BOSTON — After nearly disappearing from TV screens, the family hour is seeing a resurgence this fall. This is not to say that "Barney" is moving to a new time. Or that edgy fare has disappeared from the 8 p.m. time slot. But families sitting down with their children for a cozy hour before bedtime are more likely to find shows that fit the bill.
But family doesn't necessarily mean quality. Of the 10 new family and spirituality-based programs, only a few feature a strong cast and solid writing.
Among the bright spots: "The Gregory Hines Show," "The Wonderful World of Disney," and "Nothing Sacred."
Set in Chicago, The Gregory Hines Show (CBS) is a funny and appealing comedy that centers on the relationship between a father and his adolescent son. Hines plays Ben Stevenson, a widower who is cautiously starting to date again at the same time that his son, Matty (Brandon Hammond), discovers girls. From the soft-shoe introduction invoking "The Cosby Show," viewers will want to embrace this comedy with open arms because of its smart wit and warm appeal.
The polar opposite of this series is The Tom Show (WB). This isn't much of a stretch for Tom Arnold, who plays Tom Amross, a producer trying to jump-start a failed TV career after divorcing his TV-diva wife. The sitcom, also starring Ed McMahon, often relies on low-brow humor and tasteless jokes.
Tony Danza also plays a single father trying to raise two daughters. In The Tony Danza Show (NBC), Danza (also executive producer) plays a New York sportswriter who's afraid of the computer and is constantly relying on his assistant/computer expert, Carmen (Maria Canals), for help. Danza has a likable personality, but his humor is old hat.
In a welcome bit of synergy, Disney-owned ABC is resurrecting an icon synonymous with the family hour. The Wonderful World of Disney, which will air on Sunday nights, blasts off with the broadcast premire of the computer-animated megahit "Toy Story."
This fall also finds both cute kids from "Jerry Maguire" inserted like a pair of dimples to sweeten two uneven offerings: "Built to Last" and "Meego."
Jeremy Suarez is a golf-club-swinging, country-singing youngster on NBC's Built to Last. In the pilot, his brother Royale (Royale Watkins) abandons plans to move to California to save the family construction business from an unscrupulous competitor. A large family living and working together has been a TV staple since "The Waltons," but unfortunately, laughs were lacking. Also, tip to NBC: Lingerie and condoms don't belong in a family show.
Meego (CBS) is a "Mork & Mindy" wannabe, and one of two new shows with unusual solutions to America's day-care woes. In this painfully slow comedy, Bronson Pinchot ("Perfect Strangers") stars as Meego, an alien who finds work as a nanny after his spaceship crashes to Earth. (Hey, an alien's got to eat.) Jonathan Lipnicki ("Jerry Maguire") is adorable as the youngest of three kids, but even the cute-kid shtick grows tiresome.
Along the same lines is You Wish (ABC), an "I Dream of Jeannie" concept that fails miserably. John Ales plays a genie who moves in with a divorced mother (Harley Jane Kozak) and her two children. He has been trapped for 2,000 years in a purple rug that the mother purchases. She can wish for anything she desires but prefers to work for what she wants instead. Our wish is for this grating show to be yanked, as soon as possible.
This year, look for several new shows on "spiritual" themes hoping to capitalize on the success of such shows as "Promised Land" and "7th Heaven." Good News, one of the series to be "touched by an angel," is equal parts "Amen" and "Sister Act," and the most promising of UPN's new shows. David Ramsey stars as a new inner-city preacher struggling to lead his flock through a valley of '90s problems. Ramsey is likable, and while the humor falls flat, the gospel numbers provide welcome energy.
Less promising is Teen Angel (ABC). Novice angel Marty (Mike Damus) has a special mission: play guardian for his best friend, who's having trouble fitting in at high school. The pilot was a tad weak, but there are some clever special effects, and the show boasts Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) as a sitcom mom.
One of the best new shows is in danger of being engulfed by controversy. The Catholic League is boycotting Nothing Sacred (ABC), a one-hour drama about an unconventional priest. In the pilot, Kevin Anderson is terrific as Father Ray, an outspoken liberal priest who runs into trouble when someone tapes his controversial confessional advice ("Follow your own conscience") and sends it to the bishop. He is committed to helping the poor, working with gangs, and feeding the hungry.
We liked this show for its modern take on religion, thoughtful approach to tough issues, and strong writing.