Few television series have ever dared to question the values of that holy American institution--the family.
Things are changing. Three of the top sitcoms of the last few years--"Roseanne," "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children"--are tampering with traditional attitudes toward the sacred scene of hearth and home, often displaying frank skepticism while outwardly maintaining family bonds.
We are seeing the underside of the American dream. In a way, it is radical television, almost subversive in the sense that it is undermining the reverential treatment toward families that set the pattern until now--with rare exceptions like "All in the Family" and "Maude."
"Roseanne" and "Married . . . With Children" are frankly gross shows about gross people. "The Simpsons," through animation, cleverly takes a more sophisticated approach to the same scene.
You have to wonder if the Emmy nominations handed out Thursday represented a subconscious opposition to this skeptical new family TV.
"Roseanne" and "Married . . . With Children" got only two nominations apiece. "The Simpsons," though restricted by Emmy rules limiting animated contenders, got only three--plus two more for a Christmas special that preceded the series.
Good, you may say about "Roseanne" and "Married . . . With Children." They don't deserve more, you may say. Quality is what the Emmys are supposed to be all about. Didn't "Twin Peaks" get nominated, and "thirtysomething"? And wasn't the determinedly wholesome family series "The Cosby Show" also shut out?
All true, except that Bill Cosby personally withdrew himself from Emmy competition some years ago, and there's never been much to say about the series without him.
It may not be necessary to reward "Roseanne" and "Married . . . With Children" with tons of Emmys. But there is something deeper going on, not only in the conservative Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which bestows the Emmys, but in other tradition-bound and often hypocritical quarters of Hollywood, from networks to studios.
You could call it Fox-phobia. Two of the sitcoms sneering at the idyllic and often phony portrait of traditional TV families--"The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children"--are from Fox Broadcasting Co. And the third, "Roseanne," might as well be--because of its approach and attitude--despite the fact that it is an ABC series.
Are the barbarians at the gate? You might think so listening to NBC President Robert Wright and the head of that network's Entertainment Group, Brandon Tartikoff, when they talk about Fox Broadcasting.
CBS, meanwhile, apparently is opening the gates as Howard Stringer, head of the network's Broadcast Group, says there may well be something to learn from Fox.
Stringer is right.
It's easy to take the automatic pilot approach to Fox, the paralyzed middle-aged view that sees only some of the low-class shows it has used to get on its feet as the new kid on the block. NBC, CBS and ABC never aired low-class shows, right?
But what Fox is really doing is much more significant, like it or not. Frankly targeting the young audience, it is more blatantly, irreverently--and often more honestly--trying to reflect the outlooks of this age group than any other network except ABC.
While the Big Three networks look for excuses in the ratings system to justify their viewing loss--refusing to admit that it's because they've lost touch with viewers--Fox is growing in leaps and bounds and cockily going its own way.
"While its appeal is essentially to people under 35," media executive Joel Segal of the McCann-Erickson agency writes in his report on the coming TV season, "Fox has managed to capture a growing share of all television viewing homes. Fox has . . . successfully played to the young people with programs attuned to their interests."
TV academy voters did give nine Emmy nominations to the now-gone "Tracey Ullman Show," plus four more to a special from that series. Ullman and those around her deserved them, but the fact is that, as a comedy-variety series, her show was probably less threatening in its irreverence.
"Married . . . With Children" is threatening, "The Simpsons" less obviously so. "Roseanne"? Definitely.
I don't much like "Roseanne." Its star, Roseanne Barr, isn't to my taste. But there is something curiously thrilling about watching someone who really doesn't seem to give a damn in a place like Hollywood, where pussyfooting and cautious phrasing are the norm.
Her absurd rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at that San Diego baseball game made me shake my head. The stories of her personal life and professional behavior now are boring beyond belief.
But this woman has a huge audience: "Roseanne" was the No. 1 television show last season. And even if it wanes, she has had something to say pointedly in her series about being a working mother. That was important. She connected with people. It was no accident.
"I represent a certain part of America that probably nobody else represents," she said the other day. And she's right.
You sense an anger in Barr and in her show, and there is clearly a receptive audience to that anger and outspokenness among a lot of people in America. There has somehow been an economic plight behind the comic insouciance of the working mother that has been her trademark. You can't help wonder if a lot of the audience, lower- and middle-class, feels the same economic plight over the way things are going in America.
How can TV's family comedy be the same if the American family isn't the same?
It clearly isn't on "Roseanne." And it isn't on "Married . . . With Children" and "The Simpsons." Economically, American life has clearly taken on an "Upstairs, Downstairs" flavor, and these series reflect that--as the downstairs representatives. And that's where most people are.
The Fox wave of the future netted 26 Emmy nominations, and it is no coincidence that 23 of them came from irreverent series: "The Tracey Ullman Show," the black comedy "In Living Color," "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children."
Reality? NBC's own Johnny Carson noted recently that it was ironic that the cartoon family in "The Simpsons" seemed more real than the live family in his own network's "The Cosby Show."
Fox could score big or strike out with its basically new lineup this fall. But it is on to something important. And it was a disgrace that TV academy rules prohibited "The Simpsons" from competing for best comedy series because it's animated. It had to settle for nominations as best animated show under an hour in length.
It was also a disgrace that TV academy rules prohibited "The Simpsons" from competing in the comedy-writing category. "Writing is what we're known for," says a spokeswoman for the show. "We know the animation isn't great. Writing is what makes the show great."
In brief, "The Famous Teddy Z" won an Emmy nomination for comedy writing, but "The Simpsons" was barred.
Change the rules. Get real.