Sherman Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven takes its name from a popular television show featuring a Native American character. In "Family Portrait," which appears in the collection immediately after the eponymous story, the narrative is dominated by the narrator's memories of television and the role it played in his childhood. A good way to approach the critical analysis of this story, therefore, is to examine the role of television in the narrative and, in particular, to look at the way in which it replaces more traditional values in the community and the family.
The unnamed narrator begins the story by saying that his earliest childhood memory is of the television always being too loud. Family conversations were distorted, fragmented, and rendered incoherent by the noise. Pivotal events in his childhood took second place to the dramas the narrator followed on television, even when real life was more dramatic. He casually recalls that his father disappeared one day and "came back years later with diabetes and a pocketful of quarters." Perhaps the most significant bonding moment with his father is when he teaches the narrator to drive and at the same time describes to him in great detail "the first television he ever saw."
Native American narratives, including some of Alexie's other stories, emphasize the importance of family, storytelling and landscape in the life of the community. The narrator here has a deracinated existence, in which the centrality of television emphasizes the absence of any other focus. He has a family, but the noise of the television drowns out their words. The stories and the landscapes which enable him to escape from the harshness of daily life are all on the screen. Television allows the narrator and the rest of his family to survive and to be part of a wider society, since millions of other Americans are watching the same program at the same time. However, it also overwhelms their unique identity and colonizes their minds.