Step by step
80s STARS, 90s CLICHÉS, AND SOMEHOW NO LAWSUITS FROM THE BRADY BUNCH
The classic 90s family sitcom that never made it into history as the classic 90s family sitcom. A not-even-bothered-to-be-veiled rehash of The Brady Bunch, Step By Step has been left behind in the TV nostalgia sweepstakes, yet has a surprising amount of history and trivia behind it.
Playing second or third fiddle to its behemoth peers of the time, Family Matters and Full House, this, yet another Miller-Boyett production, just kind of existed throughout its run. The sort of show you watch when the show you prefer isn’t on. While it was a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup, good luck finding someone who remembers it today. Or at least remembers it with as much vigour as some of the other shows from those storied TV Fridays.
It existed partly to fulfill contractual obligations to Patrick Duffy and to cash in on the popularity of two late 70s/early 80s stars (fifteen years later? Sure why not!), and some of the teen stars of the day. Covering all the family sitcom tropes with massive big checkmarks, Step By Step was a fairly standard, light-hearted and innocent affair served up with a side dish of sexual creepiness. Heavy on the hijinks, it still had the requisite amount of Very Serious Topics and a creepily odd amount of predatory teenaged boys.
Its hallmark, at least for the first half of its run was the, frankly quite cruel, animosity between the older step-siblings, while giving the younger siblings a pretty short shrift script-wise. So much so that one of the younger kids just up and quit acting, never to be seen again.
Which leads into another characteristic of this show – disappearing characters. Every long running show will have to deal with actors coming and going on different whims but Step By Step was the king of abandonment issues. Sisters, mothers, friends, co-workers, their own children, parking lots, theme music, even the letter “i.” Dropped like dead flies never to be seen or mentioned again.
To sort this all out let’s step into the way way back machine and see if Step By Step is any good the second time around.
when was it on
Step By Step aired for seven seasons from September 20, 1991 until June 26, 1998 for a total of 160 episodes. On ABC for its first six seasons, it was a staple of the network’s TGIF lineup. While it did shuffle time slots, it never moved off of Friday nights, which must be some kind of record for a middling comedy.
Never a ratings darling, averaging from number 35 for the week down to an abominable 61 for season 6, it was cancelled by ABC after this sixth season. CBS revived it for its seventh season, who continued to air it on Friday nights as part of that network’s weird attempt to make its own Frankenstein version of TGIF built from old and dying ABC cast-offs.
Needless to say, this was its last season as CBS realized hey, maybe we should do something other than just airing other people’s burnt out productions.
what was it about
A domestic sitcom about bringing two families together and all the trials and tribulations that come with it. As I mentioned, and, as is blatantly obvious, this is the schtick from The Brady Bunch. However, Step By Step added a layer of 90s cynicism and sarcasm that drove a lot of the situations between family members. It took years for the show to find any real heart and sense of togetherness as a whole family, rather than a family that was constantly at war with each other.
Like most shows of its ilk, it was filled with the usual household and school related problems. However, upon rewatching it, it’s actually quite hard to find anything that stands out as a trademark other than the constantly squabbling siblings. Although, once you start getting into it a little more, an odd theme of sexuality and near incest starts to emerge.
For a family show who’s cast was mostly children, it was a little surprising to see how heavily sexualized many of the plots were. In fact, in Cody’s first episode, J.T. makes a bet with him that he can’t get a date with his step sister – Cody’s step cousin. Not blood related for sure, yet still a little high on the Ick-O-Meter. Cody’s crush on his step sister is a theme that would pervade the show for years. While it is played for comedic purposes, as the family grows closer over the seasons it’s a strange plot line to keep alive for so long.
Despite it being a show about a large family, most episodes were driven by the older siblings’ antics, with the parents or middle kids only being involved in the secondary plot. Having teenagers provide the impetus for most of the shenanigans is probably a big reason for the amount of sexualization on the show. And rather then evolve over the years, in season 7 we still see J.T. prioritizing a bikini contest over babysitting his sister, and taking a job as a stripper to earn extra money. Even Frank and Carol get in on the action with a little bedroom role playing. Oh and lots of incidents of the girls getting rescued from overeager boys. Like really overeager.
After putting it all down in print I suppose then that the trademark of Step By Step is its sexuality. Nothing wrong with that, just a little odd for a show that is presumably about bringing two families together to love and support each other. Nothing says support like running off a would be rapist from your teenaged sister. Multiple times.
