Families on television: caricature or social commentary?

What nation fits the following domestic profile - all of its families are verbal, quick-witted, mostly attractive, spend a lot of time in the kitchen (but never finish their meals), and seldom watch television? Answer: The nation of families portrayed on American television.

Since the 1950s, when television's fledgling family comedies were ``Life with Luigi,'' ``I Remember Mama,'' and ``The Goldbergs,'' Americans have loved to spend evenings in front of TV sets watching imaginary families live out ``situations'' that seem analogous to those experienced by ``real'' families. The label ``sitcom'' is now implanted in American vernacular.

``Hi, honey, I'm home!'' has been uttered so many times by TV fathers and mothers that the line became an industry joke for awhile when yet another family comedy was suggested.

But according to TV critic Jeff Greenfield, ``Situation comedy is the bedrock of regular American television.'' And after a number of years when there were only a handful of family sitcoms on TV, NBC's vastly popular ``The Cosby Show'' has triggered a bushelful of new family shows.

Take your pick: In addition to``The Cosby Show,'' NBC offers ``Facts of Life,'' ``Family Ties,'' ``Alf, '' ``227,'' ``Valerie,''and ``Gimme a Break.'' CBS has ``Kate & Allie,'' ``My Sister Sam,'' and ``Together We Stand,'' and ABC presents ``Who's the Boss?'' ``Growing Pains,'' ``Perfect Strangers,'' ``Head of the Class,'' ``Webster,'' and ``Mr. Belvedere.''

But what is it that makes all these ``families,'' past and present, endure as a generic entity in TV land, and do they at all reflect life in real Ameircan families?

Al Burton, co-producer of ``Together We Stand'' on CBS, suggests that a family sitcom, if it is cast well, is a visit from friends. ``Those five or six people in the TV family are guests in your living room,'' he says, ``and you are in their living room. These are people you want to see in your living room each week.''

Seated in Fran Woolsey's living room on a recent Thursday evening in Santa Rosa, Calif., just as ``The Cosby Show'' begins, Fran, a single parent, pays Bill Cosby the ultimate accolade. ``I'd like to find a man like him and marry him,'' she says, laughing. ``He's got humor and he never gets mad at his wife.''

Fran's two children, 15-year-old Carri and 11-year-old Daren, conclude that the Cosby show is ``funnier and more realistic'' than other sitcoms. ``The situations are real,'' says Carri, seated on a cushion on the floor, ``but kids aren't really like the Cosby kids. Kids I know try to get away with things and then they make excuses to get out of trouble. The Cosby kids are too goody-goody.''

Daren untangles himself from a blanket on the floor and says, ``When the Cosby show ends I always want it to go on.'' Why? ``Because it's a funny family,'' he says.

Fran concludes that ``Life is not TV. If it's been a long day at work, I want a little unreality when I come home. The Cosby shows always have a moral or some lesson to them, even if they are unreal.''

The characters within TV families are nearly always likable, predictable, and any humorous confusion or tension is usually resolved within half an hour. Michael Sullivan, producer of ABC's ``Growing Pains,'' says, ``There is an element of reality in a half-hour, but the shows don't bite off more than they can chew.''

``In the days of `Leave It To Beaver' or the `Ozzie and Harriet' show, things then never got much farther along than the pot roast burning,'' says Al Burton, who has either produced or co-produced such shows as ``Facts of Life,'' ``Diff'rent Strokes,'' and ``Square Pegs.''

Not until Norman Lear's ``All in the Family,'' with lovable bigot Archie Bunker and his wife, longsuffering Edith, did contemporary themes and incidents become a vital part of a TV family. Pot roast burning was over; there appeared to be too much change occurring in American society for TV families to ignore what real families had to face - divorces, drugs, promiscuity, racism, unpopular wars, runaway kids, etc.

``I don't think the basic rhythms of TV families are hugely different from what they used to be,'' says Mr. Sullivan, ``but the humor is much sharper now. And the traditional values may even be a little stronger with an admission now and then that kids can sometimes be a real pain in the neck.''

In some of today's TV families there are single parents, adopted kids, racial mixes, and kids living with relatives. Tom Miller, the producer of ``Valerie,'' and the former producer of ``Happy Days,'' contends that past TV families were mostly ``fantasy'' families, which were appealing to audiences because viewers wanted to be in a family like that or wanted to know a family with loving values always surrounded by humor.

``Today there are more imperfections in TV families and no more stick figures,'' contends Mr. Miller. ``Kids are more like real kids.''

But after watching many hours of the new family shows, my conclusion is that while there may not be ``stick'' figures there is clearly a stock ``sameness'' in the shows. This is partly due to the sitcom format - a half-hour played for laughs by adults and kids who are well-adjusted, reasonable, and always talking, not much like real life. All of them seem to sprint together through the half-hour we see of their lives. Quiet they are not, not even for a few consecutive seconds.

Harold Alderman, a writer and philosophy professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., and the father of two boys, is critical of TV's headlong pace - the way the networks have decided to jam a story into a half-hour format and interrupt it with bursts of commercials.

``It's a cartoon version of life,'' he says, ``and a good way to encourage people not to think. TV families bear no relationship to anybody I know. In our family we watch movies on a VCR because there is more humane treatment of people in movies. You can stop the film, go back and look at something. In that respect the experience becomes like a text, like reading a book. And we encourage conversation about the films.''

In the best of the TV family shows there is superb comedic timing, some wonderful lines, and a sense that the ``family'' is good, trustworthy, and likable - if occasionally dimwitted. What seems to bring viewers back again and again to the best of shows is the personality of a Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, or Valerie Harper and their decency as human beings.

In the end, TV families only hint at reality the way newspaper cartoons such as ``Bloom County'' or ``Doonesbury'' are a mix of parody, satire, synthesis, and summary about contemporary life. TV families are, after all, a business product. Advertisers have to spend a staggering $380,000 for a 30-second commercial on ``The Cosby Show.''

What a lot of critics assert is that comedy on TV is really seductive confection, eaten to escape from pressured lives. Kids watch TV because it keeps them quiet, transfixed, and out of their parents' hair. Most adults watch it for numbing entertainment or because their lives are lonely.

``Familiarity in TV does not breed contempt,'' says Tom Miller, ``it breeds familiarity. The best family shows are really shows in progress where the characters grow and evolve and viewers respond to that. People love to laugh. I think that is why the family shows endure.''

Marie Winn, author of ``The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children and the Family,'' concludes that fun is fun, but it doesn't matter to her what is on TV. She is concerned about the hours that children and adults spend in front of television sets. Is reality depicted there? Not much, she says.

``You never see TV families watching TV,'' she says. ``You won't see a show in which a parent tells a child to turn off the television because it would be like biting the hand that feeds you.''

Ms. Winn contends that too much TV affects a family's ability to exchange ideas, talk, and learn. ``A family will profit a lot more by doing something else together other than watching TV,'' she says. ``A family wouldn't learn how to be a family from watching `The Cosby Show' because TV is not reality.''

She advocates controlled TV watching in which parents determine the limits, monitor the shows, laugh together - and then turn the thing off.

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