Monday, June 1, 2009

Have Mercy!: A Semiotic Reading of the Opening Credits of "Full House"

I took my first trip to San Francisco last weekend, where this picture was taken. I was reminded of a paper I wrote a couple years ago on the opening credits of "Full House":

“Whatever happened to predictability?
The milkman, the paperboy, and evening TV?
You miss your old familiar friends
waiting just around the bend…”

These lyrics are how we not only recognize, but also look back on one of, if not the definitive family sitcom of the 1990s, “Full House.” Over its eight-season run (1987-1994), the show became known for promoting conventional family themes and values, despite its unconventional setting: a household with no mother and not one, but three patriarchs. It debunks and upholds traditions – both of the American family and the American sitcom – at the same time, and while adhering to a sense of homogeneity, it puts its own spin on things, which is what makes it stand out from other sitcoms. As evident in the opening credits, each member of the Tanner family is unique, with strongly varying traits and interests, and how these traits and interests play against each other is what adds flavor – and comedy – to the show’s happenings and conflicts. According to Brett Mills, “television situation comedy depends on a set of characters who live and work together, who are strongly differentiated in terms of ‘personality.’ Plots derive from absurd predicaments and good-natured power struggles that result from sharing quarters." "Full House" presents common relatable family themes and issues, and thus unites a large audience across the nation who speak the same semiotic language and uphold the same values as highlighted in the show – most notably family and Americana. At the same time, however, the show’s ability to suspend any disbelief – as well as its unconventional structure featuring three patriarchs – creates a new reality for the viewer. The sitcom’s episodic formula revolves around the three bachelors attempting to raise the three precocious little girls, who often get the best of them. The girls break the rules but admit their mistakes and learn their lesson by the end of the episode, often hugging one of their father figures with touching music playing in the background.

The Season Four (1990-1991) edition of the sitcom’s unforgettable opening credits begins with the theme song’s nostalgic and heartwarming lyrics sung over a shot of Michelle Tanner, played by the very young Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, sitting in between her two “uncles” in a moving red convertible. It is sunny and beautiful out. As the camera zooms out, we see the whole Tanner clan – Danny, DJ, Stephanie, Michelle, Jesse, and Joey; Danny is at the wheel. Dissolve to an aerial shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a classic piece of American iconography. CUT TO: die-hard Elvis fan Uncle Jesse (John Stamos) sitting on a bench under a tree, playing his acoustic guitar, all smiles. CUT TO: neat freak Danny (Bob Saget), standing proudly next to his red convertible, wiping a smudge off of the windshield. CUT TO: comedian Joey Gladstone (Dave Coulier), sitting on a railing by the water, boats visible in the background. He is talking, joking, gesturing, and takes off his sunglasses. CUT TO: oldest sister DJ (Candace Cameron), adjusting her own school picture on the mantle with pride and – of course – a smile. CUT TO: middle child Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) throwing a Frisbee for her dog Comet, smiling at the camera. CUT TO: adorable little Michelle, jumping on her bed, pigtails bouncing up and down. CUT TO: Rebecca Donaldson (Lori Loughlin), the only older woman figure on the show, smelling flowers just as beautiful as she is, running her fingers through her hair. Then of course we cut to the three patriarchs, sitting on a railing by the dock where we saw Joey before, when Danny looks at his watch, realizes what time it is, and the three of them are off…to the picnic they’ve prepared on the lawn in front of San Francisco’s famous row of Victorian houses, the Painted Ladies (contrary to popular belief, the Tanners don’t actually live in one of these houses).

