Family Units Survive In the New Season

LET'S not give up on the nuclear family just yet, if you don't mind. It's hanging in there as the season's new TV shows reveal themselves. Lots of single parents and other contemporary family forms are also featured of course, reflecting obvious changes in what ``family'' means in society today.

But the contemporary look in families is far from exercising a monopoly among new series. And if you toss in returning series whose formats offer a father, mother, and kids, the ancient family unit seems to have handily survived even network programmers with their fingers held up to the sociological wind.

One reason is that prime-time TV tends not to be a shaper of America's concept of the family so much as a response to it - an opportunistic, simplistic, undependable response that half-reflects shifts in tastes and habits. A glance at how families evolve on TV easily shows the sluggish way that the medium picks up on societal changes. It's a slow take that lags behind what's actually going on in society - a conservative testing of the limits.

But there are some bold exceptions: 1968's ``Julia,'' for instance, in which the title character (Diahann Carroll) was both African-American and a widowed single mother, or 1971's ``All in the Family.''

Shows like these indicate that TV is capable of pushing the boundaries a little, especially when there's a potential buck in it. And analyses abound concerning how the TV family has changed in other ways over the decades. As an example of the old, they often cite the sitcom ``Father Knows Best,'' the middle-class model of patriarchal family life that ran on the three major commercial networks at different times between 1954 and 1962.

That sanitized norm may be a thing of the past, but its legacy is visible in the new season. As evidence, here is a description - from the formats of new series on ABC, CBS, and NBC - of some family units that stayed intact. Some have taken on a trendy style - two female standup comics in the lead, for instance - but their ancestry is unmistakeable:

ABC's ``Joe's Life'' puts a twist in the mix - making an out-of-work electrician suddenly have to tend the kids while his wife goes to the office. Yet the family itself would have caused no ripples among viewers of the 1950s, and even the ``twist'' is a widely practiced economic survival tactic in today's world.

``Boy Meets World'' on the same network views things through the eyes of an intelligent 11-year-old boy - one who happens to be a member of a nuclear family. ``George'' takes the commendably unorthodox step of putting an appealing ex-heavyweight boxing champion (George Foreman) in the title role and surrounding him with what NBC calls ``a warm, loving family.''

On CBS, ``Dave's World'' features a character based on Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry, a sort of fugitive from the 1960s facing the 1990s. He may be confronting the absurdities of life, as the network maintains, but he is confronting them ``as husband, father, and semi-responsible citizen ... with the help of his wife.''

``Family Album,'' also on CBS, features a husband and wife who reaffirm family solidarity by deciding to move back to their hometown, Philadelphia, to raise their children. And ``Harts of the West'' lets a big-city lingerie salesman realize a lifelong dream by taking over a rundown Nevada ranch - after he ``convinces his family to join in.'' The series is not about being a would-be cowboy, it's about being a would-be cowboy with a family.

For its part, NBC has come up with a fascinating mix in ``Mommies'': a high-powered female comedy duo livening a format (``two homemakers who are next-door neighbors and are best friends'') that noticeably harkens back to earlier family sitcoms, where day-to-day dilemmas passed for tension. This show has the two coping ``with holidays, teens, homework, carpools, and other family `traumas.' '' And for solid family drama with no excuses and no peculiar additives, ``Against the Grain'' may surpass all, with its story line about a former high school football star, now the coach of a high school team in a small Texas town, ``and his tight-knit family.''

Of those cited, ``Dave's World'' is the biggest hit so far, ranking 13th among all TV shows for the week ending Oct. 3, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's a little under 15 million homes following the fortunes of the ``husband, father, and semi-responsible citizen.'' Pretty good.

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