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What Happened to Family Togetherness?

As 'Home Improvement' prepares to fade to black, TV's become increasingly devoid of series that draw parents and kids alike.

May 09, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer who covers the television industry

Around this time last year, the frenzy over the end of "Seinfeld" had swelled to a fever pitch. People speculated wildly about how the show would end, and a daily flood of stories seemed to wonder if society--forget about network television--could survive its absence.

By contrast, no such hand-wringing has taken place regarding "Home Improvement," the long-running ABC hit, which is entering its final few weeks of original episodes, leading up to a May 25 finale during the last week of the current rating sweeps.

That's no surprise, really, since the program has never qualified as a media darling, despite its instant acceptance by the public. Still, "Home Improvement" represents an increasingly rare commodity: a family sitcom that plays broadly to parents and their kids, rather than catering to narrow audience niches.

Prime time once teemed with such fare. ABC historically thrived on these shows, as recently as the late 1980s drawing big crowds with comedies like "Who's the Boss?," "Growing Pains" and "Full House." Even "Roseanne"--with its earthier, more realistic approach--appealed to both adults and children.

In that respect, "Home Improvement" is, as producer Matt Williams says, a dinosaur--one that differs from other modern hits like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frasier" in terms of tone.

"Seinfeld," in particular, wallowed in a kind of nasty self-absorption--a point flatly made by its finale, which found the central quartet guilty of indifference toward the rest of humanity. Countless series have tried to emulate that attitude, which through years of cloning has devolved to the put-on "It's all about me" veneer of CBS' new cure for insomnia, late-night host Craig Kilborn.

Those imitators seldom succeeded, but there are still plenty of shows wallowing in neuroses and the unending quest for sex by urban singles. The sheer volume of such shows on NBC, including "Suddenly Susan," "Caroline in the City" and the since-departed "The Naked Truth," prompted one producer to quip that the network's Monday lineup could be promoted as "pretty white chicks living in New York who can't get laid."

By contrast, relatively few programs have attempted to occupy the same creative neighborhood as "Home Improvement," which premiered in 1991 just as another family hit, "The Cosby Show," began its final season.

Like "Cosby," "Home Improvement" focused on a loving couple who sparred but were clearly devoted to each other. Tim and Jill Taylor had three boys, who often found themselves caught between their father's infatuation with power tools and their mother's desire to instill in them some degree of culture.

One episode framed this conflict especially well. Tim, charged with squiring his son to the ballet, at the last minute landed terrific seats to a basketball game. He tried to secretly take the child to both, only to be undone when Jill noticed mustard stains her son picked up at basketball, not the ballet. Dense but always well-meaning, Tim showed his contrition by assembling a tape splicing basketball footage together with ballet leaps.

Compared to dramas of the last decade and even "very special episodes" of sitcoms, these were not exactly weighty matters. Indeed, the plots were usually no more dire than the sort of problems experienced on "Father Knows Best" decades earlier. The closing credits fed this genial atmosphere, featuring outtakes that fostered an impression the performers themselves were having a grand old time.

Fittingly, the comedy piled up People's Choice Awards while programs delivering smaller ratings--including "Seinfeld," which "Home Improvement" pummeled in the months they aired opposite each other in 1992--amassed more coveted industry-voted honors.

If awards generally eluded the show, its commercial achievements alone were impressive. "Home Improvement" ranked among TV's five most-watched shows for two seasons before topping the prime-time charts in its third year. The series eliminated countless competitors, scoring a one-punch knockout of one show, a drama titled "South of Sunset," which CBS canceled after a single telecast.

Scheduled against "Frasier" in 1994, "Home Improvement" easily out-rated the five-time Emmy winner, with the gap narrowing as ratings for the rest of ABC's lineup gradually collapsed. This year the show moved to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and chased another venerable NBC comedy that has won a few Emmys, "Mad About You," out of that time slot.

Not confined to success on ABC, "Home Improvement" reruns have done well in syndication, generating more than $800 million in revenue. Nevertheless, Allen and the producers have bristled about the lack of artistic recognition, once saying the media saw the show as "this 800-pound gorilla" that beat up on critical favorites.

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