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Steve Urkel, Secret Snake

Plumbing the ‘Family Matters’ cornball’s dark depths

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Getty Images

From 1989 to 1997, a sitcom called Family Matters aired on ABC (It aired for one season on CBS in 1998). It was intended to be a show about the dynamics of a middle-class Chicago family, but became a show about the dynamics of a middle-class Chicago family as they dealt with Steve Urkel, their seemingly sweet, but aggressively nerdy neighbor. Steve was written as a bit part on the show, but after he was introduced halfway through Season 1, he quickly became its star player. Regarding the show’s key figures: Steve saw Carl and Harriette Winslow, the family’s father and mother, as his own surrogate parents. He saw Eddie Winslow, their son, as his own older brother. And he saw Laura Winslow, their daughter, as his future wife.

It was his relationship with Laura that was the most compelling thing on the show, and also the most meaningful, and also the one that brings us here, right now, to this incontrovertible, undeniable, inarguable truth: Steve Urkel was a snake. A snake in glasses. A snake in suspenders. A snake in a lab coat, or high jeans, or any kind of clothes, really.

This much is certain: Steve Urkel was a snake.

ABC Family
ABC Family

In the 20th episode of the third season, Steve, very desperate to win the affection of Laura Winslow, whom he’s lusted over for years, concocts two separate plans. The first is mildly villainous, and the second is absolutely dastardly.

The First Plan: Steve hopes to sing his way into Laura’s heart. He plots to sing “My Girl” to her, but he can’t do so alone, given that the song was most famously sung by the Temptations, a group. So Steve asks two people to help him: Eddie, who is Laura’s older brother, and Waldo, a friend of Eddie’s who ends up in the blood spray of the situation by accident (he’s just at the house to hang out with Eddie).

I feel a little sorry for Waldo here, because Waldo, though sweet, is a bit of a dunce. Just moments before Steve propositions the two, the group was involved in a conversation about Steve’s baseball card collection. Steve reveals that he owns two mint condition Mickey Mantle rookie cards (each worth tens of thousands of dollars). Waldo, not entirely capable of understanding product distribution, asks Steve if having two Mickey Mantle cards meant that there were two Mickey Mantles in the world, and then fell forward into several questions one might ask if one were under the impression that the same human could exist twice. Rather than answer him, Steve, very dismissively, responds, “Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, Steve decides to talk to Eddie,” and then walks away to talk to Eddie. In what should have been a teachable moment for a person who, by all accounts and measures, has a severe learning disability, Steve chose gross derision instead. That’s why I feel a little sorry for Waldo here.

I feel more sorry for Eddie, though. If you squint your eyes, it’s not hard to see that Steve, the snake, is asking his friend to help him eventually sleep with his younger sister, which is a textbook betrayal of a friendship.

Eddie tells Steve no, and that him and Laura aren’t anywhere near being boyfriend–girlfriend, and Steve argues that that’s not the case, that Laura recently phoned him late in the night to talk. Eddie tells Steve the only reason that she called was because she’d noticed his house was on fire and she wanted to warn him before his entire family was cooked alive, and Steve, the snake, the very horny snake, sidestepped Eddie’s explanation. His snake brain, his very horny snake brain, could only process her action as a tacit admission that she wanted to make love to him, although I don’t even know that snakes can make love, honestly.

So Eddie turns down Steve’s offer, and so does Waldo, because Waldo heard Eddie say it so he just repeated it, afraid to express his own thoughts for fear of receiving another thrashing from Steve, a snake, but also unquestionably a genius and remarkable thinker.

Steve processes their answers, quietly computes the level of their resolve, then offers them $20 to help him. Eddie, likely remembering that his mother had once been fired from her job as an elevator operator and nervous about the family’s potentially dire financial situation, immediately accepts the offer, as does Waldo, because he hears Eddie accept it. It’s devastating to watch. It’s an annihilation of two spirits at once, and it was so easy for Steve, the snake.

The Second Plan: This one begins as the first plan ends. Laura sits on the couch with her friend Max, commiserating with one another about having been unable to secure tickets to an upcoming Johnny Gill concert. “I’m so depressed,” says Max, and she looks truly broken. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s possible to be more depressed than this,” adds Laura, looking equally broken. Steve enters the house (uninvited), says, “Hello, ladies,” and then Max and Laura look at each other and, in unison, declare, “We were wrong.” I don’t even want to imagine the kind of deep-seated contempt or dislike for a person two people must have within them that could force their brains to sync up like this.

Steve, Waldo, and Eddie walk into the living room. They are dressed like the Temptations. Steve attempts to sing Laura into submission. When Laura asks what they are doing, Steve explains that they’re supposed to be the Temptations, to which Laura responds they’re “more like the Repulsions.” I was so proud of her for that. Steve says he wanted to sing her into kissing him, but Laura says she doesn’t have the energy to deal with him, having spent the entire night camped out to get the aforementioned tickets and failing. All the while, Steve’s super snake brain is lighting up and up.

