Ah, TV. Who doesn't love the characters, the plots, the comedy, the drama, the way everything is resolved in an hour or a half hour, minus commercial time. Much has been written about the "unreality" of the characters' lives. How does that coffee shop waitress afford such a cool apartment in New York? How does the newspaper writer support his stay-at-home wife and six kids in that very large suburban house?
But here's something not written about as often: Who does the cleaning? You seldom see a TV character wielding a mop, broom or dust cloth on air. And yet the house or apartment he or she lives in always stays neat as a pin – even with a flock of children or a bunch of college students living there. Granted you might have the occasional maid on a show but even then you didn't see Florence on "The Jeffersons" or Teresa on "Dallas" doing all that much either.
So in the spirit of impossibility, we present the most unlikely clean homes on TV, starting with an all-time comedy favorite.
There was probably not a TV-watching child (or parent) in the 1980s who didn't want to be a Huxtable. Everyone wanted The Cos (aka Cliff) for a dad, lovely Clair for a mother, and a household of well-dressed and well-behaved children.
Cliff, a doctor, and Clair, a lawyer, were high-powered professionals. Children ranged from adorable Rudy to pre-teen Vanessa and teenagers Denise and Theo with random visits from college student daughter Sondra. Extended family routinely dropped by and at one time Denise lived there with her husband Martin and his child.
Yet despite the endless parade of people, parents that put in 10- or 12-hour days, and multiple episodes centered in the kitchen, you never saw so much as a book or plate out of place. Clair, Cliff and the kids never had to pick up a broom or duster; their clothes must have miraculously reproduced because they didn't do laundry. Unlike my children who take out every toy they own, little Rudy played neatly with one doll or game at a time. Backpacks, shoes and coats apparently evaporated each day after school because they weren't thrown in the hallway or by the front door. There was the occasional messy bedroom (Cliff to Theo after looking around his clothes-strewn room: "Hard to get good help around here these days?") But usually that house was spic and span.
Bill Cosby may have written the book on being a father, but it's the invisible chore chart that should have been published.
I'm not talking about the boarding-school years of "The Facts of Life" when Kim Fields flew around on roller skates. No, I'd like to ask Mrs. Garrett's college-age boarders exactly how they found time to attend classes, have boyfriends, work in Mrs. G's food shop, deal with all the issues of being 20-something girls and still keep a clean house.
Granted, the girls were not in your traditional college dorm room, but were crammed into an attic. You could walk from the door to the bed without wading through a sea of clothes; desks were neat and productive work areas. Their space wasn't littered with potato chip bags, diet soda cans, magazines, stacks of school books, headphones or dirty sweatshirts. And they shared one bathroom.
This bears repeating -- one bathroom, four girls. In real life, that bathroom should have had makeup everywhere, hair dryers and curling irons precariously dangling on the edge of the sink, delicate air-drying over the bathtub and towels flung over almost every surface.
My dorm room smelled like old sneakers, perfume and pizza boxes. My roommate and I had clothes hanging on outside of our closet doors because everything couldn't fit in the closet; my desk functioned as a workplace and vanity since the bathroom was overcrowded and had no counter space. When entering my room, you'd better have turned on the lights or else you might kill yourself tripping over stuff on the way to my bed. In the real world, those my friend, are the facts of life.
Before Matthew Fox starred as Jack on "Lost", he was big brother Charlie trying to manage the wayward Salinger clan who'd been orphaned by a drunk driver. The five children ranged in age from a baby all the way up to 20-something Charlie.
While he had a good heart, Charlie was still fighting his own demons so he didn't always have the best control over his siblings. Thank goodness for Kirsten, Owen's nanny and Charlie's sometime girlfriend, but even Kirsten's presence can't explain the cleanliness of the Salinger house. Over the course of the show, Charlie and brother Bailey managed their parents' restaurant; Charlie had cancer; Bailey dealt with alcoholism; sister Julia with domestic violence; other sister Claudia with lots of violin practice and who knows what Owen, the youngest, did. Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt also found fame on that show, and she didn't do it while wielding a broom or a dustpan.
There were no parents, and very few adults to enforce any type of order or household standards, so the house should have looked like fraternity row after a football game. But in the lovely world of sitcom TV, this beautiful San Francisco estate not only had charming views of the Golden Gate Bridge but a clean, welcoming interior as well.
