This month’s blog series is “Some of Our Favorite Television Families.” In 1989 I remember tuning into a new show on ABC on Sunday night called Life Goes On. I continued to plant myself in front of the television every Sunday night for the next four years to do life with the Thatcher family.
Executive Producer Michael Braverman worked with Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome in 1987 in a movie Desperate. ABC asked Braverman to create a series for Burke. Life Goes On was the first series to star a character with Down Syndrome.
The Thatchers lived in a Chicago suburb. Dad Drew (Bill Smitrovich) is a restaurant owner of The Glen Brook Grill and Special Olympics coach. Mom Libby (Patti LuPone) was a stay-at-home mom but when their restaurant burns down, she goes to work for an advertising agency.
Oldest daughter Paige (Monique Lanier season 1, Tracey Needham, seasons 2-4) has a great relationship with her brother but a trying one with her sister. She was Drew’s daughter from a previous relationship and moves back into the house trying to find her purpose in life. Lanier left the series to have a baby, so Needham took over the role.
Son Corky (Chris Burke) is the middle child. He has Down Syndrome and much of the first season is centered on Corky, especially his acclimating to “regular” high school.
Daughter Becca (Kellie Martin) is the youngest; she is extremely intelligent but feels socially awkward, and many of the episodes from later seasons feature Becca as she grows up. Many shows include her boyfriends, Tyler (Tommy Puett), Corky’s best friend and her boyfriend for the first half of the series, and Jesse (Chad Lowe), her boyfriend in seasons 3 and 4.
The show handled a lot of sensitive issues from a practical and healthy perspective. Corky deals with the difficulties his disease produces, especially how other people interact with him. After graduation, he gets a job at a local movie theater, moves into an apartment, and meets a girl named Amanda who also has Down Syndrome. The two eventually marry. His best friend Tyler dies in a car accident while Corky is a passenger in the car. Another ongoing storyline was when Becca’s boyfriend Jesse was diagnosed with HIV. It dealt with the ways people treated him, or mistreated him, after his diagnosis and the effect his illness had on their romantic relationship.
The show reminded me a bit of Family having three kids, with the son being the middle child. In that show, both sisters got along with Willy but Nancy and Buddy’s relationship was not always positive. It had a lot of humor written into the scripts and like life, more heart-warming than heart-breaking moments.
Life Goes On borrowed the Beatles song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for its theme song; the song contained the lyrics “Life goes on.”
The home in the opening credits of the series was located at 305 North Bowling Green Way in Brentwood as cited by https://www.iamnotastalker.com/tag/tv-houses/page/3/. If you have never seen her webpage, you should definitely check it out. Filming was done at a sound stage and at the Warner Brothers Ranch, an area you know well if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. The Thatchers lived in the same house the Partridges did.
The show was nominated for four Emmys, winning two. Lowe won for supporting actor in 1993 and Martin was nominated for supporting actress but lost to Mary Alice in I’ll Fly Away. Burke won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television
Last fall it was announced that a sequel to the series might be in the works. A pilot was produced in January for a show that Martin would star in with both Martin and Lowe producing. This show would portray Becca returning to her hometown.
In the series finale in 1993 Jesse and Becca marry after she finishes college and begins her career as a doctor. She wants to have a baby which he has a hard time reconciling with his AIDS. Becca is telling a story to a ten-year-old boy at the time and at the end of the show, she kisses him and says “Good night Jesse,” leaving us to imagine that she and Jesse did have a baby but leaving the actual identity of his parent unknown. It is also revealed that Becca married a man named David after Jesse died from AIDS.
I’m guessing that Martin and Lowe must still be close if they are involved in a potentially new project. Typically, one of the things I run across in my research is the relationships of the cast members. Unfortunately, I could not find any information about how the cast got along, with the exception of LuPone’s and Smitrovich’s dislike of each other. In her biography, LuPone mentions that the two costars were not even speaking to each other by the time the show went off the air and did not get along during the filming of most of the episodes.
LuPone was also not particularly happy with her character’s plots, or lack of plots. It’s surprising that a show would cover so many controversial or misunderstood topics and yet not address the role of women very well. When LuPone was discussing her character during the run of the show, she said that she was “’very unhappy with the way the season has unfolded and how unimportant the mother is in the family. I’m not satisfied — there’s no other way to put it. There are a lot of issues for women over 40 that they could have explored and they chose not to.’ LuPone says she has made her discontent known, but ‘men run the show, and they’re not interested in exploring these issues. [Libby] is going the way of all Hollywood mothers — she’s just a fixture, a device.’”
If you want to learn more about the show, Herbie Pilato wrote a book, Life Story—The Book of Life Goes On: Television’s First and Best Family Show of Challenge. I’m not sure how the book was received by the cast and crew, but Braverman wrote the forward. It has a 4.5 rating on Amazon and most people gave it a 5.0.
I’m not sure how well the show would play in the 2020s. Because it dealt with so many topics of the eighties and nineties, it may feel stuck in that time period. However, we have proven over and over that we are slow learners and there are probably a lot of issues dealt with in the show that we are still trying to resolve today. And, there are a lot of great life lessons and stories to learn, so it would be well worth investing in the DVD set to check it out.