Much of the meaning we can derive from the credit sequence is in how it compares to other classic sitcom credit sequences. “Full House” is unique (or was at the time) in that the opening sequence did not feature scenes from actual episodes; each main character/cast member is introduced separately, performing an action that is indicative of one or more character traits, until they “notice” the camera and flash a winning smile. These trait-displaying actions emphasize the personality differentiations of the show’s principle characters, yet the opening and closing shots show the whole family together, whether it be riding in the car or working together to set up a picnic that they can all enjoy. The syntagm, or sequencing of signs, in the credits allows us to see the whole family, then breaks it down into its individual parts, and when we see them all together again, we have a better understanding of the family as a whole. In addition to the window into the characters and their collective relationship that the opening credits provide, many of the objects we see – the classic red convertible, the acoustic guitar (alluding to Jesse’s obsession with Elvis Presley), the trolley seen in some versions of the opening sequence – are pieces of classic American iconography. These icons juxtaposed with the character individuality and family unity that are also displayed in the sequence are indicative of what the show is all about. It is a classic modern American family sitcom with an opening sequence that, years in the future, will remind people of the 1990s American family – conventional in values but increasingly unconventional in structure. We are drawn to the Tanner family because they are so relatable and yet so different from other sitcom families.

Brett Mills states that today’s sitcom fathers reflect the diversity that characterizes a society at large. “Full House” presents us with three very different father figures who each have their own way of dealing with the girls. Joey, the comedian and Danny’s best friend, uses humor, voices, and characters to teach the girls. Jesse, the rebel rock ‘n roller and brother of the girls’ deceased mother, often lets the girls get away with things, but his growing experience with them benefits him once he has children of his own. Danny, the cleaning-obsessed talk show host – and the girls’ real father – adheres most closely to the sitcom dad archetype; he is the most protective and strictest of the three, but according to him, “I don’t yell, I guide!” The Season Four credits are significant in that they are the first of the series’ run to feature Rebecca Donaldson – Danny’s cohost on “Wake Up San Francisco”, Jesse’s wife, and the show’s only adult female/mother figure – as a principle character. It is not until halfway through the series that they introduce a mother figure; as the family evolves, so does the show’s opening sequence.

“Full House” takes place in San Francisco but was filmed in Los Angeles; therefore the opening sequence has to do a good job of making its audience believe that the Tanners are in San Francisco even though it is far from the truth. Ellen Seiter states that indexical signs rely on the co-presence of a signifier and its signified. Television tends to place an enormous stress on the connection between an image and its location as it exists in real time and space. All interiors of the opening sequence were shot on set in LA, but most exteriors – the ones that feature identifiable places around San Francisco – had to be shot on location. We can’t tell this from the opening credits – partially due to our suspension of disbelief – and we accept that the Tanners are in San Francisco. This is exactly what people mean when they say that the camera never lies; Umberto Eco states, “Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used to tell at all."

The reason we don’t notice any of this is because of the cognitive compression effect, which is the result of the TV medium presenting in compacted form for time-constrained transmission. Consequently, we barely have time to process topics/implications/meanings contained in the message. The meaning is thus suspended, which is why TV is so easy to watch until we read into it on a theoretical level. On the surface, the Tanner family seems too cheesy to be real, with all of their catchphrases (“Have mercy!”, “How rude!”, “You got it, dude!), their wacky mishaps, and their touching moments enhanced by a sappy soundtrack. But they represent the most defining qualities of the modern American family – both the good and the bad – and they serve the same function: “a stabilizing force, changing slowly if at all, resisting pressures for change outside itself” (Hodge & Kress). We can look to “Full House” as a model for the modern American family – unconventional, yet upholding traditional values – as well as the modern American sitcom. Those of us who have grown up watching this show will look at it with nostalgia and reassurance that…

“Everywhere you look, there’s a heart; a hand to hold onto
everywhere you look, there’s the face of somebody who needs you
when you’re lost out there and you’re all alone
a light is waiting to carry you home…”

Danesi, Marcel. Understanding Media Semiotics. London: Arnold, 2002.
Hodge, Robert, and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics. Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 1988.
Mills, Brett. Television Sitcom. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2005.
Seiter, Ellen. "Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television." Channels of Discourse,
Reassembled. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

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