Often a sitcom will have a “glue” character, there for the cheap laughs but also acting as a bridge between different groups of characters. Think Urkel in Family Matters, Kimmy in Full House or even Mr. Furley in Three’s Company. They will annoy everyone equally then have a moment of levity that makes the current warring factions see the error of their ways. And then hug.
For this role Step By Step had Cody, and while he was very much a one trick pony as a doofus surfer dude (in Wisconsin), he was one of the major reasons the two sides of the family would finally get along and appreciate each other (to an extent). When his character left for the final two seasons the patchwork replacements felt forced and the impact of his character leaving exposed how flat everyone else on the show was.
However, despite being complete archetypes, our blended family did learn it’s small lessons along the way. Dana, who is egotistical and snooty at the best of times, falls for Rich, the jock friend of J.T. At one point J.T. feels old enough to spend Christmas with friends, yet when he does he finds that he misses his family awwww. Karen loses a modelling job to tomboy sister Al, but ends up realizing supporting her step sister is more important awwww. And so on and so forth.
But actual character growth year over year? Meh, thin at best. By the end Frank is still the same dorky dad and Carol is still an annoying over-motherer (sharing baby stories with Karen’s classmates when Karen finally makes it to college in season 7).
where does it take place
Does this look like Wisconsin?Port Washington, Wisconsin. Which, is in fact, a real town. And while there may be a more nondescript setting for a sitcom I sure can’t think of one at the moment. In 2000, just a few years after the show aired, the real town had a population of just under 10 500 people. That’s fairly small and it’s strange that they picked this setting because it never really has the feel of it being in a place that is a step above a village.
Overwhelmingly this is a domestic show and the vast majority of it is set in and around the family home. As a result, we get almost no glimpses of workplaces or Frank’s contracting job sites. The standard one-off sets show up of course: bowling alley, movie theatre, seedy bar, school gym for a dance, etc. but nothing that can be considered a true secondary location. And of course we get the obligatory trip to Disney World. Don’t forget, even back then Disney owned everything. And a Hawaiian vacation – look at that, just like The Brady Bunch!
The opening credits are interesting though because we get to see a theme park that is located in California, that is presumed to be on the coast of Wisconsin, that has a body of water digitally added, because the real theme park is land locked, resulting in Lake Michigan taking the place of the parking lot of the theme park. Told you there was a disappearing parking lot. It all makes sense yes? No? Ok good.
Trademark Location: The kitchen table. Bickering around, spills on, trite heartfelt lessons learned at, Cody hitting on his cousins over top of – it all happened here.
Or alternately, Frank and Carol’s bed. Pretty much every episode had them in bed having some kind of discussion about parenting. Which was fairly fruitless considering how bad they were as parents.Speaking of things disappearing on this show, I swear I had pre-written this trademark location section, yet when I went to pop it in here I couldn’t find it. Where did it go? No idea, but I’ll bet it’s hanging out right now with all the other people and things that vanished from this haunted production.
was the music any good
The theme song for Step By Step was titled “Second Time Around” (get it?) and was written by those ever present ABC network and Miller-Boyett staples, Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay. If it seems oddly familiar it’s because these guys also wrote the themes for other ABC shows like Family Matters and Full House. And sure enough, Frederick sang lead vocals on both this and Full House’s.
Ahhhhhh that guitar intro – so delightfully 90s. The husky smokey bar vocals of the unknown female secondary vocalist. The lyrics were the usual bit of uplifting nonsense – something about the future, finding someone, life being better the second time around. Ho-hum generic melody with a big theatrical orchestral flourished outtro.
In the first season it, like most shows of the early 90s, was a fairly long song, clocking in at nearly two minutes. But that was broken up by a delightful (not delightful) group of children that chanted the chorus at us in a rather disarming manner. As was common later in the 90s however, the intro song gradually got shorter, disappearing altogether in season 6. It returned in a shortened form for the final 7th season.
Is this a song that has lived on in pop culture? Nope. Should this song have lived on in pop culture? Nope.
what was its tone
Overall, a crude family sitcom with flimsy characters that, while I assume had the intent to teach its audience some lessons about being supportive and embracing differences though humour, it just wasn’t funny, and fell flat on its face trying to teach these lessons because a lot of the time the situations were just so damn creepy.
Was its tone sweet? Meh. Heartwarming? Meh. A mirror to blended families just trying to get along? I sure hope not. Basically, it was family tropes with an odd amount of sexual overtones. J.T. getting hit on by Hawaiian women when he’s 13 is fine, but it just kept beating this horny horse for 7 damn seasons.
does history remember it
Has It Been Forgotten?
