In an Ensemble Cast show, there's generally at least one character whose family history we don't know much about. Often this is something that the other characters and the audience don't take much notice of, assuming that not everyone's family makes for good television.
Sometimes this is the case. But sometimes it's a setup for the Prodigal Family.
Family showing up out of nowhere is an inconvenience in the real world, to be certain, but in fiction, your uninvited relatives are people you've spent your entire adult life trying to escape. It's worked so far, but now they're here and you (and everyone around you) have to deal with them.
Prodigal families come in two major types: amicable and possessive. Amicable families are generally more embarrassing than anything and tend to share reputation-destroying secrets with the characters' friends and enemies. Their motives are benign and mundane: They want to keep Character abreast of a family situation, they want to stay in touch, sometimes they just happen to be in town and want to talk. They're often unaware of the animosity Character has for them, or if they do recognize it they don't much care. They rarely intend to interact with Character for longer than a few days before moving on. Episodes that feature an amicable Prodigal Family tend to end with Character showing some sign that she still loves them, no matter how much they embarrass and inconvenience her.
Possessive families are more extreme. They've been actively hunting for Character for some time, and they want her back. Often evil, but sometimes have Character's best interests at heart without knowing what's really best for her. An encounter with a possessive family generally ends in either a showdown between the family and Character's friends (if the family is evil) or a painful decision by the Character to stay on the show (if they're just misguided). Either way, friendship plays an important part in the conclusion and the arc ends with An Aesop about the true meaning of family, i.e., not those to whom you're born, but those to whom you belong.
Compare Coattail-Riding Relative, when a character exploits one of their relatives' success for their selfish benefit, and I Have No Son!, the disowning of a child. It often overlaps with Formerly Friendly Family, when a once happy family ends up fighting each other. Contrast Crossing the Burnt Bridge, when a character must return to where they were a jerk when they left. Sub-Trope of Family Disunion, when family gatherings are a source of major drama. Supertrope of Long-Lost Uncle Aesop.
One of the key features of a Char Clone is that they have an estranged sibling on the enemy side and either showing up causes emotional turmoil to the other. It's a common Fanfic Fuel plot to have a character's not (yet) introduced family appear and provoke this sort of situation.
Anime & Manga
- Ai Yori Aoshi: When Kaoru shows up, Aoi immediately thinks it's a ploy of his family to get him to return to them, which prompts him to kick her out of his house.
- Kaze no Stigma: When the exiled Kazuma appears back in Japan, his family members are at first indifferent —why would they concern themselves with the weak former heir they already replaced and banished?— but when Kannagi clan members start to die by the hand of a powerful wind mage, they start hating him as he fits the murderer's description.
- One Piece: In the Zou Arc, it is shown that Sanji is the third child of a royal family. Brook and Chopper wonder about his past, and Nami recollects the conversation about Sanji's family in the Jaya Arc. Later, it's revealed by Pekoms that he is part of a family of assassins. There is obvious tension between Sanji and his family, and in the Whole Cake Island Arc, we see why. At birth, Vinsmoke Judge (Sanji's father) wanted his children to become nothing more than Tyke-Bombs. After having an already-super-powered Reiju (Sanji's sister), he successfully did so with his sons Ichiji, Niji, and Yonj. However, thanks to the intervention of Vinsmoke Sora (Sanji's mother) due to the drug she took Sanji became a normal human being. His compassion and humility are what drove his brothers and his father to abuse him physically, mentally, verbally, and psychologically for the next couple of years. Fortunately for Sanji, Reiju helped him escape. 13 years later, he is whisked away and threatened by Big Mom and his father, for the fate of his hands and loved ones, specifically his old crew and his adoptive father Zeff, on the Baratie. Unfortunately, he undergoes more torment by his brothers and father, and WORSE by his manipulative fiancée. Just when hope seems grim, his friends, along with new allies, decide to intervene with a plot to take down Big Mom and rescue his family. After they are rescued and the commotion has settled, Judge asks Sanji for what reason he saved him. Sanji replies that it was to honor his adoptive father's beliefs and tells Judge not to go to him or East Blue again. After even more commotion, as the Straw Hat crew passes by Judge's castle, Judge asks Luffy why he would go so far with Sanji. The latter just responds with a thank you and goodbye.
- Ultimate X-Men: Professor Xavier is a Fantastic Racismst who regards non-mutated humans as lesser beings, which is why he loses all interest in his wife and son after he first meets Magneto, a mutant like him. After Magneto betrays him and Xavier finds his son David is a mutant too, he seeks to reconnect with them. It goes without saying that Moira and David have grown to deeply resent him and don't want him back in their lives.
