Baby boomer sitcoms confront aging parents

October 19, 1993|By Joyce Millman | Joyce Millman,San Francisco Examiner

Baby boomers used to believe that life ended at 30. Then, thanks to TV, life began at thirtysomething. Now, with the TV generation clocking in at 40 and beyond, and apprehensively dealing with their own kids' surly teenhood, the tube has once again come through with a boomer fountain of youth.

It's called aging parents. Prime time is filled these days with 40-year-old adolescents still rebelling against Mom and Dad.

On ABC's "Roseanne," Roseanne Connor has one daughter who eloped at 18, another who has the disposition of Wednesday Addams and a 12-year-old son who has just started skipping school. But these mom-problems pale next to the problems Roseanne has being a daughter; her control-freak mother lives just blocks away and still knows how to get under her skin.

On NBC's new "Frasier," Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), eminent psychiatrist, is reduced to a snide, sullen brat with a superiority complex by the space-invading presence of his boorish father, who had to move in because of his poor health.

On CBS's unjustly low-rated "Family Album" (which the network has just put on hiatus), Jonathan and Denise Lerner (Peter Scolari, Pamela Reed) move back to Philadelphia after years of living on the West Coast so they can be closer to their aging parents.

But when her mother resumes her demoralizing criticism and his mother resumes her insufferable doting, they realize that being an adult child is worse than parenting their own three kids.

And then there are those scary/hilarious "parent episodes" of NBC's "Seinfeld" (Jerry is constantly compared -- unfavorably -- to his cousin Jeffrey the Park Ranger) that capture the dirty little secret nobody can outrun -- in our parents' homes, we revert to our true adolescent selves.

Adults reduced to children in the presence of authority figures are really nothing new on sitcoms. Remember how yes'm-respectful Andy got around Aunt Bee on "The Andy Griffith Show"?

The difference is, when did you ever see Andy, Goober and Barney Fife sitting around Floyd the Barber's comparing the emotional scars of bad parenting? (Lord knows, Barney Fife could've used the therapy.)

No, a lot of the current baby-boomer sitcoms are rooted in the recovery movement, with its emphasis on overcoming bad patterns left over from childhood.

Frasier is always trying to "forgive" his father for seldom being around in his youth; he sets up elaborate "bonding activities," like setting the egg timer and suggesting they share vulnerable feelings until it rings (of course, his plans always backfire).

And on CBS's "Dave's World," a sitcom based on the baby-bloomer humor of columnist Dave Barry, Dave (Harry Anderson) realizes that his son finds his rock-and-roll antics as embarrassing as he used to find his own dad's clowning, and he vows to break the cycle of parenting gaffes.

Roseanne Arnold doesn't settle for merely breaking the cycle; she symbolically killed her father (whom she has publicly accused of incest) in an episode last season in which Roseanne Conner's father died and she stood over his coffin and confronted him with her rage over a childhood of physical and psychological abuse.

"Roseanne" also provides some of the most terrifying mother-daughter tensions the tube has ever seen. Roseanne's mother, Bev (Estelle Parsons), is a smiling, trilling, self-esteem-sucking monster who has reduced daughter Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) to an emotional wreck and Roseanne to sarcasm and overeating.

If "Roseanne" has a grand theme, it's Roseanne's heroic struggle to raise two daughters of her own without turning into her mother.

"Roseanne," the sitcom of the '90s, is the flip side of "The Cosby Show," the sitcom of the '80s, in which the parents were always right and family tensions didn't exist.

Although rarely acknowledged, the psychological dimension of "Roseanne" might be a big reason for the show's popularity.

"Roseanne" is as uplifting as "Cosby" was, but in a completely different way; it reassures self-analytical baby-boomers that being the product of a dysfunctional home doesn't necessarily mean that they're doomed to re-create it in their own home.

"Roseanne," "Frasier," "Dave's World" and "Family Album" all reflect the boomers' quest for an identity apart from their parents. Indeed, every major boomer show from "thirtysomething" to "Murphy Brown" to "Northern Exposure" to "Seinfeld" has had episodes in which a visit from the parents -- those potentially embarrassing skeletons in the closet -- sends a normally cool, fully functioning grown-up into a panic. (What if my friends see me for what I really am?)

So what happens when boomers have kids of their own and start doing parent-type things? One word: denial.

The new boomer sitcoms are amusingly flattering in their depiction of the super-cool parents and forgiving adult children viewers long to be.

The more cynical, and probably wiser, of these shows ("Roseanne," "Frasier") temper their portrayals with a darkly humorous realism -- family squabbles always end in a draw because parents will be parents, kids will be kids, amen.

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