Fractured Family Ties

Last season the networks committed youthanasia. Slavishly courting the young, programmers packed their fall lineups with thirtysomething angst and postteen party action. They're still burying the casualties. This season the networks--chastened if no less desperate--have widened their sights. Now the targets are anysomethings, and the bait as old as TV itself: the child-driven family comedy. Come fall, prime time's moppet population will zoom into the zillions, all of whom apparently aspire to be stand-up comics (a not unreasonable ambition considering that most of their TV parents are played by stand-up comics). There's no mystery why the industry is back in the family business. It offers the most potential customers and the least possible grief from those pesky anti-violence types in Washington. Trouble is, the looming flood of family sitcoms also presents a skewed view of family life. Three of the more dubious messages:

Nationwide, one in four families is headed by a single parent. But among television's new clans, nearly two thirds will be run by a single mom or dad. Since most of today's sitcoms are written by guys just a few hours out of Harvard, this trend seems inevitable. These people haven't had time to get a fife, much less a wife. Their single status also conforms to TV's First Law of Creative Motion: always write about what you haven't experienced--except, of course, through other TV shows.

Among ad-agency handicappers, the season's only consensus hit pick is ABC's "Grace Under Fire." Stand-up comedienne Brett Butler plays a newly divorced mother of three (mark that number). A kind of skinny Roseanne (John Goodman even does a walk-on), Butler's Grace works at an oil refinery but reserves most of her energy for male-trashing, thus conforming to TV's First Law of Gender Politics: women control the dial. How sensitive was her exhubby? "His idea of foreplay was wakin' me up." How faithful? "When I was in labor, Mr. Wonderful staggered into the waiting room and hit on my momma. " We're buying the agency line.

In ABC's "Phenom," the resident male swine is a sleazy/manic tennis coach (William Devane) who tutors the teen daughter of another divorcee with three kids (Judith Light). As irresistibly loathsome as Alex Rocco's agent in "The Famous Teddy Z," Devane purloins every scene. But the best of ABC's single-mom batch is "Thea," starring stand-up comic Thea Vidale as a feisty widow juggling two jobs and four rambunctious children in the inner city. A "What's Happening!!" for the '90s, "Thea" dispenses what child psychologists call "tough love." The kids return it, and so will you.

When it's Dad who's on his own, expect major dysfunction. NBC's "The Second Half" casts standup comic John Mendoza as a divorced father/sportswriter whose apartment-keeping would make Oscar Madison blanch. In CBS's "The Nanny," a widowed Broadway producer doesn't suspect his three kids are snooty little Gila monsters until he hires a nanny. Fran Drescher, a Marisa Tomei look--and sound--alike, is hilarious as the Queens-bred Mary Poppins with adenoids that cut like acetylene. Her favorite whine: "Don't start with me!"

The sole exception to the daddy-as-dolt formula is CBS's "It Had to Be You." Here it's the female single who's the mess. She's an overbred, overstressed Boston publisher (Faye Dunaway in her first TV series) who sucks Valium from a Pez dispenser and hasn't "moaned in the bedroom since the swine-flu epidemic." But Ms. Acid Breath meets her match in an earthy widowed carpenter (Robert Urich in his 732d series) with three sons. This isn't Hepburn and Tracy, or even Shepherd and Willis, but the sparring ranks as the season's sharpest.

what makes sitcom grown-ups so eager to behave like grown-downs? Maybe it's all those Harvard alums again. In CBS's "Family Album," a fortysomething California couple (Peter Scolari and Pamela Reed) and their brood of three move back home to Philadelphia to be near their aging parents. Naturally, they immediately revert to the children they used to be.

What moves the big-city salesman played by Beau Bridges in CBS's "Harts of the West" is an incurable itch for the cowboy life. So he, his wife and their (yup) three kids take over a broken-down Nevada dude ranch, complete--with a crusty foreman (Beau's real-fife dad, Lloyd) and assorted eccentrics. It's fish-out-of-water humorcall it "Western Exposure"--only here the main dude acts like a 6-year-old dunce.