They sure could spin off a sitcom in the old days. "Happy Days" led to "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy;" "All in the Family" spawned "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and even the short-lived "Gloria." And you can thank Mike Seaver (played by Kirk Cameron) and "Growing Pains" for "Just the Ten of Us."
This show featured the stereotypical Catholic family, the Lubbocks, whose dad was Mike Seaver's coach on "Growing Pains." Eight children ranging from a baby to four teenagers, occupied the Lubbock household; yet their family room looked like the display at a furniture store. I don't even have half as many children as the Lubbocks did, yet our house can't stay neat through one meal.
While Coach Lubbock devoted his days and nights to keeping the boys at his school from dating his daughters, mom Elizabeth spent all her time holding baby Harvey and helping her girls solve their preteen and teenage problems. With all that counseling and listening, she wouldn't have time for vacuuming, changing linens, or cleaning a toilet. And yet the house (large for a coach's salary) stayed neat and clean. If life imitated art, maybe we'd all have eight kids!
Before Michael J. Fox was an icon and ambassador for Parkinson's disease, he was conservative, suit-wearing, Ronald Reagan-loving Alex P. Keaton – a colorful character and oldest son in the Keaton family. This show was one of my personal favorites -- I adored Alex, wanted parents like Elyse and Steven Keaton but would have settled for just living in the household.
In retrospect, who wouldn't want to live there? Their family room, the place where the family members had understanding talks, solved each other's problems and spent "quality time," was impeccable. The kitchen, another popular gathering place, featured healthy food and good conversation, but without the stacks of mail and school books, dishes and lunchboxes that most family kitchens mass produce.
Both Keaton parents had full-time careers, and were a hip, socially enlightened couple, ignoring the stereotypical gender roles of women as homemakers and men as bread winners. Now and then you'd see Elyse at her drafting board doing some "architectural stuff" in the kitchen. But in their world, neither male nor female had to do anything to maintain the household's immaculate appearance.
Even when "Family Ties" "jumped the shark" and expanded their cast with baby brother Andrew, the place didn't get messier. Several months ago, I relived the 1980's and watched a "Family Ties" marathon. I watched Alex hang his jacket in the coat closet, youngest daughter Jennifer take her school books to her room and middle child Mallory come home from shopping and deposit all her bags in her room. Even Andrew didn't leave a single toy downstairs in the den. After all these years, it's still a personal favorite even if I don't buy it.
Sheldon and Leonard may have social challenges, but the same side of the brain that makes them science geniuses must also make them neat freaks because there's no other explanation for how their apartment stays so tidy.
In the show, the boys and their geeky friends are constantly fixated on physics, science fiction, "Star Trek," comic books – and of course, neighbor Penny. Yet you never see them discussing whose turn it is to do the dishes, clean the refrigerator or empty wastebaskets. A parade of friends and family members can visit, hang out, or even stay for a bit but the house never looks the worse for wear. Maybe the guys have invented an unseen robot that does the chores.
While Sheldon and Leonard probably wouldn't have pyramids of beer cans, smelly gym shorts or footballs in the den, but dirty laundry, unmade beds and cans of Chef Boyardee should abound. Physics may provide answers to many of life's questions, but it won't explain the mystery of the pristine bachelor apartment.
Never has medicine been so sexy, social and interesting! The characters on Grey's Anatomy get more done in a 24-hour day than even the U.S. Army. They work on their surgical skills, they work on their bedroom skills; they study for boards; they have babies, yet still find time to go across the street to the local watering hole – knowing that at any second a Seattle manufacturing plant might blow up and send a stream of patients to their hospital.
What they don't show is how Meredith Grey's huge house or Mark's apartment or Callie and Arizona's lovely home stays clean. Meredith is never shown running a vacuum or washing a dish; yet the house is immaculate despite the fact that at one time or another, nearly every featured resident has lived there, they've had lots of wild parties, and there is now a toddler in residence. Callie and Arizona are new moms, yet you never even see a can of formula on the counter. If these docs were successful surgeons, finished with training, I'd assume there were housekeepers that TV audiences never see, but these characters are still managing student loans.
