Television Critic’s Notebook: Networks turn clock back to family hour

Television Critic

For a while there, it looked like family television was dead. In answer to the hard-R rating of cable, both network dramas and comedies became increasingly dark, grisly and/or sexually oriented, while the family comedy, once the keystone of prime time, dwindled to “The Simpsons” and a couple of live-action shows, one of which was “Two and a Half Men.”

Finding a show the whole family could watch was virtually impossible -- the kids got Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and asked to turn the volume down. Oh, there was always Animal Planet and, of course, “American Idol,” but in terms of scripted shows, programming seemed bound by isolated demographics.

It was strange, considering the “familification” of virtually everything else -- any marketer, politician, media giant or travel agent worth his or her salt was selling family hard. But this past fall, with very little fanfare, television got back on message. Between the recent renaissance of the family comedy and the increasing popularity of kinder, gentler crime-solving shows, the long-lost family hour has quietly reconstructed itself. After years of being dominated by shows about graphic police work, medical procedurals and the sexual antics of friends and colleagues, the television landscape is once again dotted by homesteads, ringing with the sound of multigenerational and mostly non-profane voices.

Obviously, “family-friendly” is possibly the most subjective term in the English language (after “a woman’s size 6”) and the standards of language, violence and sexuality are, like that size 6, much more elastic than they were 20 or 10 or even five years ago. (Which means, among other things, that we’re all going to have to get used to the fact that “sucks” is the new “stinks.”) Crime shows and even medical shows are gorier than they were in the day of “Murder, She Wrote,” while animated shows with crude language and adult humor, such as Fox’s “The Family Guy” and its spinoff, “The Cleveland Show,” blur even simple things like genre.

But while no one’s saying that “The Wonderful World of Disney” is back on prime time, two significant things have returned: a Nick and Nora detective sensibility, and actual children, who have been strangely MIA pretty much since “Malcolm in the Middle” ended four years ago.

For the last few years, CBS had the two most successful family (or family-ish) comedies -- “Two and a Half Men” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” but they followed in the footsteps of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” focusing on the adults; the kids were mostly props.

But last fall brought a slew of shows in which children at least shared the spotlight. First there was Fox’s “Glee,” a show that capitalized on the Disney-led, “American Idol” fed rediscovery of hoofin’ and singin’. “Glee” is all about the kids. And while some viewers object to the level of sexuality in the story lines, there are no obscenities and the only violence comes in the form of seriously high C’s and heavy hip action.

Then, last fall, ABC single-handedly resurrected the family comedy, making Wednesday night the new Thursday night. “The Middle” follows the hilarious exploits of a working-class Midwestern nuclear family (and is so traditional it stars Patricia Heaton), while “Modern Family” goes multigenerational and socially aware, with its May/December second marriage and gay couple with adopted child.

They are followed by “Cougar Town,” which is more of a sex comedy -- and features one of those irritating new mothers who’s always complaining about how hard it is over endless drinks with the girls -- but the primary relationship between the lead character, her son and her ex-husband makes it a PG-13 hybrid.

At midseason, Fox gave us “Sons of Tucson” and NBC finally launched Ron Howard’s “Parenthood,” a dramedy based on the popular film by the same name that follows another extended family as they wrestle with divorce, commitment and middle-class angst, but with more pathos than comedy.

It’s all cyclical of course -- comedy, by its nature, is more malleable and time-sensitive than drama in both content and structure, with shows such as “The Simpsons” and people like Larry David reinventing it on a fairly regular basis. But it’s not just the comedies that are backing off what typically made a show edgy -- mainly, sex and violence. Dramas too are entering a post-”Sopranos” age.

Two years ago, parents groups were up in arms over the OMFG campaign of the CW’s “Gossip Girl”; this year, that network’s fair-haired child is the charming and very family-oriented “Life Unexpected.” Meanwhile, even as the “CSI” franchise continues to draw big audiences, a lighter and more chatty crime-solving template has evolved. Beginning with Fox’s “Bones,” which over five seasons has perfected its recipe of science and psychology, a mock-educational, banter-heavy detective show has emerged, usually revolving around a man and a woman who flirt but don’t consummate.

Fox’s “Lie to Me” and “Human Target,” CBS’ “The Mentalist” and “Numb3rs,” and ABC’s “Castle” are all closer in tone to “Moonlighting” than “Criminal Minds.” A trend, it must be added, that was begun with “Monk” on USA, where “White Collar,” “Burn Notice” and “In Plain Sight” continue to be standard-bearers of the smart-mouth, character-driven crime drama.

The new paradigm

Although all of these shows obviously deal with the mature subject of murder, they are, for the most part, either nonviolent -- guns drawn, no shots fired -- or in the case of “Human Target,” bloodlessly violent. The ingenious corpses of “Bones” are almost child-like in their ickiness, and though “The Mentalist” has the disturbing back story of the murder of the lead character’s wife and child, most of the cases are solved by mental magic tricks.

These shows contain only the mildest obscenities, and while sex is often openly discussed, it is rarely, if ever, shown -- a recent episode of “Castle” took the story into a world of S&M that looked like a cross between Victoria’s Secret and Forever 21.

So is it any surprise that NBC is remaking “The Rockford Files”? Or that they turned to David Shore -- who created “House,” the template for the modern, quick-to-quip detective -- to do it?

It would be reckless to pin the shift on any one social force. Some of the hyper-violence and sex that seemed to sweep network TV was a panicked response to the success of premium cable, where shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Weeds” and “Dexter” were allowed the freedoms of an R rating. Just as film feared it would be killed by TV, networks feared death by cable.

But gravity, and human nature, demands that after the pendulum swings one way, it will inevitably swing the other. Last year’s “Harper’s Island” was an overhyped and calculated attempt to capture the horror demographic, but it bombed, proving that blood and guts don’t guarantee success on television, no matter how many people turned up to see “Saw VI.” On television, you need a story too.

For years, parents groups have struggled to tone down graphic content on the networks. And some of what we’re seeing is, no doubt, in response to pressure from parents, though probably those in the writers room rather than the ones with the placards. Nobody likes a censor, which is why the short-lived, legally sanctioned “family hour” was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Still, writers tend to reflect the world around them. Tweens are the new yuppies, objects of media fascination and marketing lust. There’s a young family in the White House -- a president who eats dinner with his kids and makes it to school concerts, and a first lady who works in the garden and promotes healthful eating.

More important, as unemployment soars and all those high flyin’ schemes crash around our ears, we are a country returning to basics. Which includes, as the high ratings of this year’s event television broadcasts indicate, that old comfy, cozy electronic hearth. Around which the whole family can gather once again.