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Family Patter

Photo by Alice S. HallFamily is television's great subject. This is only fitting, given the shrinelike centrality of the TV set in the domestic plan, and the simulacrum of togetherness it affords those who would otherwise have to rely on conversation, fishing trips or snake handling to reinforce relational bonds. There was even a show called Family, during the Carter administration, and the documentary An American Family, back when Nixon ruled the Earth. But series television is nearly always about family, even when it seems to be about doctors or the old West or young people drinking coffee, for a TV series almost by definition concerns a group of characters stuck with one another for an extended period of time -- and if there is a better definition of "family" it is not in the interest of my argument to state it. The Nelsons, Cleavers, Petries, Flintstones, Bunkers, Cartwrights, Waltons, Clampetts, Simpsons, Bundys, Bradys, Barones, Ewings, Conners, Huxtables and Partridges -- the best of them embody an ideal of real communication and caring (all invented, of course), but even the most apparently wretched TV families, held together by co-dependency and the knowledge that no one else will have them, imply that there's a place somewhere on Earth for even the worst of us, a place where when we go there they have to take us in.

Two or three or however many seasons a year it is now, new clans spurt whole from the pulsing brains of producers and writers to join TV's tree of families. Just what constitutes a family has, of course, changed over the years, with certain fads in certain seasons for single moms, single dads, widowers, divorcées, marrieds with children, marrieds without children . . . This year, for some reason, there were three big dramas about big Irish families. (Blame Riverdance if you like.) If in the '50s and early '60s, the typical TV clan comprised a couple in early middle age and their mostly teenage kids, a family series in the '90s is more likely to concern the somewhat developmentally arrested adult children of often cranky elderly parents (Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, this year's Maggie Winters and Encore! Encore!), with a doofus brother or miserable sister more often than not in semipermanent residence.

That's pretty much the state of affairs on The King of Queens, where comic Kevin James and Leah Remini, ex of Fired Up, keep house with her rather mad dad, Jerry Stiller, in a less angry but no less loud turn on Frank Costanza. James plays a delivery man, which has no bearing on anything; like his pal and fellow Queensman Ray Romano, on whose show he was previously wont to guest, and like most comics who score sitcom leads, he's no Edwin Booth, but he colors within the lines, is easy to like, and has Stiller and Remini (scoring high marks in the Patricia Richardson/Patricia Heaton school of grounded women anchoring little-boy husbands) to support him. There's a sister, too.

Brother's Keeper, batting cleanup on ABC's kid-friendly TGIF bloc, promotes the usually ancillary role of doofus brother to full co-stardom in a scenario that finds heck-raising million-dollar place kicker Sean O'Bryan living under orders in the basement of his straight-laced, shirt-and-tie, single-father, college-professor sibling, William Ragsdale (Herman's Head). If this were a movie, the wild one would learn restraint and responsibility from the proper one, who in turn would learn to let down his hair and get that stick out of his ass. But it's not, and the physics of television will prevent them learning anything much at all from one another, in order that hilarity may ever ensue and the show continue until little Justin Cooper, caught in the philosophical crossfire between uncle and pop, is old enough to not bother to vote. I can live with that. Everyone here is as cute as a button and twice as funny.

Jesse, in which Christina Applegate sloughs off the skin of Kelly Bundy, comes equipped with not one but two doofus brothers, one of whom has taken, for reasons I missed but which can't possibly matter, a vow of silence. There is a child, as well, and a less-than-nice ex-husband, and a hunky Bolivian neighbor, and big daddy George Dzundza (Law & Order), who runs the Buffalo hofbrau where Applegate and co-workers Jennifer Milmore and Liza Snyder -- in Oktoberfestive uniforms that, while not revealing, are designed to say Hey, look at these -- sling drinks. Nielsenwise, this is the healthiest new show of the season, a condition largely attributed to its post-Friends time slot -- though, after all, that didn't do much for Union Square. But while Jesse has clearly been constructed to house a contracted player rather than to, like, um, express an idea, Applegate is a natural and appealing performer, and there is much here that qualifies as entertainment, especially around the edges. I have also been enjoying the fake snow.

Where Jesse concerns a woman surrounded by men, Conrad Bloom offers a man among women (and Steve Landesberg, who does seem in touch with his feminine side). That this is the actual point of the show is made clear in the opening credits, in which star Mark Feuerstein is buzzed by the captioned heads of his "mother," "sister," "friend," "co-worker" and "boss." Sister Ever Carradine, friend Lauren Graham (fondly remembered -- by me -- from the fondly remembered -- by me -- Townies) and mom Linda Lavin, more fun here than in Alice, are the reasons to watch. Feuerstein, another vet of Fired Up, knows how to get around in front of a TV camera, but he's essentially a straight man, reactive, his finish matte not glossy. (And as an ad man, for that is Conrad's job, he makes Darren Stevens look like David Ogilvy.) This may be the only show on television where a grown man is portrayed as liking his mother.

Girl power is also in full effect in Maggie Winters, wherein Faith Ford leaves her philandering husband and goes straight back to Mother (Shirley Knight, half-delighted, half-annoyed, wholly wonderful). The message here is that not only can you go home again, but when you get there your furry elephant slippers and Rick Springfield poster may be waiting for you, as will everybody you left behind and all your still-unfinished business. (Encore! Encore!, which unsatisfactorily answers the question "What can NBC find to do with Nathan Lane?," proposes a similar situation, with Lane as an opera star benched by blown-out pipes settling in with Joan Plowright and sister Glenne Headley on the old family winery.) Ford's scenes with Jenny Robertson (happy) and Alex Kapp Horner (bitter) seem true to gal-paldom as I have closely observed it in the three-dimensional world. Ellen's Clea Lewis is aboard, in the exact negative image of Audrey, as from time to time is Patrick "Puddy" Warburton, without whom no sitcom can be truly called complete. Ford, liberated from the intermittence of her supporting role on Murphy Brown, is a tall glass of fizz, a percolator; she can barely contain herself, even in a pout. Well, I like it. I like it well.

And finally here come The Hughleys, in the classic mom-dad-two-kids configuration. Despite the superficially edgy premise of a successful African-American independent businessman trying to keep his black roots and find his feet in the dry white wastes of upper-middle-class suburbia (you may hear faint echoes of The Jeffersons), this is an old-fashioned, sweet-tempered show in which, just like Father Knows Best, the older generation strives to guide the younger -- with the difference that the older generation gets it wrong (oh but comically) before it gets it right. Hughley's fast-talking shtick mixes a whimsical nostalgie de la boue (Christmas memories of "stapling the sweat socks to a cardboard fireplace") with mild, race-based wisecracks, but -- except in Hughley's head -- race isn't the issue, tradition is. Family matters -- car pools, the PTA, the metaphorical doghouse, the question of pants and who wears them (Elise Neal, the delightful missus) -- are what stoke the engine. Sure-fire stuff, been working for years. Did I mention there's a brother?