Television has no problem these days casting a friendly snicker at the depictions of family life in old series such as "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Leave It to Beaver." The traditional nuclear family in America has long been an endangered species. Adults have been known to recall growing up neurotic because life at home did not measure up to the warm togetherness shown on "Father Knows Best." Upbeat programming has its downside.
The patronizing air toward old series, however, carries an implicit message: Television today is so much more gritty and attuned to reality. Is it?
While headlines tell almost daily horror stories of families in crisis, of neglect and violence, of more and more children slipping beneath the poverty line, prime-time entertainment continues to provide bromides.
What happens when a youngster gets into a bit of trouble on tough urban streets? Why, Mom simply sends him off to live with wealthy relatives in California and, presto, you have "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Slick, squeaky clean and pure fantasy.
But there is always the news-and-public-affairs side of the television ledger and, no doubt because this is an election year, activity there is on a noticeable upswing. As it happens, the American family is the hot subject of choice.
Tonight at 9 on public television, "Families First With Bill Moyers" devotes 90 minutes to exploring a promising alternative to putting children in foster homes, a system that costs taxpayers $9.1 billion a year.
Mr. Moyers and his producers, Gail Pellett and Damon Williams, visit families in Missouri, Kentucky and Michigan. Each has gone through a crisis, encompassing anything from drug addiction to abusive behavior, and each has been helped by an innovative approach known as family preservation services.
Now being used in more than 30 states under a variety of names, the family preservation services approach fights the unnecessary removal of children from their homes. As one social worker puts it: Remove the risks, not the children. Put the family first.
One worker can spend from four to eight intensive weeks with a family, on 24-hour call, constantly teaching and strengthening parental skills. Some of the assistance is purely practical, including sprucing up a rundown home, and some involves psychological counseling. A few efforts fail, but enough succeed to raise serious questions about Washington's traditional focus on out-of-home care.
The stories collected by Mr. Moyers and staff are certainly persuasive.
Abysmal housing, drug-damaged adults and children, overwhelmed agencies, guns in schools, the spreading phenomenon of "throwaway" children -- not a pretty picture, certainly, but one that demands at least as much exposure as the latest batch of sitcoms. Television sometimes gets it right.