planning dinners around two questions: “What are we eating?” and “Are we table people or TV people?” We alternate between the two, making up our own rules that work for us. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be like the families I saw on TV, but watching Reservation Dogs, I started to feel like caring too much about being a proper American family is even more embarrassing. So now I don’t have to choose between being a table or TV family. There’s room enough for both.
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s Humans Being about Hacks and work addiction. My favorite response came from Natalie, whose email I found absolutely beautiful:
“I just finished watching season 2 of Hacks yesterday. While I was watching the caricature artist scene with Marcus and Ava, their answers were my own. I didn’t even give it much thought and then I read your article today … I don’t want it to be like this forever. There used to be a ‘me’ with interests and friends. Now there is just a work-shaped hole in the universe that approximates my dimensions. Thank you for the mirror. I’m going to go old school and stick it on the fridge in the place where my to-do list usually goes.”
I feel you, Natalie, but also “a work-shaped hole in the universe that approximates my dimensions” is the best metaphor I read all week.
For anyone in Washington, D.C., I’m in your city today to discuss my book, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture! I’ll be at Politics and Prose at 5 p.m. And then I’m doing a virtual event on Monday evening, hosted by Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago! Everyone can join that one and hang out with me even if I’m not coming to your city—you can register here, and I hope to see you there.
This week’s book giveaway is Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami. It’s a series of 24 short stories by the best-selling author. Just send me an email telling me whether you’re from a table family or a TV family, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.