The show, set in an Irish neighborhood of Staten Island, New York, is about the comedic interplay of the Irish Catholic Finnerty family. One of the central aspects of the show is that Sean and Claudia Finnerty had their first child and got married when they were only 18 years old. Thus, although their eldest is a teenage daughter, the parents are themselves relatively young and not finished with their "wild" years. (In an episode where Sean goes to fetch Lily from the police station and is mistaken for her drug dealer, his father quips, "That's what happens when you're 17 and don't know what a rubber is!") The show features an unusual style of storytelling, often starting with a scene at the end of the story or sometimes in the middle and filling in the gaps with flashbacks. Its main concepts are an Irish/Italian Catholic family with one daughter and two sons, surviving endless catastrophes, utilizing flashbacks to further explain each current situation.
The opening sequence is set to a guitar theme, performed by the band Ween, that also serves as the music between scenes. The first sequence, used for the first 11 episodes of Season 1, showed the family playing basketball. From the twelfth episode ("Jimmy Was Kung-Fu Fighting") onwards, it showed a mix of scenes from Season 1. The sequence was updated each year to include scenes from the current season. The opening sequence was later truncated, as cast names were shown after the sequence, over the episode itself.
Music is important in the production of the series, as musical cues introduce and conclude flashbacks. Episodes are also named after songs or are a play on song names or lyrics. Each episode has slightly different music in the opening sequence, differing at the end of the sequence.
Two episodes from Season 3, "Oh, What a Knight" and "Part-Time Lover", did not air on primetime, but can be seen in syndication on ABC Family.
Donal Logue and Megyn Price portrayed Sean and Claudia Finnerty, a Staten Island couple who were married and expecting by age 18. Sean was an electrician in the underground of the New York subway, but he later became the owner of a bar with his brother Eddie. Claudia worked as a hostess in a Soho restaurant, and later, when her daughter Lily decided that college wasn't for her, Claudia realized the importance of education and looked into college options for herself, regretting that she couldn't have gone right away after high school.
By their early 30s, Sean and Claudia had three children (later four). Lily (Lynsey Bartilson) is a selfish, spoiled brat who seeks male attention, often turning to dorky next-door neighbor, Brad O'Keefe, whom she later dates. She also dated the drummer of Sean and Eddie's band, Dean Peramotti; they went steady until she cheated on him with Brad. Lily is ragingly jealous of her mother, Claudia, fearing that Claudia is "hotter" than she, as she still attracts the attention of teenage boys—especially Brad. Lily has been drunk on several occasions, including a college party at which she bumped into Claudia and they arranged to keep it from Sean. Lily blames all her problems on her parents, mostly on the grounds that they had her so young. Lily was shocked to discover she was born before her parents were married, but later realized she was proof of their love.
Jimmy (Griffin Frazen), the second Finnerty child and first son, is the family black sheep. His choices are not always accepted by his parents, like the time he decided to become a vegetarian. Jimmy is smart and wants to do well at school, but his parents sometimes—accidentally—seem to hold him back. Once at a street fair, Sean and Claudia went to a Ramones concert, and Jimmy was late with his science project, causing him to be suspended. The following day he went missing, and was later discovered to have sneaked back into school. Jimmy has been bullied at school; once he fought back and was accused of being the bully. He was also bullied by a girl, although it turned out that she actually liked him.
Henry (Jake Burbage) the Finnertys' younger son, is the family optimist. A little wild, sometimes annoying, and unfortunately gullible, he is kindhearted and gentle. Jake Burbage left the show at the end of season four (in the summer of 2004) to move back east which is why he was never seen in season five although he was mentioned.
Gracie, the youngest Finnerty, was born in the last episode. Claudia discovered she was pregnant at the start of season five, and in the season finale—at Lily's graduation—she went into labor and delivered Gracie at the hospital. Originally they were going to call her Rose, but when too many people mistakenly thought the name was a reference to Titanic, they decide to rename her Gracie. Walt and his fiancee then say they will name their child Rose.
Eddie (Kevin Corrigan) is Sean's younger brother, a conniving, womanizing weirdo who can never give a straight answer to any question. Claudia and Eddie often had their differences throughout the series run. The worst thing he ever did was film a porn film in the Finnerty house; for this Claudia and Sean put him out.
Walt (Richard Riehle) (recurring: seasons 3–5) is Sean and Eddie's strict father. He often berates Sean and Claudia for being too soft on their kids. Sean and Eddie had a frightening upbringing, as Walt often scared them by telling them that their sins would send them to hell or by giving them booklets that explained what effect sins would have on them. Widower Walt has had little luck with women: he once had a woman whom Sean and Eddie didn't like; Lily and Brad set him up on a date with a woman, or whom they thought was a woman; another handcuffed him in the bar and robbed it.
Brad O'Keefe (Bret Harrison) (recurring: seasons 1&2) is the Finnertys' geeky next-door neighbor. He had an on-off relationship with Lily. She cheated on her boyfriend Dean with Brad, and they once broke up when they realized they cheated on each other during a summer of being apart. They eventually got back together. In one episode, Brad was upset when his parents split up, so the Finnertys decided to celebrate his birthday at their house. Unfortunately, during the party he discovered that his mother had a fling with Eddie. In the end, his parents reconciled.