I have no doubt the doctors of "Grey's" could make me the Bionic Woman, but if I had my choice, I'd rather have Callie's apartment than her surgical skills.
How to describe the Bundy Family? Al was crass, Peg was tacky, Bud was perverted and Kelly was just plain slutty. Fox made "Married with Children" famous as the family you didn't want to be. But as socially dysfunctional as they were, their home was clean and functional as any other on TV.
Granted, Al and Peg didn't have the best taste. Al was disheveled, wrinkled and kept his hand in his pants as often as he could. Peg's makeup looked like it was done by a circus clown, and her skin-tight outfits were long past their prime. And, this lack of taste flowed over to their home's décor. But, while the Bundy house was ugly, bland and out of date, it was not dirty. In fact, it was exceptionally neat considering Mr. and Mrs. Bundy and their absolute inability to be productive.
Likewise, the children, Bud and Kelly, were not exactly doing Saturday morning chores and earning allowances. Bud used his intelligence to be a con artist, Kelly prided herself on her promiscuity, and both kids were too focused on leaving the house to stay around and help.
Fox broke new ground with this atypical sitcom, yet they didn't deviate from the standard of nice, clean TV home. Finally, the Bundys got their chance to be normal!
Before Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen owned a movie company, a fashion label and had paparazzi stalking them, they took turns playing the lovable Michelle Tanner, toddler extraordinaire on Full House. This was a fun, campy show about three men raising three young girls. You had an OCD dad in Danny Tanner; an overgrown kid and standup comedian in his best friend Joey Gladstone, and rockstar-wannabe in Uncle Jesse.
So, in the real world, wouldn't this house have been an absolute mess? There were three small girls, complete with diapers, Barbie dolls, school books, roller skates, sports equipment and clothes. Someone was constantly in the kitchen, preparing a meal or grabbing a snack. Danny Tanner was a morning TV host which means he should have been out of the house at 4 am and in bed by 8 pm. Jesse and Joey worked such erratic jobs and schedules that there's no way you could have counted on them to pack a lunch, push a vacuum or empty a dishwasher. Plus those two didn't seem particularly responsible.
Granted, Danny Tanner was a bit obsessive about housework, but in reality, his passion couldn't have overcome the sheer amount of mess created by six people. Before the show ended, the house got even fuller with Uncle Jesse marrying and moving in long-time girlfriend Rebecca; and to top it all off, the couple had twins! At that point, the producers should have changed the name from "Full House" to "Full of It," because no self-respecting parent should have believed that house could be so impossibly clean!
The three nuclear families that form the Pritchett family blend ethnicities, sexual orientations, age differences and gender roles. The result is a contemporary, laugh-so-hard-you-snort-soda-through-your-nose sitcom.
These characters all stay very busy; the adults hold jobs, raise families and manage households while the children go to school, participate in activities, have play dates and go through normal teenage dating angst. The crux of each episode always seems to revolve around a family celebration or get-together, of which the Pritchetts have many. And while all this is happening, major life milestones -- new jobs, adoptions, first kisses and college acceptances -- occur.
With all this activity, you'd expect housekeeping and chores to fall low on the priority list. Claire, the Pritchett daughter, wife to Phil and mother of three is shown occasionally wiping something in the kitchen or carrying a laundry basket through the house. Cameron, partner to her brother Mitchell and stay-at-home dad to Lily has fun play dates, lunches and lots of drama, yet never cleans their apartment. Meanwhile Gloria married to patriarch Jay Pritchett and mother to Manny, is always dressed to the nines, sporting beautiful high heels and full makeup, and probably doesn't own a vacuum.
Each home is not only a contrast in style, but should be featured in "House Beautiful" or "Better Homes and Gardens" magazines. All of us TV viewers can only hope that one day we'll be so modern our homes naturally clean themselves.
Take this HowStuffWorks quiz to find out your how your cleaning skills stack up.
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- Entertainment Weekly. "Grey's Anatomy' boss Shonda Rhimes explains Eric Dane's exit." (July 30, 212). http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/07/28/greys-anatomy-shonda-rhimes-eric-dane-season-9/
- TV.com. "Party of Five." (July 30, 2012). http://www.tv.com/shows/party-of-five/
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- The Big Bang Theory. (July 30, 2012). http://the-big-bang-theory.com/about/