''Cosby,'' ''The Nanny,'' ''Friends,'' and more are reviewed and compared for funniness and family viewing
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A review of the 8 p.m. family hour

I must admit that when I first heard the breaking news of a nanny conviction in Massachusetts, my heart leapt at the sudden possibility of Fran Drescher facing 20 years without parole. Alas, Drescher and her version of child-care abuse, The Nanny, remain at large to mess with innocent young minds tuning in to CBS on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. The sitcom, now in its fifth season, is a curiosity: It has successfully masqueraded as an ”8 o’clock show” — that is, one supposedly designed for the whole family to enjoy — despite its quantity of corny, sniggery sex jokes that seems to increase with every passing year.

The Nanny‘s premise hinges on whether Drescher’s character will Do It with her employer, Mr. Sheffield (Charles Shaugnessy) before his horny-harridan business partner (Lauren Lane) Does It with him first. It’s all so creepy; a joke on the Oct. 22 episode commenced with a big yuk about the Kama sutra. Most of the time, I don’t think I’m old enough to be watching The Nanny.

The whole notion of a ”family hour” from 8 to 9 on network television — 60 minutes of good (well, more often mediocre) clean fun that assured parents they wouldn’t be conducting bedtime chats to explain to a trembling little Johnny or Janey the meaning of menage a trois — died some years ago, when it dawned on the nets that they make more advertising moola when they draw a young-adult demographic. The next thing you knew, NBC’s Friends was being pushed back to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Like The Nanny, Friends trades on regular Do It jokes; unlike The Nanny, they’re funny and non-creepy. In fact, Friends is now the most underrated component of Must See TV, and this season, the freshly invigorated Matthew Perry and a delightfully uncorked Courteney Cox are especially strong, as is the new love interest for Perry’s Chandler, played by the charmingly brisk Paget Brewster.

Spin City (ABC) is one 8 p.m. show with absolutely no pretensions to kid appeal. It fights the good fight against The Nanny on Wednesdays, with performances from Michael J. Fox and Michael Boatman that combine subtlety with slapstick to achieve the quality their punchlines frequently lack. The Mad About You family (NBC, Tuesdays) has a baby but also its own kind of childproof lock: No self-respecting kid wise to Paul Reiser’s arsenal of wincing and whining from his AT&T commercials would be caught dead watching a full-length sitcom version of it.

A rare current example of a show that’s become more suitable for family viewing is the new season of Cosby (CBS, Mondays). In September, two things changed in this show: (1) A preschool opened next door to the home of Hilton and Ruth Lucas (Cosby and Phylicia Rashad); and (2) Bill Cosby started talking directly to the camera. The first alteration permits the Cos to do what some think he does best — interact with cute tykes. (In fact, CBS thinks he does it so well they’re giving him a second series, Kids Say the Darndest Things.)

The second change is an old TV stunt: George Burns was looking into the camera and commenting on the sitcom action 40 years ago. Nonetheless, this shtick works well for Cosby, who thrives on confiding hard-won comic truths to his audience. The result is now a more sparkly, prickly Cosby.

Friday remains the last bastion of aggressive family-hour promotion. On that night at eight, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch on ABC and Family Matters on CBS commence two-hour slates of kiddie programming. Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel may be a bit longer in both tooth and pants, but his series still provides more belly laughs than, say, Mad About You. And Sabrina is junk TV at its liveliest, with a gratifyingly strong pair of female role models in Sabrina’s foster-parenting witch aunts (Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick). I trust their firm ways with Sabrina far more than the Nanny’s hot-pantsed permissiveness. The Nanny: D Spin City: B Cosby: B Mad About You: C Friends: A- Family Matters: B- Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: B+

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