Yeah. Not nearly on par with its peers in terms of staying power. As in yes, it has been forgotten. No reboots to bring it back into consciousness. No characters that are widely recognized or referenced today. It is available on YouTube for $20 a season and streaming on ABC owned Hulu.
How Is It Remembered?
Ummm, it’s not? Maybe as a show that you watched to kill time. “Isn’t that the show with the guy who lived in a van?”
Place In Pop Culture?
Nope. Other than maybe Cody and as the landing spot for a mid-90s Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy, it just doesn’t have a significant place.
Reboots And Remakes?
Not really, although who knows with ABC these days. There have been a couple of spoof videos produced by cast members in the last couple of years prodding at the idea found here and here. Like other WarnerMedia owned properties, as of July 2019 there have been early exploratory talks about getting a reboot off the ground.
Would It Work Today?
I think so. But it would have to be more in the vein of a Modern Family format. And damn son, lay off the creepy teen predator stuff.
Personally I also found the little side plots of whatever Frank and Carol were up to to be much more entertaining than whatever the kids were doing. Often it was the same old routine between Dana and J.T. over and over. Repetition is never a problem for me, except if it is repetition of a faulty device.
For myself, humour in a sitcom has two forms, familiar and absurd. Familiar by way of the audience recognizing and sympathizing with the scenarios presented with them. Seinfeld and Modern Family being the kings of this form. Absurd being slapstick and farce where the situations are so over the top that we have to laugh because of how outlandish and insane they are. This is how shows like I Love Lucy and Frasier were successful.
I always found that Step By Step rode a strange middle ground where the characters seemed normal enough, but then you realize they are actually portrayals of what television writers think are real people. And they seem to get involved in things that only happen to television people, riding trope over trope into the ground each episode. Which is fine, but if you’re going to go normal with your characters, give me familiar and relatable. Step By Step doesn’t do this. Which again, is fine. In that case give me absurd. But Step By Step doesn’t do this either. Very rarely did the situations elevate themselves into the insane and instead just thudded into a groanable TV situation middle ground. Not very Ha Ha funny to me.
3 for fun
Angela Watson, who portrayed Karen, founded Child Actors Supporting Themselves, a group that helps young actors with managing their finances and new-found riches. She did this because when she took time off from acting to pursue college, she found that her parents had wasted her earnings.
In season 6, Carol tells Bronson Pinchot’s character Jean-Luc that he looks like Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie. Jean-Luc turns around and tells Carol that she looks like Chrissy from Three’s Company. While in the 90s crossovers between shows were common, self-referential dialogue was not.
Remember I said that this is the show of the mystery disappearances? Even for the letter “i”? In season 7, after six full seasons of having her title credit spelled as Staci Keanan, suddenly the credits displayed Stacy instead of Staci. Just like the vanishing characters and parking lots, without any explanation we have letters lost into the ether, never to be seen again.
who created it
why we love it
- Because it’s easy to watch.
- Because if The Brady Bunch wasn’t available or too outdated for you this was a reasonable facsimile.
- Because every show is better when one of the characters lives in a van in the driveway.
why we hate it
- Because it was the antogonistic version of The Brady Bunch – the step-siblings were just downright mean to each other.
- Because it didn’t ever seem to have an original plot line to call it’s own.
- Because the guys in it were creeeeeepy.
what it's best for
- For when you don’t have the mental energy to navigate an original plot line.
- For when you want to laugh, but not like, Ha-Ha laugh.
- For when you need to see a guy living in a van in the driveway instead of down by the river.
who was in it
Patrick Duffy as Frank Lambert
- Husband to Carol, runs his own contracting business, biological father of three of the six children, and later, father to Lily whom he had with Carol.
- Sports fan and terrified of himself or his kids being emasculated in any way.
- Trademark: Honestly – being the most generic TV dad in the history of TV dads. This man has no identity outside of the TV dad trope.
Suzanne Somers as Carol Foster
- Wife to Frank, biological mother to three of the six children, and later, mother to Lily whom she had with Frank.
- Beautician who runs her business out of their home, and later at a different location.
- The straight-woman mom to the chaos around her.
- Trademark: Being neurotically obsessed with organizing, as evidenced by her alphabetical kitchen.
Brandon Call as J.T. (John Thomas) Lambert
- Biological son of Frank, eldest of the Lambert kids, jock, sworn enemy of Dana.
- Girl obsessed and more than a little creepy in his quest to get into everyone’s pants.
- Trademark: That mullet in the early seasons. Hitting on everything female that moved.
