Remote Patrol: keeping a watch on TV
No kidding: A rash of sitcoms, from ''Friends'' to ''Spin City,'' think children shouldn't be seen or heard
Some sitcoms seem to be taking the old showbiz maxim of never working with kids a bit too seriously. Consider: On Dharma & Greg, Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson’s titular couple agree to adopt a supermarket checkout girl’s baby — then give it back two episodes later. Spin City deputy mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox) takes in an abandoned newborn but soon decides he isn’t ready for fatherhood. And Friends‘ Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) hands over triplets to her brother and sister-in-law after serving as a surrogate mom.
Why are infants considered comedy killers these days? ”It’s hard to let people with children be flawed,” explains Dharma exec producer Dottie Dartland. ”If someone went out and got drunk, that could be funny. But if they have a baby, it’s not funny. So it really limits your storytelling.” It also limits your appeal, says Dartland: ”Think about the first year of a kid’s life: It’s about being tired. You don’t want to tune in every week and watch people being tired.”
It wasn’t always this way. Lucy didn’t put Little Ricky up for adoption on I Love Lucy. Widower Andy Taylor happily raised Opie (with an assist from Aunt Bee) on The Andy Griffith Show. And baby Joey Stivic was a welcome addition to All in the Family. But as comedy series increasingly focused on young, single urbanites, infants became anathema. Witness the Seinfeld gang’s blatant contempt for family life — and for their married friends, always noodging them to ”come see the baby.”
What’s more, two high-profile sitcoms got the postpartum ratings blues. When Candice Bergen’s character opted to become a single mom, Murphy Brown saw its numbers soar (thanks in part to Dan Quayle). But once her pregnancy — and the controversy — was over, so was the show in many viewers’ minds. Mad About You also got a boost from the impending parenthood of Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) but ran out of creative and ratings steam after baby Mabel was born.
This pregnancy=good/baby=bad lesson seems to have been learned well by the producers of Friends, who created a story line for the expectant Kudrow that paid off with a ratings-grabbing childbirth, but didn’t commit them to keeping the kids. After all, the show already has one parent — although you’d hardly know it from the scant screen time Ross (David Schwimmer) spends with his son, who lives with Ross’ ex-wife.
This anti-infant trend has reached the point where even family sitcoms are going out of their way to avoid adding kids to their casts. For the second time in three seasons, Everybody Loves Raymond is choosing not to write costar Patricia Heaton’s real-life pregnancy into the script. To its credit, the sitcom has never made a secret out of the fact that it’s ”not really about the kids” (as the first season’s title sequence boldly stated).
But thankfully, there is still a home for children: on dramas. Millennium‘s Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) dotes on his daughter (Brittany Tiplady). Dawson’s Creek teen Joey (Katie Holmes) often watches her sister’s tot. And Party of Five just added a sixth Salinger as Charlie (Matthew Fox) became a dad. ”The reason it should work for us is our show is about taking care of people,” says Party cocreator Chris Keyser. The more kids, the merrier, we say — just as long as Ally McBeal doesn’t bring back that creepy dancing baby. (Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)
Dharma & Greg