The Tanner family of NBC's new sitcom ALF has an unusual pet -- an E.T.-like visitor from outer space -- but in most other respects the Tanners are the very picture of TV normality. When Dad comes home from work and gets fawned over by his teenage daughter, he instantly guesses, as TV fathers have done for decades, that she wants to borrow the car. And as they have also done for decades, he puts his foot down: no driving on a school night. "If we don't respect the rules we make, we're never going to respect each other," he says at the dinner table. "I mean, have we learned nothing from watching The Cosby Show?"
The Tanner children may still need some tutoring, but the networks have learned their lesson well. At the start of its third season on NBC, The Cosby Show has become a hit worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records, drawing more viewers (an average 60 million each week) than any other situation comedy in TV history. The show's strong nuclear family and old-fashioned values have exerted a potent influence -- at least on TV programmers. As a result, wholesome households of all shapes and sizes are proliferating in prime time this fall.
Lucille Ball, for example, is returning as a "free-spirited grandmother" who moves in with her daughter's family in ABC's Life with Lucy. Elliott Gould, Ellen Burstyn and Wilford Brimley are among the other stars who will be heading TV homes this season. Pam Dawber (Mork and Mindy) becomes a roommate and surrogate parent for a runaway sibling in CBS's My Sister Sam. In ABC's Heart of the City, a police detective has himself transferred out of the SWAT unit so he can spend more time with his motherless children. And Starman, also on ABC, brings back the alien from John Carpenter's 1984 sci-fi film and unites him with the son he fathered on his first trip to earth.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the times was the fate last season of two of TV's most famous singles from the 1970s. Both Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper returned in new sitcoms. Moore's show, in which she played a single newspaper columnist, was a flop. Harper's, in which she portrayed the mother of three children, was a ratings winner, and will be coming back this season. It joins a thriving bedroom community that includes the returning Family Ties, Growing Pains, Who's the Boss?, Kate & Allie, Webster and Mr. Belvedere. Meanwhile, outside the networks' realm, Beaver and Wally Cleaver are back + -- with children of their own -- in The New Leave It to Beaver, which started this month on superstation WTBS. And Danny Thomas, one of TV's original fathers (Make Room for Daddy), has returned as a crusty uncle in the syndicated One Big Family.