TV has changed," says Clyde Phillips, executive producer of Fox's thoughtful, involving family show, "Get Real." "I don't think TV is indifferent to family values at all; it's a bad and a vestigial rap against television."
Maybe prime-time networks are trying harder. Against the tide of leering, hipper-than-thou shows like "Ally McBeal" and "Friends" or teen-fantasies like "Popular" runs a strong current of smart comedies and dramas focusing on the family - on parents and children as intelligent, even loving individuals.
"7th Heaven," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Get Real," "Once and Again," and "Freaks and Geeks" represent the best of the family shows for different reasons. They run the gamut of strict to permissive perspectives on child rearing, morality, divorce, and extended families. Most concern upper-middle-class white folks (reflecting the producers' own lives).
There's a lot more-realistic bumbling going on among today's TV parents. (Robert Young never made mistakes on "Father Knows Best.") With the exception of the preacher and his wife on the popular "7th Heaven," TV parents are not all-knowing. They sometimes trip up. They can be cruel to their ex-spouses, but reveal themselves as tender and responsive to their grieved children. "Once and Again" and "Family Law" have featured episodes in which bad husbands show themselves to be better fathers.
Then, too, the kids are more realistically disobedient than Wally and the Beaver ever were. TV teens might cross their parents and show up at a forbidden rock party (a "rave") as they did on "Get Real," but find that their parents were right, and face the consequences for their actions.
The middle-aged parents in "Freaks and Geeks" (which has moved to a promising new time slot, Mondays, on NBC) are more than a little goofy, and they are strict by today's standards (the show takes place in 1980). But they are hilariously right when they warn their kids off of various dangers like drugs, sex, and skipping class.
These parents can be wrong, too. In one episode, they snoop in a daughter's diary and find out what the extra-bright Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) thinks of them.
There's a modest, believable triumph in nearly every episode, as "Freaks and Geeks" producer Paul Feig points out. "It's not a show about kid power," Mr. Feig says. "I don't think kids are smarter than adults - they don't have the life experience. But kids do listen to adults.... I don't like these idealized versions of families that some [viewers] seem to want. But I like to show our family is, at the end of the day, a good family."
And at the end of the day, so is Malcolm's family in "Malcolm in the Middle," a new, offbeat, hyperactive, often-crass sitcom. The Fox show revels in private family behavior (e.g., mom shaving dad's back or putting laundry away half-clad). But when the precocious Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) first learns that he will be relegated to the gifted program at school and therefore labeled a freak by his peers, his mom comforts him with her unique form of homespun wisdom.
"Once and Again" (which will move to Mondays beginning Jan. 24) takes up the issue of divorce and its effects on kids.
"The first mandate is to try to tell the truth," says executive producer Marshall Herskovitz. "The need and desire to tell the truth is a hazy agenda."
The show tries to convey "the value of communication," says his executive-producing partner Edward Zwick, "and how important it is in raising children. [It's best] not to objectify them, not to be narcissistic in your relationship to them, but to see them as they really are."
Feig says of his "Freaks and Geeks": "A lot of the shows about teens were about kids trying to have sex all the time - fantasy fulfillment - and that just wasn't my high school experience. It was much more about trying to get through the day without being humiliated.... The optimism is [found in the thought that] this is what your parents went through and they're fine. Don't give up on people."
"If you go back to shows like 'Married with Children,' family values were flouted," says "Get Real's" Mr. Phillips. "But I think TV has come around to being much more responsible. It has partly to do with the fact that the people who are making the shows are parents now. I also think there has been a subtle shift in what the public wants [and] what it will tolerate."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society