Staci Keanan as Dana Foster
- Biological daughter of Carol, oldest of the Foster kids. Smart, sassy, sworn enemy of J.T.
- Thinks everyone around her is an idiot.
- Trademark: I’m sorry but, being mean. Like always mean. And later having hair so bleached that it was transparent.
Christine Lakin as Alicia (Al) Lambert
- Biological daughter of Frank, middle child of the Lambert kids, tomboy, aggressive, possibly a bully.
- Plays all the sports.
- Trademark: Being possibly the most generic tomboy in the history of generic TV tomboys. Detecting a theme here?
Angela Watson as Karen Foster
- Biological daughter of Carol, middle of the three Foster kids, wants to be a model.
- Vapid airhead and classic valley girl who somehow ended up in Wisconsin.
- Did have moments of sweetness.
- Aside: How did all these people sound like they were inside a surfer movie when they were actually upper Midwest suburbanites?
- Trademark: Being a high school student for 6 years with no explanation. Sorry, I’m really trying here. These characters don’t seem to have any personality outside of their trope boxes.
Josh Byrne as Brendan Lambert
- Biological son of Frank, youngest of the three Lambert kids.
- Filled the void of youngest child with youngest child antics.
- Was nice, unlike the rest of the kids, seemed to like his step family.
- Trademark: Absolutely nothing. And then for being an invisible child. While he never did have a big role, in the final season he didn’t appear at all. He wasn’t formally written off either, because the parents occasionally mentioned having seven kids. He just…vanished.
Christopher Castile as Mark Foster
- Biological son of Carol, youngest of the three Foster kids.
- Brainiac, nerd, sensitive and at odds with his more aggressive and sports-inclined step siblings.
- Trademark: Those red glasses. I always did like them. Also, dressing like a fifty year old insurance salesman. See: vest.
Sasha Mitchell as Cody Lambert
- Nephew of Frank.
- Lives in a van in the family’s driveway.
- Had more personality than the rest of the cast put together.
- Martial arts expert.
- Portrayed as a dumb dude yet had frequent moments of insight and clarity to make the family see the error of their ways.
- Left after season 5 (was written off due to, later unfounded, legal troubles) for a job in Russia.
- Later revealed that he was travelling around the world, attempting to eat a burger in every country if I am correct.
- Trademark: Hehehehehehe laugh. Dude. Whoa. Martial arts expert. Take your pick. This guy had all of the personality of the entire show.
Emily Mae Young as Lily Foster-Lambert
- Only biological child of both parents.
- Born in season 4 she was aged 5 by season 6.
- This show just didn’t give a damn about your rules of continuity.
- Lily was sassy and always questioning things around her. I remember not liking her.
- Trademark: Being a poster child for Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome.
memorable RANDOM character
- The disappearing character. And we have lots of them. Also known as the Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, it’s named after the character Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days (above). He vanished from the show after season 2 with no explanation. Bonus Fun Fact right there. Anyway, you ready? Let’s begin!
- 1. Opening credits kid. The character of Mark was originally given to Jarrett Lennon and the opening credits and an unaired pilot were filmed with him in the role. The pilot was obviously re-shot, yet the first season’s credits had scenes with both Castile and Lennon in it. If you watched closely you would assume that the family had seven children.
- 2. Ivy and Penny Baker. Carol’s mother and sister, respectively, they were frequent visitors to the house in season 1. Never seen again with no explanation starting in season 2.
- 3. As mentioned, Brendan Lambert.
- 4. Jake “Flash” Gordon. A jovial and overactive handyman, he was an employee of Frank’s who was brought in to replace Cody after Sasha Miller’s legal troubles came to light. Appears in four episodes of season 5, accompanies the family on a trip to Disney World, even gets asked by Frank to move in with the family in the season 5 finale. Bam. Literally does not exist in any form in season 6.
- 5. Jean-Luc Rieupeyroux. Portrayed by Bronson Pinchot of Perfect Strangers fame, this character mysteriously came in when he left. Huh? Brought in for the 6th season after they made Jake Gordon disappear, he was a beautician business partner of Carol’s. However, the 6th season aired out of order so what aired as the season premiere was actually an episode with Jean-Luc as an already entrenched character. So entrenched that one of the plotlines was Frank and Carol scheming to escape Jean-Luc as he is always around. The final aired episode of season 6 is literally titled Hello Jean-Luc (“Bonjour Jean-Luc”). So if watched in aired order of that year this character already exists, then is introduced, then is never seen again in season 7.