Who were The Fitzpatrick’s and why were they a failure?
In 1977 a television show named The Fitzpatrick’s premiered on CBS, which ran for thirteen episodes, and was canceled in 1978. Television shows come and go and The Fitzpatrick’s came and went over thirty years ago. The focus of The Fitzpatrick’s were the struggles of an Irish Catholic Steelworker’s family living in Flint Michigan. When The Fitzpatrick’s aired I was still watching a lot of television at night, however that was beginning to fade, as I was in my second year of high school and had just became involved with the drama club. One of the reasons that I watched this television show was because of a young actress on the show that my friend Derrick and I both had a crush on. That actress being Helen Hunt, in one of her early roles. The bigger draw of the show for myself, and others where I lived, is that it was set in Flint Michigan, some twenty miles from where I lived at the time. Flint was also the city of my birth. Even though I watched most of the episodes when it aired, the show was a disappointment to myself and many others. The only reason I continued to watch, after the first few episodes, was because of the crush I had on Helen Hunt. That crush lasted about as long as The Fitzpatrick’s did.
There were a number of reasons that made The Fitzpatrick’s a flop. The acting, as I remember, was okay. The stories were somewhat believable. The writing was adequate. The premise of the show was one that should have flown, that of a family of strong moral character sticking together through adversity. Certainly a premise that the people of Flint Michigan could understand and needed in 1977. Just before that time Flint began to experience the loss of jobs in the auto industry. The auto industry was Flint’s economy. When CBS announced they were doing a show, that showed the plight of the residents of Flint, many people were appreciative. When people from Flint and the surrounding areas watched the show, what they saw was a show that appeared as if the only people associated with it, that had bothered to go to Flint, were those who shot the establishing shots. Even those appeared to be purely stock footage.
The background story for the title family, The Fitzpatrick’s, was one that would have been more believable had the show been set in New York or Boston. The Fitzpatrick’s were an Irish Catholic family. There are Irish people in Flint. There are Catholics in Flint. There are Irish Catholics in Flint. What does not exist in Flint are the strong ethnocentric areas that exist in other cities that have been the fodder for so many television shows. So the Irish Catholic angle would have made sense had the show been set in Boston or New York. It would have been better to have a family of White Anglo Saxon Protestants or and African American family.
What the writers of the show failed to get about Flint was that first and foremost many its residents view themselves as Flintoids. Though only implied, by the emphasis on The Fitzpatrick’s being Irish, the show’s creators failed to realized that Flint is a city that does not have a Chinatown, Little Italy, or Little Belfast. Flint does have ethnic and class divisions. These divisions are not paraded around as they are in other cities. The biggest ethnic division in Flint is between Black and White, and perhaps that is the only division that exists in great numbers there. Ethnic pride of groups like the Irish may exist in individuals in Flint, however, it does not exist in big way there, as it has been, shown on television, to exist in other cities, in North America. In Flint, the most you will get in the way of that type of ethnocentric behavior are “Kiss me I’m Irish” buttons on St Patrick’s day or the occasional “Hey I’m Italian!”. The real division in Flint is one of class, the division between rich and poor, of those who can leave when they want to and those who can not leave. One thing that The Fitzpatrick’s did get right was the inclusion of an African American best friend for the family’s youngest son. Common economic status is often a stronger bond than skin color, and most children do not care about skin color.
Beyond the issue the Irish Catholic angle being wrong for a show that was set in Flint Michigan, is the fact that this same angle is one that would have the show fail in middle America. This show was about a working class family that would have most likely lasted longer had the family not been pegged as one particular ethnic group. Although, I am sure there are plenty of hard working Catholic families in North America, I feel that had the writers made the family Protestant that it would have had more viewers. There has always been a deficit of shows that appeal that segment of the American viewing public. When shows are presented that cater to that segment of America, they are often well received.
Another major oversight on the show was the occupation of the the father. His occupation was that of a steelworker. The fact that the creators of the show choose to make him a steelworker, instead of a worker in an automobile factory is something that makes me think that setting the show in Flint was an afterthought. An Irish Catholic family whose father is a steelworker screams Boston, not Flint Michigan. Because of this, it seems as if The Fitzpatrick’s was written to be set Down East, instead of in the Great Lakes State. Most likely, some well meaning executive at CBS got the bright idea that they could market the show in such a way to feign concern for the plight of Flint Michigan due to downward trend in the auto industry in the mid-1970s. That was the spin in the interviews that I viewed way back then, when I first heard about the show. The Fitzpatrick’s did not help Flint. In fact most of America ignored Flint completely until Micheal Moore’s “Roger and Me” came along.
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The thing that I remember about The Fitzpatrick’s as most frustrating was watching the show and waiting to see locations that were actually in Flint. There were none. There were establishing shots that were shot in Flint. They were most likely stock footage. The shoots were done in California and California does not look like Michigan. To some this may have been just a tragedy of cinematic integrity. To me it was a tragedy of a missed opportunity to turn a city’s economy around and bring it a new industry. Had The Fitzpatrick’s actually been filmed in Flint it may have been a better show that lasted for years. Had The Fitzpatrick’s been filmed in Flint it may have created a stronger entertainment industry presence in Flint. Flint is a town that has been the home to many creative people that could have gotten involved in such in industry had they had that opportunity in their backyard. Had Flint had a bigger Television and Film presence maybe more of her native sons and daughters, who would have liked to stay, would not have had to go elsewhere to seek work in those industries. Therefore, the real failure of The Fitzpatrick’s was that it was not actually filmed in Flint. That it did not create a lucrative television and film industry presence in Flint. As an added slap in the face to Flint, the family’s dog was named Detroit, a city that has always overshadowed Flint in national attention, as well as in Michigan politics and economics.
The moral of this sad tale is that if you are creating a television series that deals with the effects of a economic downturn in a specific city, you should actually film that series on location in the city in question. You should use the talent in that city to create the series. Give the residents of the city the chance to get involved in the television industry. Give them a chance to get the union cards they need to be involved without having to leave the city. Make that city another center for the industry that the promised land of Hollywood can utilize instead of ignoring. By doing this television executives in Hollywood can avoid the rest of the country proclaiming they are out of touch with them. If this had been done with The Fitzpatrick’s maybe the people who are reading this article would not be thinking to themselves “Who cares, I never knew that show existed”.
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