- The Washington Times - Friday, October 23, 2009

Singles sitting around navel gazing? That’s so 1990s. After more than a decade of self-involved urban tribes on television’s sitcoms, there is a new genre this fall.

Make that an old genre with a new twist — the family sitcom.

Amid record unemployment and rampant home foreclosures, it would seem callous to debut a show like “Sex and the City,” where Carrie Bradshaw spent the rent money on designer shoes for so many years on HBO.

As if on cue, the family sitcom, relatable and reassuring — albeit in new ways — is making a prime-time comeback in these uncertain times, with new fall series like “Hank,” “The Middle” and “Modern Family” (all on ABC).

On “Hank,” five-time Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer plays a CEO who is ousted from his company. In a money-saving move, he and his family leave Park Avenue for suburban Virginia, where the title character has to reacquaint himself with his family and also with how real people live (without a live-in maid, for starters).



“I wanted to do a family show because I hadn’t seen one in so long,” Mr. Grammer told The Washington Times. “I had been told by so many people that Hollywood didn’t make them anymore. Everything these days has an edge or is an alternative lifestyle framework. I think a lot of people want to go to something they recognize. It’s like comfort food.

“This show is dealing with the economy and job loss,” Mr. Grammer said. “But it is ultimately as much about a guy finding his way with his family. I think people like to see a show about their world. Maybe Manhattan is not the center of the universe for some people.”

Eileen Heisler, executive producer of “The Middle,” says that shows about families are a product of the times. When Ms. Heisler and DeAnn Heline originally wrote the pilot for the show, which focuses on a middle-class family in Indiana, interest was lukewarm.

“We thought ‘What’s missing?’” Ms. Heisler said. “Then the economy tanked, and a show about a family struggling made it more relevant. People want to laugh, and they want to see their lives reflected. This is a show about a family in the middle of the country that is not thinking about therapists or debating whether or not they have the right nanny.”

From “Leave it to Beaver” to “The Cosby Show” to more recent shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” networks have long been fond of the family sitcom because it usually offered at least one relatable character for each member of the family. Back in the days when families often had one TV, this was a good strategy, as everyone could watch together. It also proved lucrative for the networks, since shows about families sold well in syndication.

But by the late 1980s, families had changed, both in society (more TVs, more nontraditional families) and in programming (more genres targeted at different age groups watching from different rooms in the house). Goodbye “Family Ties;” Hello “Cheers,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Two and a Half Men.”

New shows about families have been scarce since “Everyone Loves Raymond” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” the last true highly rated family shows, wrapped in 2005 and 2006. However, the timing could be right for some of the shows that recently premiered because they take the traditional family and give it a sardonic twist to freshen it up for today’s more knowing audiences.

In “The Middle,” the Heck family of Orson, Ind., is dealing with quirky children (not cute quirky — strange quirky) and not enough money. Frankie Heck, played by Patricia Heaton (whose star-making run was nine years on “Everybody Loves Raymond”), is alternately fumbling and succeeding as a car saleswomen and a mom. This is a family for whom family time unashamedly means pulling up in front of the TV with bags of fast food.

On “Modern Family,” there is a traditional two-parent-three-children household, but also an older man married to a young trophy wife and two dads with an adopted Asian daughter. Talk about something for everyone. The show also seems very of the moment, with its single-camera, mockumentary style similar to “The Office.”

“These days, there is no single, typical family,” says Christopher Lloyd, executive producer of “Modern Family.” “Is America ready for these kinds of families? It seems to be that they are. Viewers seem to like the gay couple quite a bit. In a way, they are the most traditional of the three families, with the stay-at-home parent and the working parent.”

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