- The Black Sheep Dog Series: When Regulus decides to openly betray Voldemort at the beginning of In the Black, he seeks his older brother Sirius for refuge. Although initially disgusted upon seeing his brother, Sirius resolves to help him once he learns about Regulus' motives. It's their still blood-purist family whom he needs to put up with, which greatly displeases him.
- Brony D&D: Faerthurin's abusive father Aymer —whom she had run away from— shows up as Simula’s Evil Genius.
- Knight of Salem: Raven shows up after having ditched her family out of selfish motives; she wants Taiyang to protect her. All she does is act disdainfully and mockingly toward her twin brother Qrow, her daughter, and even Taiyang.
- leading by example: Rey's already disastrous Thanksgiving dinner is made even more soap opera dramatic by the sudden appearance of her long-disappeared mother.
- Maslow: Both Drakken and Shego suffer their families even more than they did in the show.
- The Nuptialverse: Pinkie's biological parents send a letter about wanting to reunite with her in Families, which causes her no small amount of dread and anxiety. As a filly, Pinkie became The Runaway after their harsh rejection of her Cutie Mark (including verbal and physical abuse); their opinions on a life revolving around partying is that of a lazy, no-good pony who would never be a productive member of society. This hurt Pinkie deeply, so she wandered the lands until she was unofficially adopted by the Cakes.
- Paradoxus: In the eighth chapter, King Sky finally realizes that his daughters have embarked on an extremely dangerous mission which, if gone wrong, could lead to their fading via time paradox. Previous to that, he's spent eight years dissociated from reality, therefore neglecting his daughters and the suffering they've been enduring not only because of their mother's passing but also from the trauma of fighting a war as young girls.
- Sunshine through the Clouds: In A Secret's Worth, Jim's Disappeared Dad trespasses the school in an attempt to reunite with him and his mother, causing Jim to react with fear and resentment. After he learns how much of a Psychopathic Manchild James Sr. is, Jim takes matters into his own hands, transforms into a troll, and calls his father out on his behavior. Overall, James' visit only causes Jim and Barbara a great deal of distress.
Films — Live-Action
- 2012: Subverted. Jackson is a Disappeared Dad who, despite being physically present, neglects his duties as a father. During the apocalypse, he tries his best to ensure his family survives. Unfortunately for him, Gordon, the would-be stepfather is a much better man and father to the kids than he ever was, so his kids and wife are initially not too thrilled at the idea. Yet, when Gordon dies, after saving everybody's asses twice, nobody mourns him.
- Marvin's Room: After finding from her estranged sister Bessie that she'll eventually have to become their elderly father's primary caretaker, Lee rushes to find any other option but that. She contacts nursing home after nursing home and interviews countless nurses to no avail. Lee has ignored her father and gone no-contact with her sister for over 20 years.
- Million Dollar Baby: Maggie's loathsome trailer-trash family only sees her as a source of money once she starts winning fights. She buys her mother a house, who doesn't sign the ownership papers since it'd make her ineligible for welfare. The nadir would be the moment when they come to visit her in the hospital after she's paralyzed (after spending the day at Disneyland) and try to work out a way for her to sign over all her winnings to them since she can't hold a pen. She finally kicks them out on realizing she doesn't owe them anything and threatens to sell the house (which they don't own) if they visit again.
- Warrior: The news that Tommy, his younger brother, is also competing in the Sparta MMA arts tournament, wrecks Brendan. Tommy resents his older brother for having stayed with their alcoholic, abusive father instead of skipping town with him and their mother; so they are estranged. Brendan loathes the idea of facing his brother not because Tommy is a formidable Lightning Bruiser but also because he still loves him and doesn't want to hurt him. Encountering his father —who is training Tommy— during the tournament is also a nasty surprise. The other part of the conflict is that Brendan needs the tournament's monetary prize for his daughter's medical treatment. In an inversion of this trope, it's Brendan who seeks to reconnect with the estranged family member that pops out of nowhere.
- Heart's Blood: Caitrin runs away from Market Cross to escape her abusive family.
- Hero Series: Taro's relatives are a Big, Screwed-Up Family rift with rivalries and scorn. He's The Un-Favourite, which explains why he distances himself from them. Neither Lee nor Aryne are fond of their families either.
- Hilary Tamar: In The Sirens Sang of Murder, Cantrip's uncle Colonel Cantrip, who is occasionally shipped off to London for Cantrip to look after. (He was first mentioned in Thus Was Adonis Murdered, when Cantrip needed to con a retired soldier and planned to mention his uncle in doing so. Cantrip figured there was little hope that the suspect hadn't heard of him.) The Colonel is an elderly retired soldier who belongs to a club that was founded by military veterans whose behaviour was so outrageous that no other club would have them. (The club staff don't turn a hair when the Colonel fires a gun to prove that yes, he really was threatening someone with a loaded weapon.)
