You can go home again -- on TV

The success of shows like 'Providence' and 'Judging Amy' may reflect the hidden longings of the aging baby boom generation. TELEVISION

November 28, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The taxi cab pulls up in the driveway of a rambling, ivy-covered, two-story Cape Cod painted picket-fence white.

Leaves are falling from ancient oaks and elms as a young woman gets out of the cab, looks at the house and takes a deep breath as if trying to inhale it all.

"Enjoy your visit," the cab driver says as he pulls away.

"Not visiting," the woman replies. "I think I'm home."

The scene is from the pilot for "Providence," the surprise hit of last season. The drama about a plastic surgeon in her 30s who chucks her lucrative Beverly Hills practice and Malibu lifestyle to return to her hometown of Providence, R.I., and a low-paying job in a community clinic is so popular that it has inspired copycat dramas like "Judging Amy" on CBS this fall.

"Amy" features a 35-year-old attorney who chucks a corporate law career and Manhattan lifestyle to return to her hometown of Hartford, Conn., and a low-paying job as a family law judge. Like "Providence," it, too, is a hit, the highest-rated new dramatic series in a fall full of successful new dramas.

While much has been written about the commercial success of the two series and their leading characters, Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Kankaredes) and Judge Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman), the cultural implications have been little explored. When a series cuts as directly against the grain of what's come before as "Providence" did, and then single-handedly inspires a programming trend, it's a fairly safe guess that something is up.

This was supposed to be a network season geared to 20-somethings living in New York and oversexed teen-age boys not coming of age in their parents' basements. But the crash and burn of series like NBC's "The Mike O'Malley Show" and ABC's "Wasteland," set against the tremendous success of "Providence," "Amy" and several similar series, has sent the networks scrambling to find what makes Sydney and Amy run.

Ultimately, the answers are found among baby-boomer viewers and the fantasies the series offer them -- starting with the promise that you can go home again, a theme both series hit hard this past week in Thanksgiving episodes.

Striking a chord

"I think you've got to go home at some point in your life," says Brenneman, who stars as the judge and single mom who returns with her daughter and moves into the family house with her mother, Maxine (Tyne Daly), and brother (Dan Futterman).

"I know for me a lot of my 20s was about going off and proving that I wasn't like my mother -- I was so different, I wasn't going to be anything like her. And, then, you fall flat on your face, because you're exactly like your parents. I think the appeal is connected to that process, which involves going back, which all of us go through."

Barbara Hall, who wrote the pilot episode of "Judging Amy," also believes the appeal of the series is connected to Amy returning home. As she sees it, "At 35, Amy has to go home to sort of finish growing up, to learn some lessons she might have missed. And so, it's really a starting over for her."

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees that the appeal is in part connected to the idea of returning home, but he thinks these series have a deeper pull.

"Not only are they coming home to the place where their parents live and where they grew up," Thompson says, "what also matters is that these are New England homes. This is the place of Norman Rockwell, turning leaves, the smell of cookies at Christmas. I mean, I can almost smell the pies baking when I watch these two shows."

As Thompson explains, "This is not just going back to the womb of their families, this is going back to the womb of America. Where did [Henry David] Thoreau go when he wanted to get back in touch with his transcendental roots? He goes to a Massachusetts pond. That's pretty close to where Amy and Syd go."

Gender is another important aspect of these characters. It's noteworthy that both are professional women, and that their journey back home seems to go directly against the dominant narrative for prime-time women starting with the CBS sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1970.

The "Mary" story line featured a career woman leaving her family and hometown, going off to the city and finding a new family in the workplace. In fact, Mary's last words to her co-workers, just before they turn off the lights for the last time in the WJM newsroom, were: "I thought about something last night. What is a family? A family is people who make you feel less alone and really loved. Thank you for being my family."

The "Mary" tale has been repeated endlessly on prime-time television the past three decades. Two seasons ago, NBC had a full Monday lineup of such shows, ranging from "Caroline in the City" to "Suddenly Susan," which it promoted under the banner of "Women Who Work."

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