The Friends and Family Plan
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Most sitcoms are fundamentally about families, but a lot of them have the good sense to eliminate child actors by masquerading as workplace comedies. The dynamics are still the same--nominally responsible people or authority figures find themselves in constant conflict with their less mature colleagues--but the shows get a free laugh by making grown men or women act like seventh graders. This dodges the problem of finding actual seventh graders who can act.
There still exists, however, the demand for a family sitcom. It's understandable: People want to see their lives reflected in a simplified and entertaining way, and for a lot of people, life includes children. Besides, kids can be funny; one seven-year-old reading a copy of Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets can provide hours of entertainment. The real trick is in how to approach raising a child in a humorous way without resorting to story lines that seem tailored to the child in question.
NBC, which typically skews its programming toward people more likely to shop at Pottery Barn than Toys 'R' Us, is now attempting to corner some of the family-friendly audience without alienating the people who prefer Frasier and Will & Grace. In an ideal world, NBC would have aired a show where the comedy comes from the parents wondering how to maintain some semblance of adulthood in a life overrun by Harry Potter. Unfortunately, in this world, NBC gave us Hidden Hills.
The show's title invites Beavis and Butt-head-style comments like "Her hills are hidden, huh-huh," which is roughly the operating level of sophistication for the plot lines and dialogue. The opening episode centers on the scandal that comes when a single mom--who is also an online porn maven--moves into the neighborhood. This could be problematic in some neighborhoods, but Hidden Hills takes place in a tony L.A. suburb, mere miles from the American pornography industry's epicenter. Which is to say that the Scarlet Letter-style moralizing seems out of place.
Anyway, after Belinda Slypich (Kristin Bauer) moves in, everyone begins referring to her as the "porn mom," which is probably the most concise encapsulation of the Madonna/whore complex ever. Hidden Hills' main character, the supremely annoying Doug Barber (Justin Louis), spends most of his time entertaining Risky Business-style fantasies about his neighbor and being flustered that this brazen hussy would dare to think that she could break out of her sex-object role to do things like parent her daughter or coach a softball team.
After a recent episode, Belinda was packed off, presumably to the same place Katherine Ross got sent at the end of the Stepford Wives. It's also the place where the children are stored unless they're needed to create the illusion of a hectic suburban life. The kind of hectic life where people are busy by choice (assorted soccer-mom activities, offhand references to demanding careers) and not by necessity (juggling a part-time retail job that fits with the kids' school hours, handling caretaking duties for an elderly parent). In the weeks since the Porn Mom debut, viewers have been subjected to an episode in which Doug has to begin taking responsibility for birth control after his wife Janine (played by Paula Marshall, visibly relieved to be on a show that's not in imminent danger of cancellation) has to go off oral contraceptives for medical reasons. The birth-control debate is one plenty of grown-ups have, but it typically doesn't end up with the man (i.e., Doug) going through fits of embarrassment over having to buy condoms. Doug's biggest problem is having other people know he's planning on having sex. This guy already has two kids; did he cringe through both of Janine's pregnancies? Hidden Hills shoots for an irreverent tone, but ends up squarely in "immature."
If NBC wanted an adult family comedy, they could have passed on Hidden Hills. Their best new family sitcom is actually the network's Thursday-night powerhouse, Friends. When Rachel contracted a case of pregnancy last year, I groaned in anticipation. Experiences with Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and other sitcoms have borne out the conventional wisdom "When in doubt, bring on the cute kids!" The show's previous pregnancies had been relatively trouble-free, in part because the children were bundled away at the earliest possible opportunity. But this one involved Rachel and Ross, one of the axes on which the show spins, and the potential for a season or four of mommy-and-me classes at Central Perk was high.
But the entire baby-Emma story line has changed the show for the better. There were a few years there when Friends seemed more sad than funny: The characters didn't move forward in their lives, and as they began pairing off, it seemed as though their world was twisting in on itself and getting smaller. The culmination of this hothouse social atmosphere--two Friends having a baby--has begun pushing the six apart. While Ross still has an awful lot of free time for someone who's trying to be a parent to two different children in two different households, he doesn't have enough time to stay planted on the couch at Central Perk. And the group's dynamics have begun to more accurately reflect what happens when you and your friends move deeper into adulthood: You stop hanging out in a pack and begin catching each other whenever your schedule permits.
Emma also remedies one of the other problems the show had--characters who had ossified to the point of becoming caricatures. While Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow had been quietly embroidering their characters' personality traits for the last few seasons (consult the syndicated episodes from season six Phoebe if you don't believe me), it took Emma to affect the way Ross, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler were acting. The best traits of their characters--Rachel's streak of pragmatism or Chandler's ironic perspective--have been amplified even as they've been redirected toward dealing with nanny-hiring or relocation to Tulsa.
The friends have grown up, which is what parenthood does to you. How ironic that the ultimate surrogate-family sitcom has morphed into a real family comedy.
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