Loving, bumbling men lead the clan in 'Family Man'

September 11, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Adult viewers may not be too impressed with "The Family Man," which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) before taking its regular berth next week at 8 p.m. Saturday.

As entertainment, it is not too remarkable. As pop culture, though, there's a lot going on.

The series stars Gregory Harrison as Jack Taylor, a widower left to raise four kids with the help of his father-in-law (Al Molinaro). Tonight's episode is about the first day of school. Taylor, a fire fighter, rushes home after working the nightshift to try and send the kids off with a special breakfast. Of course, it's a disaster. Taylor's whole week of trying to be Super Dad is a disaster.

But there are a couple of things worth thinking about in connection with this show.

jTC The first is Harrison as "the family man." Some will see Harrison as one of several men in this season's TV line-up whose masculinity is defined by traditionally feminine qualities, such as the willingness and ability to nurture. There's a sense of television reflecting or initiating change in the notion of what masculine means: Taylor makes a speech to one son about the value of learning to cry.

Secondly, to children, it's going to seem like the kids are running the Taylor household. Taylor is loving, but pretty incompetent. His father-in-law is loving but even more incompetent. They are like the adults in ABC's "Full House," which may be a hit with kids because it offers the fantasy of the children being in control -- manipulating the adults with their good looks and charm. "Uncle Buck" is trying to create the same fantasy for young viewers.

To understand "The Family Man," then, is to understand why some of the new shows in 8 p.m. berths in the weekly lineup seem so awful to adults. The answer is that they are not aimed at adults. They are aimed at children's fantasies.

It's mainly business. The easiest way to win a night with big ratings is to grab an audience right at the start of prime time and build on it. And the audience at 8 p.m. is mainly kids. If you don't get some of those kids then, it's almost impossible to win the night. That's why CBS is in last place: no shows that grab kids at 8 p.m. And that's why CBS has new shows like "Uncle Buck" and "Family Man," which many adult are going think are stupid.

Are such shows stupid? Not really. There are, in fact, kind of smart in what they are trying to accomplish. But in the case of "The Family Man," the try is not good enough.

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