- Howl's Moving Castle: Howl is this to his sister Megan —who sees him dropping in at odd intervals, spoiling her kids, and not settling down with a visible respectable job.
- Logan Series: Haille sends her daughter away to live with relatives she barely has contact with because she'd rather pursue an acting career. When Melody finally tracks her mother down, Haille pales and rapidly schemes so their reunion doesn't become an inconvenience for her; Haille is lying about her age and pretends Melody is her younger sister instead of her teenage daughter.
- Marcus Didius Falco: Marcus' entire family tree, highlighted by the annotations on the family tree. We meet several of them in Poseidon's Gold, including his disreputable auctioneer father, who left his mother years ago; in Scandal Takes a Holiday, we meet the uncle "nobody ever talks about", his mother's eldest brother.
- The Novice's Tale (Margaret Frazer): Sister Thomasine's aunt Ermintrude, who shows up at the convent's guest hall periodically with her staff and her objectionable pets (e.g. monkeys), and keeps offering to take the shy, devout Thomasine out of there and find her a vigorous husband.
- 30 Rock: Jack's family fits this trope to a tee. His mother is a massive inconvenience, his father and brother are con men, and the rest are various drunks and good old Irish Catholic fighters. Obviously, he is less than pleased when they show up on his doorstep.
- Black Books:
- Manny's incredibly irritating parents show up for the weekend.
- Fran doesn't initially know her long-lost family, but once she meets them it becomes difficult to extricate herself from the familial embrace. They then proceed to use her for free rides around town.
- Angel: Subverted when Fred's parents show up in "Fredless". She runs and hides, and everyone assumes she has some reason to be afraid of them. Turns out Fred isn't running from them, but from having to face that if she hasn't seen them in five years, then she really did spend five years in hell. Her parents are, in fact, probably the kindest, most supportive parents in the entire Buffyverse.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: As shown in the aptly-named episode "Family", Tara's relatives are a textbook evil, possessive family. They've been telling her she's a demon all her life with the intent of keeping her "down on the farm," and they never expected her to escape —or to hook up with the one group most likely to be able to disprove them.
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: In "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse", Lou seeks to reconnect with his son Will after having abandoned him and his mother out of fear of all the responsibilities that paternity ensues. In an apparent subversion, Will is pretty thrilled at the idea but ends with his heart broken all the same because Lou hasn't really changed and ditches him yet again; making it a Double Subverted Trope.
- Gone (2019): James' family kicked him out when they learned of his sexuality. Several years later, he's given the opportunity to return to them. Even without counting the horrific events he endured as a result, James is rightfully appalled at the idea.
- Monk: In "Mr. Monk Goes to a Wedding", Natalie is forced to face her forceful parents —they all but engaged her with Paul Buchanan, whom she abhors— because she's been invited to her brother's wedding. Predictably, the ceremony is disastrous even though she brings a plus one to act as a buffer.
- Newhart: George's obnoxious cousin from Milwaukee shows up and annoys the whole town to the point where George has to stand between him and an angry mob. The cousin then says something rude to George who punches him out.
- Night Court: Resident Casanova Wannabe Dan Fielding prided himself on his suave, urbane image; an unexpected visit from his parents collapsed the lies he'd been feeding his co-workers and friends, revealing his bayou-country background and (in Dan's mind, at least) the most embarrassing first name ever.
- Recht Op Recht: Gabriël never talks about his family and none of his relatives show up. The reason is revealed in "Vuil", where we find out that a row between Gabriël and his father caused a rift between him and the rest of the family. By the end of the episode, Gabriël's made things right and can be seen working in his family's food stand.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Ezri's family only cared about money (Ezri revealed she had spent her life trying to escape them). The only exception is her sensitive, artistic little brother, who is desperate for any familial love at all — and winds up committing a murder that he thinks will make them respect him.
- Star Trek: The Original Series: Spock got estranged from his father after joining the Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Science Academy and rejecting his betrothal to another Vulcan. The trope is ultimately subverted as Sarek dies before he can get properly re-introduced in his son's life.
- S.W.A.T. (2017): In "Gasoline Drum", a Turkish mother and her children react to the news that the father, a mafia boss, wants to reunite with them by rushing across the city to escape him.
Radio & Podcasts
- Black Jack Justice: In "The Reunion". Edie desperately tries to reach her twin sister Jane, who loathes the idea so much that Edie needs to hire a private detective to track her down. In reality, Jane killed Edie and has been pretending to be her all this time, invoking this trope to strengthen her alibi and ultimately subverting it.
- Old Gods of Appalachia: In "The Gift of The Lesser Magi", Miss Delia Hubbard's estranged family comes to Boggs Holler to try and make amends with her after the way they treated her.
