Sunday, May 27, 2001

Traditional TV family comes back strong

        Lucy, we're home!

        The husband-wife domestic comedy, a TV staple since I Love Lucy, makes a big comeback this fall as TV networks continue to experiment with the 50-year-old sitcom format.

        The success of Malcolm in the Middle, Grounded for Life and Damon Wayans' My Wife and Kids has inspired four (of 16) fall sitcoms with a traditional mother-father family formula:

        • The Dad (8:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC, following My Wife and Kids): Jim Belushi plays a ''big kid'' to his children. Courtney Thorne-Smith (Ally McBeal, Melrose Place) co-stars as his wife.

        • Maybe I'm Adopted (8:30 p.m. Friday, WB): A 15-year-old girl (Reagan Dale Neis) clashes with her frugal mom (Julia Sweeney, Saturday Night Live) and dad (Fred Willard).

        • The Bernie Mac Show (9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Fox): Bernie Mac (The Original Kings of Comedy) and Kellita Smith play a professional couple taking care of his sister's three young children.

        • Emeril (8 p.m. Tuesday, on NBC): New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse plays a TV cooking show star (what a stretch!) juggling his job with his wife and kids, in a sitcom from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade).

        The count jumps to five if you include country singer Reba McEntire playing a Texas mother of three not yet divorced on WB's Deep in the Heart (9 p.m. Friday).

        This is not to say that any of the five will work, but it's great to see people married with children on TV again after years of single moms, divorced dads and fraudulent Friends rip-offs. (There's plenty of that this fall, too.)

        Only two fall comedies last year featured married couples with school-age children, but both primarily were star vehicles for Bette Midler and Geena Davis. (Both were canceled.)

        The success of Malcolm -- a stylized sitcom with a distinct point of view -- convinced Mr. Wayans to re-invent The Cosby Show.

        ''That was the plan, to do a kind of Cosby in the new millennium . . . to deal a little more with problems that kids are facing today,'' Mr. Wayans told TV critics earlier this year.

        In the 1990s, TV pro-grammers divorced them-selves from the nuclear family to concentrate on workplace and relationship comedies. The popularity of NBC's Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends spawned dozens of copycats aimed at attracting the same young adult audience: Frasier, Mad About You, Caroline in the City, The Single Guy, Suddenly Susan, Veronica's Closet, Working, NewsRadio, Conrad Bloom and Alright, Already.

        Alright already, indeed.

        Disney's ABC, once the bastion for family shows, gradually replaced Roseanne, Family Matters and Home Improvement with trendy singles sitcoms like Two Guys and a Girl, Dharma & Greg, Sports Night, Drew Carey, Spin City and It's Like, You Know.

        Since 1997, when the networks added 18 new fall sitcoms, the genre has been on the decline. After a record 62 sitcoms (new and returning shows) in fall of 1997, the number of half-hour comedies fell to 52 in 1998 and 44 last fall. The trend reverses slightly this fall, with 48 comedies.

        Many theories have been offered as to why viewers have stopped in their laugh tracks:

        • The sameness of sitcoms set in big houses or big offices.

        • Boredom with the three-camera proscenium comedies in front of a studio audience, a format devised by Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy in 1951.

        • Networks' attempts to design shows for the 18-34 audience or other demographic groups, instead of all ages.

        • The diluted sitcom writing pool for broadcast and cable networks.

        ''There's just a lot of crap on television. The talent pool has been spread so thin that there's a lot of really bad stuff,'' says veteran comedy producer Don Reo. His credits include M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, The Golden Girls, All in the Family, Rhoda, Blossom, John Larroquette, Action and My Wife and Kids.

        So programmers and producers have experimented with different forms in recent years. They've tried filmed shows without a studio audience (Sports Night, Malcolm, The Job); a one-hour comedy-drama (Ally McBeal); animation (Sammy, Baby Blues); adult content (Action); sketch shows (Hype); improvisation (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and Internet humor (ABC's Dot.Comedy canceled after one telecast).

        Cable channels have pushed the envelope with South Park, Jackass, Tom Green, Andy Dick, That's My Bush! and The Man Show. (Imagine what network sitcoms will look like when young viewers for these shows become TV programmers!)

        Of the 16 new fall comedies, the most promising is a Fox gimmick show -- a live-action adaptation of The Tick comic book from Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family).

        Patrick Warburton (''Puddy'' from Seinfeld) stars as the naive big blue bug who fights crime with Arthur the moth (David Burke), Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey from All My Children) and the suave Bat Manuel (Nestor Carbonell from Suddenly Susan).

        Fox also has another potential hit in Undeclared, a college freshman comedy by Judd Apatow (Freaks & Geeks). It has strong writing and a good cast, including singer Loudon Wainwright III (''Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road'').

        CBS' best shot may be the The Ellen Show, starring Ellen Degeneres, Cloris Leachman, Jim Gaffigan (Welcome to New York) and Martin Mull. But star vehicles are no sure thing. (Just ask Bette Midler, Michael Richards or Geena Davis.)

        Fall's single fathers include Bob Saget (WB's Raising Dad), Home Alone's Daniel Stern (CBS' American Wreck) and Flex Alexander (UPN's One on One). Ms. McEntire is the lone single mom.

        Workplace comedies will be set in a hospital (NBC's Scrubs); a motivational speaker's office (ABC's Bob Patterson with Jason Alexander); TV stations (NBC's Inside Schwartz and Emeril); a community center (American Wreck) and a dorm (Undeclared).

        Relationship sitcoms feature Friends-like groups who walk their dogs in the same park (WB's Men, Women & Dogs) or share an apartment (WB's Off Centre).

        If these fail, the networks already have plans for new comedies starring Julia Louis-Deyfus (Seinfeld), Hank Azaria (Mad About You), Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols, and a Eugene Levy (SCTV) puppet comedy called Greg the Bunny.

        The networks have added 15 dramas, including a second Law & Order spin-off (NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and three shows about CIA agents (ABC's Alias; Fox's 24; and CBS' The Agency with Cincinnati native Rocky Carroll).

        Viewers will see fewer news magazines and weekly movies, and more reality-game series: Survivor 3, The Amazing Race (both CBS); The Mole II, Who Wants to be a Millionaire (ABC); Weakest Link (NBC); Temptation Island II (Fox) and Lost in the USA and the Elimidate Deluxe dating show (both WB).

        Based strictly on first impressions, it looks like the fall season may not be much of an improvement over the ''really bad stuff'' viewers have seen recently. But folks may not be disappointed.

        ''There's an audience for a lot of really bad stuff,'' Mr. Reo says. ''It's kind of scary.''


'Adopted' title angers advocate

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