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History of TV: 'Sister, Sister' Examines The Concept of Family on TGIF

December 31, 2020
3 min read time

Sister, Sister made it seem like suddenly discovering you have a twin sister is both the most wonderful thing in the world on one hand, and quite grateful you’re an only child, on the other. The ‘90s sitcom starred real-life twins Tamera Mowry-Housley as Tamera Campbell, and Tia Mowry-Hardrict as Tia Landry, who reunite for the first time in 14 years since being separated at birth. A simple concept with plenty of story engine, and with six seasons to binge, the show is an excellent source of screenwriting lessons for writers.

It’s hard not to talk about Sister, Sister without a refresher first about the larger comedy lineup context within which it had its origins: TGIF.

The evolution of TGIF

Not gonna lie, choosing to either hang with friends or watch the TGIF programming block on Friday night was a real struggle when I was younger. Recording the four-sitcom lineup on VHS just wasn’t the same as watching them live. While I just aged myself unbelievably, it’s worth it to reminisce over a few of my favorites: Boy Meets World, Full House, Family Matters, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Clueless, Step by Step and Sister, Sister; a couple of which were part of the block’s first run starting on Sept. 22, 1989.

TGIF riffed off the popular “thank God it’s Friday” phrase to become “thank goodness it’s funny,” complete with its own theme song and hosts, which for a while rotated between the casts of the various shows within the block. Stemming from executive producer Jim Janicek’s childhood fondness for gathering with his family to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, he created the family-centric themed block of TV for ABC.

While TGIF dominated the 18-49 demographic for most of the '90s, its audience grew up and started to go out Friday nights, causing the block to say goodnight after 11 years on Sept. 8, 2000. It had a couple of brief resurgences in both 2003 and as recent as 2018, but we’ll take a look at a few of the original breakout hits from the block within this column as part of a sub-series on TGIF.

Theme: family values

While its neighbors on the block examined family configurations of all kinds — nuclear (Family Matters, Boy Meets World), blended (Step by Step), friend family (Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper), and extended (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) — Sister, Sister blended a bunch of concepts into one: the girls were born twins, but then adopted by different parents (one single, one widowed) who must now learn how to co-habit and exist for the sake of the girls. Originally airing as a mid-season replacement, the show proved its staying power with audiences even after ABC cancelled it, and Sister, Sister moved to the fledgling WB network for its fourth to sixth (and final) season.

Jackée Harry played Lisa Landry, Tia’s fashionista mom who verged on the wild side and aligned with Tamera’s character, while Tim Reid played Tamera’s conservative dad Ray Campbell, who was more like the studious Tia. The relationship dynamics, enhanced by the real-life sisterly bond of Tia and Tamera, were key to the show’s authenticity. While the show could’ve leaned heavily into the serious dramatic themes of their unique blended family (This Is Us, anyone?), it instead broached them (and the perils of teenagerhood through the girls’ eyes) with a comedic tone. A smart creative choice considering the intended audience. Framing the story as a comedy also gave heavy topics the gift of cathartic release with laughter.

Dialogue: the comfort of predictability

And the show offered plenty of laughs, right from the opening frames when the twins first spot each other and Tamera and Tia exclaim to their respective adoptive parents, “That girl has my face!” Framed in any other genre, it could be interpreted in so many ways.

There’s something to be said for the setup-punchline exchanges in comedy — Tia to her mother Lisa, “You don’t own me!” to which Lisa replies, “I am renting you for 21 years!” — a comfort in knowing what’s coming. Like when the twins’ goofy but reliable neighbor Roger Evans (singer Marques Houston) would be his annoying self, and Tia and Tamera respond in unison: “Go home, Roger!” … nearly every episode until they go off to college.

In retrospect

More than two decades later, Sister, Sister is finding a new generation of fans thanks to Netflix. As Tamera told People, “The importance of values and good, clean family comedy never goes out. It’s never out of style.” While we are constantly urged to do “fresh” by really digging deep as a writer, very occasionally the simplicity of a message is what matters; why we tune into a particular show for pure escapism. Heckle me off the page, but I know it’s why I tuned in: the show was funny because they were fun, good people to spend a half hour with on a Friday night. We need more of that lightheartedness as we head into a new year where the entertainment we choose to watch and make will define 2021 decades from now.

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