On ABC's comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," John Ritter plays a dad perturbed by -- and, some would say, overly involved with -- his sexy blond daughter's penchant for wearing low-cut pants that reveal her thong underwear.
In the WB's "Family Affair," an updated version of the '60s classic sitcom, Uncle Bill is less avuncular than on-the-make. "Testing out the bedsprings?" he remarks, observing the twins bouncing on the bed after they've spoiled his date. "I was hoping to do that myself."
"Everwood," starring Treat Williams as a recently widowed neurosurgeon starting over with his two kids in an idyllic Colorado town, is a sentimental WB drama designed to broaden the network's audience beyond teens. And it is (relatively) pretty wholesome. Still, the scene in which the teenage son swears irritably at his father while stuffing his wet-dream-soiled sheets in the washing machine kind of stretches the notion of family-friendly.
Compared to all this, aggressively sassy kid characters now seem downright retro -- even if this means dialogue that would have gotten Beaver grounded for weeks.
"You know, I wish this father-son moment could last forever," says the smart-aleck son, grudgingly helping Dad fix the car on the WB's new "Greetings From Tucson." "Oh, wait -- it has."
Then there's CBS's "Bram and Alice," about an odd couple, grown-up family. Alfred Molina plays an egomaniacal, skirt-chasing author who discovers that the young woman he's just made a pass at is his long-lost daughter. After they get over the shock, they decide (for the usual contrived TV reasons) to be roommates.
At least with "Bram and Alice," the creators own up to the faint "ickiness" of the situation. "After you've been at church and eaten a big Sunday pot roast, don't you want to come home and watch a show about a father hitting on his daughter?" asked executive producer Christoper Lloyd, at the CBS press conference.
On other shows, the spin is much more earnest. Tracy Gamble, creator and executive producer of "8 Simple Rules," points out that his show merely reflects the edgier world of teens today.
"Go home and ask your kids what third base means," Gamble said at the ABC press conference. "'Cause I just found out and I was appalled. It was different in 1972." The notion that this just might be because kids weren't bombarded with hypersexualized media in 1972 seemed not to have occurred to him.
John Ritter added that he can identify with his character's discomfort about his daughter's dating life. He said that at first, for instance, he didn't like his own adult daughter's German boyfriend Tim, because Tim joked that he was "going to live a summer of debauchery" when Ritter asked him about his summer plans.
"He was trying to be funny," Ritter said glumly. Well, you know what they say: To hear a German tell a joke is no laughing matter.
Anyway, it's probably no surprise that "Family Affair," which has its roots, at least, in another time, is the best of the new bunch.
Despite horny new Uncle Bill and his bedsprings, the producers were smart enough not to tamper much with that fabulous old theme music and credits. These survive basically intact, evoking happy memories for a generation of baby boomers.
In my case, the nostalgia of "Family Affair" evokes all things fabulous about the '60s: pudding-from-a-box, dinner on TV trays, wall-to-wall carpeting. Don't ask me why. It's funny how memory works. Actor Gary Cole, who plays Uncle Bill, noted that in the new version Uncle Bill's luxurious New York apartment looks like it's worth $12 million to $15 million.
Cole added: "You know, the original show, all I remember is that he had two really big doorknobs."
And all due respect to the hallowed memory of Sebastian Cabot, but the scenery-chewing British actor Tim Curry is far funnier as the fussy butler Mr. French. No one can milk a line like Curry, and the "Family Affair" writers have given him plenty to milk.
"You there! You and your thuggish brother!" Mr. French yells at some nasty children at the playground bullying little Jody and Buffy. "You are not to forbid others to climb where they wish!"
Informed by an observer that he has a lot to learn about children, Mr. French remarks acidly, "I also have a lot to learn about wolves and dirigibles, and little interest in learning it."
One advantage Curry has is that he didn't have to compete in his own mind with the memory of Sebastian Cabot's Mr. French. "I was blissfully unaware of 'Family Affair' because they didn't show it in England, so I didn't really bring any baggage to it. I really had no idea what a huge hit it had been and how beloved it was," Curry said at the WB press conference.
"When we were shooting the show," Curry added, "the grown-up guy who played Jody (in the original) came to the set. And I asked him about Sebastian Cabot; I said, 'How did you guys get on?' And he said, 'Well, he was very professional. He would always say, "This is work time. This is not playtime."' And I said, 'That sounds grimly familiar.'"
Curry, who's probably best known as the mad scientist in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and the villain in the film version of "Annie," keeps somewhat in character as Mr. French when dealing with his young co-stars ... and even with others. "Children. I like them with black bean sauce," he joked.
"When you're working with very young children, it's useful to keep a part of the character in your relationship outside because it makes it more real," Curry added. "It keeps the options for comedy open. They get to torture me, and I get to torture them basically."
Curry said he was at first reluctant to commit to "Family Affair" until Gavin Polone, one of the executive producers, convinced him.
"He said, 'It's a fairytale, you idiot,'" Curry recalled. "And a light sort of came on in my head. I went home, I read it aloud, and I laughed. I thought it was funny, and I don't have to pack and go to Romania and play some Cinemascope villain."
Also, Curry added, Mr. French does have a heart of gold underneath his prickly exterior, which is, of course, the character's essential charm. (Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a butler to insult nasty children on the playground?)
"He's kind of a buttoned-up sweetheart," Curry noted. "And I love the comedy of humiliation."
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