Television's families Today's broods often telegraph the wrong signals


September 18, 1990|By Michael Hill

FROM THE placidity of "Father Knows Best" through the turbulence of "All in the Family" to the nostalgia of "Happy Days," the warm chaos of "The Cosby Show," and even to the rough-around-the-edges love of "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne," the television sitcom has always presented an image of the American family that mirrors its times, a paradigm for what many desire from their home and hearth.

The new television season brings us many encouraging familial images -- the struggling love of NBC's "Parenthood," the search for a new foundation in that network's "Working it Out," the resonance of cultural heritage and personal baggage in CBS' "Evening Shade," to name a few.

But there is also a handful of shows that paint a disturbing domestic portrait, one that is especially bothersome because these are programs that represent what the adult entertainment executives think will attract the young people of America to their television sets.

And that is the elevation of behavior that can only be described as irresponsible to a prime-time pedestal where it is supposed to be admired.

NBC's "Ferris Bueller," which stars Charlie Schlatter as a high-tech con man, is a prime example. In its first episode, you are supposed to laugh when the title character has his high school principal fall through a trap door during an assembly welcoming the students back for a new year.

Later in the show, after his sister is arrested for driving her own car -- she had reported it stolen after Ferris had driven off in it without permission -- he breaks into the city court computer system to raise her bail. Funny stuff.

Then there is Fox's "Get A Life" which premieres next Sunday. Chris Elliot, best known for his work on David Letterman's late night show, stars as a 30-year-old who still lives with his parents, a paper boy by trade. In the first episode, he talks his best friend into skipping work for a day at the amusement park.

In CBS' "Uncle Buck," a cigar-smoking slug takes over the raising of his brother's three kids and, though he delivers the appropriate lines about acting properly, most of the laughs come from the contrast between wild and crazy Buck and the uptight authority figures around him.

Even "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," which clearly has the potential for delivering decent messages, puts the loose and free rap star at its center, surrounding him by a nerdy family that hardly looks attractive in contrast.

What's going on? One possibility is that these shows represent a clumsy attempt by baby-boomer-aged producers to translate the generation gap that formed one of the main conflicts in their lives into a contemporary setting.

NBC's "Family Ties," now in reruns, started out trying to do that, making the parents the free-thinking ex-hippies and the kids the uptight capitalists, but that conflict never really worked.

So, if you are going to keep the parents as the authority figures, how do you contrast the kids in the 90s? Obviously making them political activists, as was Mike Stivic in "All in the Family," won't work these days, so they take the irresponsible tack.

Even that would be fine if the parents -- or the appropriate authority figures -- were given equal footing, as they are in "The Cosby Show." That way the kids -- or even Uncle Buck -- might end up learning a lesson, maybe not with the eagerness that Beaver and Wally absorbed it, but still taking a step towards maturity.

But such is not the case. The irresponsible figure is placed center stage, his behavior made admirable by the actions of the various dweebs and dorks that surround him. Their major aim seems to be to restrict the central character's freedom and fun so they deserve whatever abuse they get.

One disturbing facet of this is a possible misogynist subtext -- the girls in these shows don't want to have fun, and they don't want the boys to enjoy themselves.

In "Uncle Buck," the authority figure who tries to oppress our hero is the kid's grandmother, played by Audrey Meadows. In "Get a Life," it is the wife of the best friend who tries to put a halt to the good times. In "Ferris Bueller," the main adversary -- the male principal being just a buffoonish caricature -- is Ferris' shrewish sister. Even in Fox's much more admirable version of "Ferris Bueller," called "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," the principal of the school is a female tyrant.

The Freudians can come later and give appropriate analysis. But it probably says a lot about the men who are creating these

shows that their basic dynamic consists of females trying to stop what are essentially little boys from going outside to play.

What is most alarming about this mini-trend is not that these images of irresponsibility are going to lead the youth of America any further astray, but the fact that network executives think that such images are the way to reach young people reveals their essential cynicism.

Contrast these characters to the Uncle Buck of a generation ago, Murray Burns of Herb Gardner's play and film "A Thousand Clowns." Murray sought a life of freedom and apparent irresponsibility for himself and his son Nick which was contrasted with the uptight approach of various characters, especially the two social workers who were trying to take the boy from him.

But the audience also saw that Murray had taken an act of ultimate responsibility, raising Nick when the boy was abandoned by Murray's ne'er-do-well sister. The message was not to be personally irresponsible, but to recognize the difference between personal responsibility and social convention.

The message of these new sitcoms goes no deeper than the line Ferris Bueller delivers after the principal disappears down the trap door: "Let's party."

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