Almost every sitcom adds characters to the cast at some point in its run. New characters facilitate new storylines, keep the show fresh, and often boost flagging ratings. Indeed, like a pacemaker or transplant, new characters allow a sitcom to live beyond what may have been possible in its original configuration. Sitcoms often add characters in the guise of a new baby, a boyfriend, or an adoptive child. Even Family Matters added the popular Steve Urkel just seven episodes into its run. Later in its run, Family Matters made bolder strokes in the addition of characters. Though often underestimated, Family Matters is the only show, to this reviewer’s knowledge, that added a character through bioengineering.
The brilliance of this development is that it allowed Family Matters to become one of the few shows able to delve into the rich and controversial topic of bioethics. The eighth episode of the fifth season, “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool,” originally airing on ABC on November 12, 1993, provides a stunning example of this boldness. The action begins with Laura and some of her friends out for a milkshake at the Mighty Weenie where Eddie and Urkel work. Laura asks her friends if they think her skirt is too short because, apparently, the meddlesome Urkel was concerned. Mid-debate, a patron enters the Mighty Weenie, sees Laura’s skirt, and begins to flirt with her. Laura is flattered. Urkel, laden with a tray full of milkshakes, tells the patron “Keep flirtin’ and you’ll be hurtin’.” The patron promptly pulls down Urkel’s pants, causing him to trip and spill the tray of milkshakes all over Laura. She is covered in milkshake.
Urkel follows Laura home, apologizing profusely. Ignoring Urkel’s apologies, Laura tells him that his “clumsiness is only part of the problem” explaining that he is also “annoying and socially inept.” Marvelously scripted by Jim Geoghan, in the episode’s most telling moment, Laura asks Urkel “Why are you the way you are?” With that, Laura asks one of the great existential questions. Urkel, a devotee of science, responds with a lecture about DNA and genes. Laura then asks, “What happened to yours?” The question remains, however, beyond the purely physical explanation, what makes us who we are? And can improving the physical components of our make up improve the overall essence of our being? When Laura asks Urkel if there is anything he can do to change himself, Mr. Geoghan wisely leaves open the manner of this transformation.
In the next scene, Carl is in an unusually good mood. He tells Harriette he’ll take her shopping and tells Laura she can have a party. He explains that the source of his good mood is the fact that he hasn’t seen Urkel in a week. Right on cue, Urkel arrives, ruining Carl’s mood. After Carl and Harriette leave, Urkel tells Laura that he has been working on a “series of experiments that will revolutionize the science of genetics.” He has isolated his “cool gene” and multiplied it (the gene was hard to find because “it was hiding behind my gene for hammer toes and nasal drip”). He now has a concoction he has named “cool juice.” Cool juice is a blue smoking liquid consisting entirely of Urkel’s cool gene. He drinks it down and begins convulsing. When he emerges Urkel is decidedly different. His voice is deeper. He is more coordinated. He suavely begins hitting on Laura. He has become Stefan Urquelle. Urkel has performed gene therapy on himself, altering his own DNA in order to become cooler.
Though Mr. Geoghan and the Family Matters writing staff is certainly entitled to artistic license and the suspension of disbelief, the episode loses much of its impact as a cautionary narrative due to the lack of any kind of dedication to scientific principles. For example, gene therapy is accomplished through the use of a “vector,” often a virus that is able to carry human DNA, that delivers the therapeutic gene to the patient's target cells. Urkel’s method of gene therapy involves ingesting large volumes of the isolated gene that he wants to enhance. Furthermore, it took 13 years to map the human genome. Here, the audience must accept that Urkel mapped his own genome, isolated his cool gene, and created an elixir of that isolated gene all within a week. Finally, the audience must consent to the idea that Urkel can immediately alter his DNA simply by drinking his elixir. It is all rather far-fetched and contrary to all known science. Despite the episode’s dubious scientific merit, however, Mr. Geoghan’s script undoubtedly succeeds as a commendable allegoric tale.
As the action continues, the revelers at Laura’s party anxiously await the arrival of the new king of cool, Stefan Urquelle. When the doorbell rings, the excitement reaches a fever pitch. To everyone’s chagrin, it is only Waldo and his date. Then the door swings open and Stefan glides into the party. It is clear that the gene therapy has succeeded. Wearing a white three-piece suit with a black and white polka dot vest, Stefan is everything that Urkel is not. He is charming, smooth, suave, and debonair. Women literally faint at the sight of him. He charms both Harriette and Carl who clearly approve of the new Urkel/Urquelle. Stefan suavely turns down a dance from one girl, waiting to make his move on Laura. When he does, she is captivated. They kiss ravenously as the entire party cheers wildly.
In the next scene, Carl looks down. Tragically, one of his friends has been shot in the line of duty and is in the hospital. Harriette is worried about Carl. Stefan and Laura enter, arguing over whether Stefan looks better at 131 pounds or 132. Upon hearing the tragic news, both are saddened. After Harriette takes Carl to the hospital, however, Stefan remarks, “Well the storm clouds are gone, care to cuddle up with a little ray of sunshine?” Laura is aghast at Stefan’s insensitivity and superficiality. For all of his positive qualities, Stefan is hopelessly vain. Against her better judgment, Laura wishes that Stefan would turn back into Urkel. Stefan’s existence is pointless without Laura, so he takes out a small pill that is the antidote to the cool elixir, called the “elixir fixer.” In order to please Laura, he takes it. Soon, he is convulsing again, swinging wildly between the two personalities. He alternatively speaks as Stefan, then Urkel. Jaleel White’s performance of the conflicting personalities battling for control of one body is truly chilling. When the convulsions are through, Urkel is back.
The bioethical allegory is clear. Even after Urkel isolated the one gene that he thought would solve his alleged personality problems, other unintended consequences resulted. Stefan, supposedly the perfect genetic modification of Urkel, had flaws that, in the end, were even more unappealing than those Urkel possessed at the beginning of the episode. Furthermore, the episode hammers home the concept that Urkel’s good qualities, compassion and humility, are inexorably linked, and indeed may arise out of, his negative qualities. Despite its misguided scientific applications, the bioethical hazards presented in “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool” sound a harrowing warning about the direction of medical research. It is a warning that we, as a society, would be wise to heed.