ABC Family
ABC Family

Moments later, after Steve has heard Laura profess her adulation of Gill, he attempts to exploit her heartbreak. The following conversation occurs:

“Would you like that?” is so, so slimy. How many conmen have ended their pitches with, “Would you like that?” Suppose I could place you in this new car for pennies on the dollar. Would you like that? Suppose I could get you in on this blue-chip stock that’s going to quadruple its value in a month. Would you like that? Suppose I wanted to coerce you into making a decision you would regret for the rest of your life. Would you like that? It pretends to place the power of the next moments into the other person’s hands, but really all it is, and all it’s designed to be, is a sleight-of-hand trick to distract you from seeing the tentacles of the person saying it.

Laura — young, effervescent, yet to have her inner glow corroded by the ugliness of the world — cheerfully agrees, operating under the assumption that there’s no way Steve Urkel could possibly arrange a meeting with Johnny Gill, as though a demon has ever shaken hands without the outcome already determined in his favor.

Johnny Gill arrives at the Winslows’ house later in the episode. Laura passes out when he talks to her, and honestly, thank God Johnny was there, because I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Steve Urkel would’ve attempted to fondle her unconscious body were he not.

Laura comes to, realizes meeting Johnny Gill is a real and true thing that is happening in her life, and screams in excitement. Steve, startled by the noise, barks, “Get a grip, woman!” and it’s the first time Steve is so overt with his disdain for women, but not the last, because when he and Gill begin negotiating (Gill is there because he wants one of Steve’s Mickey Mantle rookie cards; Steve wants him to sing for it), Laura rushes over to ask Steve what’s going on. Steve remarks, “Business, sweetheart. Man talk,” and as he does, he pats her hand and shoos her away. I will remind you again that this is all happening because Steve wants to kiss Laura.

ABC Family
ABC Family

During the negotiations, Steve mentions that, as part of the requirements, Gill must “shake the ol’ booty.” This shows us that not only does Steve possess contempt for women, but also for any man that a woman might find more appealing than him.

The episode ends with Gill finishing his last song to Laura (“My, My, My”). It’s truly a special moment. Laura is visibly moved, as she should be, as any of us would be were we given the chance to meet someone we idolize and watch that person do the thing we idolize them for. And yet it’s tainted, because there’s Steve, the snake, waiting in the weeds, for Gill to finish, so Gill can leave and Steve, the snake, can put his snake tongue in the indebted Laura Winslow’s mouth.

Gill finishes and Laura praises him endlessly (until Steve ends it: “All right, all right! I think we get the point!”). Gill collects the card from Steve, gives it a kiss, then begins to walk out, happy with himself about having survived an encounter with Steve Urkel. Steve makes an offhanded remark about Gill singing at his and Laura’s wedding. Gill declines, then, in a premier power flex, Steve dangles the possibility of receiving a couple of other very rare baseball cards in front of his nose. Gill is instantly broken, because Steve, the snake, possesses that sort of power. He tells Steve to call his manager to arrange everything. (Steve is also tipping his hand here. He’s just now proven that he can get Laura to kiss him against her will when he wants. Why, then, wouldn’t he think he could force her into a loveless, glass-pieces wedding?) (She ends up accepting his proposal during the last season of the show.)

After Gill leaves, Steve prepares to receive his kiss. Let me finish this with two things:

First, the whole situation that Steve has arranged here is, to be quite sure, a form of prostitution. I want you to think about that the next time you remember Steve Urkel, who appears harmless, but is absolutely not. By the credits of this one episode, he’s manipulated, exploited, and commodified every single person he’s come into contact with — Eddie, Waldo, Gill, Laura, and Max, who remarked how romantic it was that Steve tried to sing to Laura. That’s five separate lives ruined in one 30-minute block (minus commercials).

Second, and this is maybe the most devious thing of all: When Laura goes in to kiss Steve, he pulls away. He plays coy. He tells her that he can’t go through with it, and Laura, whose brain has been turned to proper mush by Steve’s conniving, responds confusedly, “I’m supposed to say that.” He says, “I feel like I’m forcing you to kiss,” and it’s like, motherfucker, that’s because you are. Then he says, “Like it’s some sort of a business arrangement,” and it’s like, motherfucker, you mean like prostitution, right? He continues to dance around her head, because he knows that, for his long con to work, he can’t force his way into this moment. He tells her he wants to kiss her, but he wants her to want to kiss him, and he says so in the most Shattered Man voice he can muster. And do you know what? It works. It works so perfectly, because the devil does not shoot bricks. Laura tells him that he deserves a kiss, and that she will kiss him.

He smiles, knowing he’s won, knowing his Frank Underwoodian manipulation of poor Laura Winslow — of everyone, really — has paid off. He has successfully tricked her into thinking she is going to kiss him of her own volition, and I cannot think of a more upsetting thing.

The instant before her lips touch his, Steve collapses. I think we’re supposed to assume that he’d become so nervous and overcome with emotion at the situation that his brain shut off. That’s not what I see, though. What I see is the devil calling home the spirit of one of his minions, yanking him down to the underworld.

ABC Family
ABC Family