Hollywood Analysis: Bringing up baby?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  May 12, 2003 at 7:20 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 12 (UPI) -- Sharp-eyed observers have noticed that Rachel's baby hasn't been seen much on "Friends" lately, and suggest that ratings concerns are behind the disappearance.

Daily Variety pointed out in a recent article that the baby, Emma, hardly shows up anymore.

"Apparently, producers realized that while having a baby is good for ratings, raising one isn't," said the showbiz bible.

The article points out that Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is everywhere to be seen -- in the coffee shop, at the spa, even on dates -- "without reasonable mentions of the toddler she had with 'sometimes' beau Ross (David Schwimmer) last season."

The writer found it strange that the top-rated comedy would make such a big deal out of Emma's birth last season, and then virtually ignore the little bundle of joy so quickly.

There are precedents to support the theory that childbirth is better for ratings than actual child rearing.

The Paul Reiser-Helen Hunt comedy "Mad About You" enjoyed a ratings spike when baby Mabel was born, but the show seemed intent on proving the adage that children should be seen and not heard. Mabel was still an infant when she became little more than a crying sound effect in the next room -- but she quieted down long enough to be virtually gone from the premises before viewers finally weaned themselves from the show altogether.

"Murphy Brown" took so much heat from social critics when she had a son out of wedlock that it might have been impossible for the Candace Bergen comedy to get rid of the boy as easily as "Mad About You" disposed of its newborn.

Avery Brown hung around for all of "Murphy Brown's" final three seasons -- just long enough to introduce viewers to a young actor named Haley Joel Osment. He went on to star in "The Sixth Sense" and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," movies in which the presence of young people was not just valued -- it was integral.

The example of "Friends" and "Mad About You" brings to mind a historic event in American TV -- the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky. TV viewers gathered in record numbers for the 1953 blessed event, but the child only showed up occasionally after that until 1956 -- when Richard Keith joined the show for one season as Little Ricky.

All this may suggest that infants on the set are not healthy for ratings, but the history of TV comedy indicates that viewers love kids -- and have since the earliest days of network TV.

"Father Knows Best," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver" all enjoyed long runs -- entertaining American audiences with mostly kid-glove treatment of every day family problems.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" featured Larry Mathews as Ritchie Petrie -- and gave him some pretty good laugh lines. "Happy Days" and "Family Affair" were as much about the kids as the grownups.

The 1980s hits "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement" also featured kids who grew up from one season to the next. TV viewers got to see "The Cosby Show" kids grow up and move out, in some cases, establishing lives -- and spinoff shows -- of their own.

One of the few '90s shows that allowed kids to behave like children -- rather than small grownups -- was Cosby's "Kids Say the Darnedest Things." More recently, "That '70s Show" and "South Park" featured youthful characters with post-adolescent attitude.

"Ally McBeal," a legal comedy in which the adults behaved like children, didn't have actual children in the cast, but it used a powerful image -- the surreal "dancing baby" -- to discount children.

"The Simpsons," on the other hands, owes much of its phenomenal success to its treatment of children.

The long-running animated comedy has come to feature Homer, the dad, more than the rest of Springfield's dysfunctional extended family. But it was the wayward son Bart who initially carried the show and it must be said that Bart and his sisters, Lisa and Maggie, have not aged a bit since "The Simpsons" first hit the air in 1989.

It must also be pointed out that the adults in Springfield also have a lot of growing up to do. Through it all, Maggie remains a pacifier-sucking infant with little to do -- beyond shooting and critically wounding the town's No. 1 capitalist.

"Who Shot Mr. Burns" turned out to be a critical and commercial smash hit for "The Simpsons," but don't expect "Friends" to put a gun in Emma's baby fist. As it plays out its final season on NBC in 2003-04, there should already be more than hype to kick it to a spectacular ratings finish this time next year.

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