(Peter Horvath / For the Times )
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.