Sister Helen (Miriam Flynn) is the nun and principal at Lily, Jimmy, and Henry's school. She frequently tries to tell Sean and Claudia how to raise their kids, whom she is always berating at school (Lily's skirts are too short, Jimmy's hair is too long, etc.). Sean once caused her to use the F-word.
Dean Peramotti (Mike Vogel) was the drummer of Sean and Eddie's band. He and Lily dated until she cheated on him with Brad.
Dan O'Keefe (Floyd Van Buskirk in Season One, Gregory Jbara in all later appearances) is Brad's father. Sean and Dan never got along and were constantly fighting. He was busted for having an affair when Sean challenged him to a tennis match, then noticed that all the weekend "tennis lessons" Dan had were useless. His wife Connie discovered this, and they broke up, Connie then had a brief fling with Eddie, but they soon got back together.
The household that makes for the main location for the series features interesting background items that allude to the interests of the family. Throughout the series, there is a picture of Lou Thesz hanging in the living room and a real-life picture of a young Lynsey Bartilson, who plays Lily in the series. The living room also features a framed and hung vintage baseball bat, a broken guitar (used by Sean in his younger days) and a couple of crosses, representing the Catholic faith of the family.
The refrigerator in the kitchen is always changing, but prominently features fruit magnets and a sticker bearing the logo of video game developer, Rockstar Games. Jimmy's room changes many times throughout the series (especially after the departure of the Henry character from the show), but at least one piece of WWE merchandise can be spotted in any given scene in the location, most notable the pillow bearing the WWE logo (however, in the last few episodes of season five, the pillow is turned over, hiding the logo). Jimmy's room also features a vintage Indianapolis Speedway poster (dated May 13, 1914), a dartboard, a small basketball hoop and at times featured a "Shonen Jump" poster and posters of bands such as Less Than Jake and Green Day.
Lily's room has a computer, a snowboarding poster, and a scrapbook poster, in addition to other, nondescript items that change throughout the series. In early episodes, she has several posters featuring Justin Timberlake and/or 'N Sync.
Ninety-one complete episodes were produced and aired between 2000 and 2005. However, not all episodes were broadcast in the exact order they were produced. The first season originally produced 22 episodes, five of which, prior to the season finale were held back by Fox and were included as part of the second season. 17 episodes were produced for season two, with the addition of the five season one episodes, making it a 22-episode season. Many problems occurred during the production of season three. 19 episodes had been produced for season three, and with Fox cancelling the series later being picked up by The WB, only 11 episode aired through the two networks, 12 & 13 never aired, and episodes 14 through 19, were included as part of season four. The fourth season originally produced 22 episodes, with the new addition of six from season three, making it the longest season with 28 episodes. Season five produced 13 episodes and was the only season to have all its episodes intact.
In 2011, the show was remade by the BBC as In with the Flynns. Six episodes were produced for its first season, using stories and scenes from the American series. Another six episodes were made for a second season, this time using original stories.
The series aired in syndication on ABC Family on an intermittent basis since 2005, having gone through several time slot changes during its run on the network. When first aired on ABC Family, the tag scenes were cut out; but when ABC Family re-acquired Grounded for Life, newer prints with the tag scenes are now shown.
On November 16, 2009, MTV began to air the show at random during the week Unlike ABC Family's airings, these airings are the same episodes and are aired more frequently.
In February 2015, all five seasons of the show were added to Netflix for instant play. They are presented in HD for the first time, as they were only shown in standard definition in their network and cable runs.
LAFF started airing reruns of the show in May 2016.
Grounded for Life has been nominated for a number of Young Artist Awards for best TV comedy choice, best family TV comedy series, best performance by a guest star in a TV comedy series and best supporting actor in a comedy or drama series, it has also won a Young Artist Award for supporting young actor in a TV comedy series. It has also been nominated for an Artios Award, Teen Choice Award, GLAAD Media Award and an Emmy Award.
Grounded for Life was initially released on VHS in North America. In early 2006, Anchor Bay Entertainment began making the series available on DVD, with all five season being released by late 2007. The first season included all 20 episodes that were originally produced for that season (five of these episodes, prior to the season finale were included as part of season two in the television airings). However, since the opening titles are different in seasons one and two, these five episodes included, still carry the season two opening titles. The season two set, therefore contains 17 episodes. Season three contains 13 episodes, two of which did not originally air on television. All 28 episodes that aired as part of season four, remain intact for the season four set and the same for the 13-episode season five set. The first four seasons were released in box set format, with two smaller-than-standard size DVD cases with a slipcover for each of the four sets. This however changed for the season five release when it was made available in a standard DVD case and no slipcover. Anchor Bay never released a complete series set. Each of these releases are now out of print.
Distribution company Mill Creek Entertainment acquired the rights to series and commenced releasing in 2011. Season one and two were released individually and together in a set. Each containing the 15 episodes that aired on television as part of season one and the 22 episodes that aired as part of season two, as opposed to the Anchor Bay release of the first and second seasons. Mill Creek have not given individual releases to seasons three, four and five at present. However, a complete series has been made available in a 13-disc set.
In the United Kingdom, distribution company Brightspark Productions released the first season in 2007.
In Australia, the series was made available via Visual Entertainment Group between 2010 and 2011. Seasons one, four and five were released individually, whereas seasons two and three were released together in one set.
The Sunfilm Entertainment company began releasing the series in Germany under the title "Keine Gnade für Dad". All five seasons were released between late 2012 and early 2013.