- The Simpsons: Tapped Out: During their storyline, Patty and Selma both have temporary tasks that take place at the Simpson House, much to Homer's chagrin. All his sisters-in-law ever do is mock and taunt him.
- Warcraft: In "The Founding of Durotar", Jaina Proudmoore ends up meeting Thrall, the young orc leader, on the path to Kalimdor. Her interactions with him lead her to realize that these orcs are not the same as the ones who invaded Azeroth and, regardless of her father's bigoted teachings, they do deserve a land for themselves. Jaina still loves her father and is glad that he went out of his way to seek her. However, when he becomes the campaign's Arc Villain by attacking the nascent Horde, it only complicates matters for her. Holding true to her heart, she sides with the orcs, resulting in Admiral Proudmoore's death.
- The Dementia of Magic: Stephanie poses as a goddess and sends tribesmen to attack Roslori's harvest festival, which is being run by her long-estranged family. This gives them a rude awakening about their daughter's true nature.
- Girls with Slingshots: Jameson's family turns up at his wedding and it's revealed that they are clowns. Literally, white makeup, red ball noses, floppy shoes, and all. Jameson's deep shame at his heritage comes to the fore but the gang assures him it's nothing to be ashamed of.
- The Amazing World of Gumball: In "The Parents", Nicole reacts with astonishment at stumbling upon her parents in Elmore Shopping and then with annoyance when her kids invite them home. Previously, it had been shown that she ran away due to their constant disapproval of her life choices.
- Arcane: Vi's reappearance in Zaunite streets sends Jinx into a downward spiral as she believes her sister walked out on her when they were kids after Jinx accidentally caused the deaths of their surrogate family. First, all Jinx seeks is a reunion but her insecurities and the fact that Vi shows up accompanied by a Piltover cop provoke her great distress and worsen her abandonment issues.
- The Boondocks: In "The Color Ruckus", Uncle's nasty grandmother Nelly comes to Woodcrest to spend her final moments. She's followed by Uncle's abusive father Mister and his white supremacist mother Bunny. The only one Uncle tolerates is his mother —even though she filled his mind with lies about being a white man with a skin disease— and younger brothers. Nelly keeps berating her son Mister and, to a lesser extent, Uncle too. Mister keeps demeaning his son and occupying his shack even though he kicked Uncle out of the house for no reason when he was a kid. Finally, during Nelly's funeral, Mister tries to resume his favorite activity: hitting his son.
- The Cleveland Show: Invoked in 'Mama Drama'. Cleveland forces a reunion between Donna and her mother, who abandoned Donna with her gay uncle to tour as a singer. Donna breaks down in tears as any mention of her mom is traumatic to her, seeing that she didn't get the chance to meet her mother or ask her why she left her.
- Daria: Jane Lane's family includes artists, photojournalists, and wimpy, sensitive guys named Wind; not to mention their numerous other relatives. They don't show up often, but Jane and her brother Trent (who seem to have run of the house for the most part) are the only two rational Lanes at the scene.
- Kim Possible:
- Shego's brothers have the ultimate embarrassing secret: She used to be good. However, their quirks (namely Hego's adherence to comic book-style heroics and Mego's complex regarding his powers) along with her own troubles and impatience prompt her to leave. She does still care about them, enough to where it's implied she let Kim strip off the rest of her brothers' powers so they can have them again (though she didn't like that being brought up.)
- Dr. Drakken has his own prodigal family, to a lesser extent: his mother and Motor Ed. (They're cousins. Seriously.)
- The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder: In "Old Towne Road: Part 1", Suga Mama is forced to confront her misogynistic father when her daughter-in-law discovers their existence and gets the Prouds invited to a family reunion. She ends the episode reminiscing about why she left her family behind.
- Steven Universe: Greg's cousin Andy DeMayo comes to boot Lapis and Peridot out under the impression that some hippies have taken residence in his barn. While Steven is thrilled at the idea of more family, Greg is mortified and visibly uncomfortable. After all, he ran away from his family because they never supported his dreams and were (still are) traditionalist stuck-ups —something that Andy's attitude toward the Gems confirms.
- Winx Club: Downplayed. While she's by no means estranged from her father, Musa's reaction to finding out that Ho-Boe has been invited to attend her concert at Red Fountain is one of displeasure and fear. The reason is that her dad has associated the music the whole family once loved creating with the tragedy of his wife Matlin's death. Both husband and daughter still grieve the woman but Musa has embraced music as a way to connect with her mother while Ho-Boe disapproves of her musical endeavors. Musa's reaction is even more understandable after we learn that Ho-Boe destroyed all the musical instruments in their house after Matlin's passing—Musa fears her father will ruin her show.