Infants Terrible When TV sitcins trade sweet nothings for baby talk, they lose their edge -- and their audience.

December 23, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Is the birth of Baby Buchman going to be the death of a once great sitcom?

That might be an unpleasant question to ask in this holiday season of good cheer, but it is one that can no longer be avoided after last week's "Mad About You," which took place entirely outside the door of Mabel Buchman's room as her guilt-ridden parents let their infant daughter cry herself to sleep for the first time.

Helen Hunt, the best actress working in sitcoms, was again terrific. Paul Reiser wasn't bad either. But 22 minutes of an infant wailing was way too much Baby Buchman for me and perfectly illustrated how goo-goo, ga-ga, baby-obsessed this once savvy, sexy sitcom has become.

For his part, Reiser insists the baby has not overtaken the sitcom, about a young couple in the big city, and says "Mad About You" has never been better.

"We've been talking about a baby for three or four years, and I was the president of the let's-not-do-a-show-just-about-a-baby club, because I wouldn't want to watch that kind of show," he said in a conference call to promote last week's episode.

"And I'm really proud of our work. I think we've done some of our best shows ever this season, and our batting average is higher than it's ever been."

But that's not what the audience seems to think. Ratings are down for "Mad About You" in this, its sixth season. It's no longer a regular in the Nielsen top 20 despite some of its weakest competition ever.

In fact, it has barely been able to beat the military drama "JAG" on CBS, while ABC has taken the 8 o'clock Tuesday time period during key sweeps weeks in November by counterprogramming with extra episodes of "Home Improvement."

Furthermore, once a darling of the critics, "Mad About You" is starting to take some hits, like a recent jeer in TV Guide about Paul (Reiser) and Jamie (Hunt) suddenly seeming strangely out of character in their cluelessness with the baby.

In its decidedly thumbs-down review of last week's cry-baby episode, USA Today called Mabel Buchman the "most ill-conceived television baby since Murphy Brown's controversial Avery."

Reiser says he had not been aware of any criticism of the series. As for charges that the baby is changing the show for the worse, he points to a history going back to "I Love Lucy" of sitcoms with babies doing just fine.

Indeed, sitcoms and babies do seem to go together like, well, love and marriage, especially during May sweeps, when everyone is looking for a ratings bump -- like the one 'Mad About You" got last spring.

But the dominant pattern going back to Lucy is that most series did not know what to do with the baby come September. Lucy gave birth in 1953. The next season of shows featured the Ricardos and Mertzes on a cross- country car trip to Hollywood as Ricky pursued a film offer. This is when the famous episodes of Lucy with William Holden at the Brown Derby and John Wayne at Grauman's Chinese Theatre took place.

Baby Ricky, meanwhile, was left with Lucy's mom, Mrs. MacGillicuddy.

The season after that, the two couples went to Europe. This is when Lucy stomped grapes in preparation for her big break in films. Again, baby's out of sight.

It was not until 1956 that Little Ricky (Richard Keith) appeared regularly in the sitcom -- suddenly old enough to play the drums and do an occasional guest shot at dad's Club Babaloo.

Baby with the bath water

A more recent birth that quickly resulted in producers realizing they had to ditch the baby to save the show came in 1991 on "Murphy Brown." Little Avery Brown all but disappeared after the controversy surrounding his birth was played for every ratings point possible during the 1991-1992 season.

And how about the trip "Roseanne" took to baby land in search of ratings?

In May 1995, Roseanne Conner announced she was going to have a baby girl. But, when she gave birth in the fall, it turned out to be a boy.

Roseanne, the star, explained the gender switch by saying she changed her mind during summer hiatus. It didn't matter, though -- we hardly saw the baby, and the sitcom was on the skids anyway.

That's another pattern: babies used as a device to shake up a series that's foundering. It almost never helps and often accelerates the collapse.

One of the sorriest examples involves one of my all-time favorite goofy-smart sitcoms, "ALF."

In May 1988, Kate Tanner (Anne Schedeen) -- the mom in the family with which ALF had come to live after his spaceship crash -- gave birth. The next season opened with ALF's adventures in baby-sitting.

The baby was all over the place that fall, and "ALF" was history by the end of the season. The problem: The acerbic, wiseacre alien was funny when he was drinking beer and trying to snack on Lucky, the Tanner cat, not when he was changing diapers on the Tanner brat.

One hypothesis about what's gone wrong with "Mad About You" centers on a similarly radical change in Hunt's character now that there's a baby on board.

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