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.