TV's new families: nostalgia, but with an edge

This fall, doctors, lawyers, and cops are having to share the airwaves with another grueling profession. This one also features long hours, over-the-top stress, and life-and-death decisions. But forget leggy secret agents and gun-toting heroes. This season, about half the new TV stars answer to "Mom" and "Dad."

Some say it grows out of nostalgia for the American family nest. Others see a growing need for comic relief in serious times.

Whatever the cause, networks across the broadcast spectrum are cuddling up to moms, dads, kids, pets – the whole home-and-hearth magilla. Some 16 of the 34 new network shows are takes on the American family.

But this fall, it's a hipper crew – old values with an iconoclastic twist, irreverence that merges with ribaldry. So while the new season will feature far more families onscreen, you're a lot less likely to see whole families tuning in together, especially if the kids are under age 10.

The networks are happily, lovingly facing down the trials of working moms ("8 Simple Rules," "Life with Bonnie"), single dads ("Everwood"), cross-cultural childrearing, ("Greetings from Tucson"), and the old tribulations of growing up ("American Dreams," "Do Over," "That Was Then," "Hidden Hills," "The Grubbs").

"After years of trying to be daring and experimental and cutting edge, networks are definitely going back to basics ... which means family," says Joe Adalian, TV editor for Daily Variety. "A lot of creative types and development execs don't like the trend because they see the shows as vanilla, plain, conservative, been-there-done-that. But viewers want the old meat and potatoes."

A coarsened 'Leave It to Beaver'

The networks have picked up on a national mood. It's a longing for simpler times that echoes post-Watergate and Vietnam America – a wistfulness that spawned 50s nostalgic hits such as "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley."

"It could definitely speak to this cultural need to stay close to home to reconnect with sources of our own nurturance," says Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education.

But this season isn't a repeat of earlier decades. Nor is it merely riding on enthusiasm for family-focused hits "Seventh Heaven" (WB), "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS), "Malcolm in the Middle" (FOX), and "Gilmore Girls" (WB).

This fall's fare reflects a coarsened American family, closer to the real thing than fantasy households of "Leave It to Beaver" and "The Donna Reed Show." Viewers are hungry for the moral temperature of "Father Knows Best," combined with the hip irony of "Seinfeld."

But such edge means that while the new season features more families onscreen, it's not always family fare."For all kinds of reasons – from the way characters treat each other in these shows, to the presence of sexual content – these are not shows many families will feel comfortable watching together," says Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University.

That awkwardness, combined with more TVs per household, means the new season heralds no return to intergenerational viewing.

"The evening TV family hour in America has been destroyed," says Scott Collins, LA television editor for the Hollywood Reporter. "I don't think there is anyone who programs with that in mind."

Commercial-friendly programs

Advertisers also have had a hand in putting families back onscreen. The recently formed Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of over 40 top national corporations, funds TV shows that G-rated advertisers can feel comfortable supporting. "Gilmore Girls" – the first show to emerge from that initiative – was a sleeper hit, now in its third season.

And, as everyone in Hollywood knows, nothing breeds imitation like success. The WB itself, home to "Gilmore," is launching two more family shows: "Everwood," about a New York surgeon who moves to Colorado with his children, and "Family Affair," a remake of the 1960s warm-and-fuzzy Brian Keith show.

(Not) keeping up with the Osbournes

There are other forces pushing families back onscreen – such as HBO's "The Sopranos" and MTV's "The Osbournes." The onslaught of hipper, sexier shows on cable – where producers are not constrained by FCC rules – is driving the broadcast networks to find a different niche.

"Regular broadcasters are partly saying if we can't be as daring and risqué as HBO and MTV, let's move in the other direction, go softer and more cuddly and try to get a bigger audience," says Collins.

Indeed, beleaguered ABC, trying to rebuild after finishing behind CBS, NBC and Fox, has taken the middle road as a rallying cry.

"Something that is groundbreaking or provocative, is not necessarily what a network audience is looking for when they come home after a long day," says Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment. "What we have been focusing on at this network is, how do we give people what they really want? ... We will leave groundbreaking to somebody else."

A cultural mirror – distorted, delayed

Then there's the cyclical nature of popular culture, reworking successful old formulas. "We tend to go nostalgic in 20- to 30-year cycles," says Thompson. Three of NBC's five new shows are family oriented, but network president of entertainment Jeff Zucker told television critics in July that NBC brought back the family because critics complained it had gone away.

Of course, NBC owes its current financial health to shows about single life, such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld." But Mr. Zucker says there's no real departure from that in its new series "Hidden Hills," the story of a two-career suburban family.

"I don't think it really does move away from what we've done," he says. "I think what we've done has been smart adult comedy."

As to what the push for TV families says about the nation, or the TV world, critics and social commentators alike warn against drawing causal relationships in either direction. Television shows reflect the culture, they say, but with a conservative distortion as well as a temporal delay.

"American society itself pushes the envelope," says Thompson. "TV merely licks the seal."

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