In another pair of infantile-parent shows, NBC and Fox have hit upon the exact same premise. A newly divorced shrink--played by Kelsey Grammer in NBC's "Frasier" and Richard Lewis in Fox's "Daddy Dearest"--takes in his crotchety father-respectively, John Mahoney and Don Rickles. Supposedly, the hilarity flows when the pops and their sons push each other's buttons. While "Frasier" needs group therapy, "Daddy Dearest" should appeal to the execrable taste in all of us. Rickles pokes fun at pedophilia, liver cancer, mastectomies, obesity and irregularity, not to mention gays, Arabs and Asians. To the nonsqueamish and anti-P.C., this slashcom will bring a welcome breath of foul air.

For the only intact nuclear unit amid all this, thank Dave Barry. Actually, Dave Barry should thank CBS. The Pulitzer Prizewinning humor columnist got a fat check (for no work) from the network, and CBS got "Dave's World," a sitcom based on his life. What we get is yet another agingboomer dad who lives in Florida but actually resides in a state of arrested adolescence. Dave, impersonated by "Night Court's" Harry Anderson, plays "Louie, Louie" on his electric guitar late into the night, keeps a pinball machine in his office and encourages his bored son to quit school because "life should be fun." Of course, sophomoric outrageousness is what gives Barry's columns their quirky charm. Problem is, someone else wrote the show.

In the one-hour-drama category, the most controversial entry-ABC's "NYPD Blue"--turns out to be surprisingly conventional. True, there's lots of graphic language and some breast-and-tush nudity (leeringly filmed in super slo-mo). But this time at bat, Steven Bochco, creator of such police-drama breakthroughs as "Hill Street Blues" (and such duds as the musically impaired "Cop Rock"), settles for a solid base hit. Bochco's tale of a sensitive detective (David Caruso) lacks the edgy brilliance of NBC's "Homicide," yet it hums with energy and authenticity--all infused with Bochco's grotesque inventiveness. In one scene a ragingly plastered cop forces a Mafia sleazoid to eat his own toupee. The best news: no one breaks into bum rap.

The fall's most intriguing shoot-out pits Steven Spielberg against Superman. On Sundays at 8, ABC's pricey "Lois & Clark" will run opposite NBC's even pricier "seaQuest DSV," an underwater adventure series from the Spielberg factory. ABC claims its retooling of the Superman saga exhibits "a delightful '90s sensibility," and for once the hype rings right. This is "Working Girl Goes Sleepless in Seattle," with hyperaggressive Lois (Teri Hatcher), cuddly Clark (Dean Cain) and the Man of Steel involved in a fly-by-night triangle. Archfiendish Lex Luthor (John Shea) now looks like a GQ cover stud, while Daily Planet editor Perry White has switched his expletive of choice from "Great Caesar's ghost!" to "Great shades of Elvis!" Funniest moment: Ma Kent trying to create her son's famous flying suit as he fusses over the color, fabric and cut of the tights.

NBC's "seaQuest DSV," on the other hand, looks suspiciously like a sinker. This underwater "Star Trek" recycles Roy Scheider as the captain of a high-tech supersub defending the oceans against ecological plunderers in the year 2018. While the hardware and effects are spectacular, not so the initial script. When NBC screened the pilot episode at its summer press tour, critics tittered--especially at a scene in which a crew member assures a dolphin with an explosive device taped to its snout: "You realize you can refuse this mission." The show was promptly shipped back for repairs, but not before inspiring a couple of alternate titles: "Voyage to the Bottom of the Ratings" and "Das Bomb."

NBC has atoned, however, by producing a true dramatic gem. 'Against the Grain" uses a small Texas town's obsession with its high-school football team to get at all kinds of yeasty relationships. One is between an idealistic new coach (John Terry) and the local burghers, who canonize winners and plant FOR SALE signs on the lawns of losers. Others are between women who love men who love something indescribable. Subverting everything is the clash between the values of teamwork and a culture that makes 17-year-old boys the biggest men in town, Moving, funny, sensitively written and beautifully per-formed, 'Against the Grain" is the new season's only family show deserving of an "R" rating. Recommended for adults.