"Ah, home sweet hell." It's Al Bundy of Married . . . With Children arriving at his doorstep, which in fact does resemble the gates to Dante's Inferno. Conversation in the Bundy family is a torrent of verbal abuse. "This is a home, not a restaurant," insists Al's wife Peg, after he demands his supper. "I know," he snaps. "If it was a restaurant, we'd have a clean bathroom."
The Conner household on Roseanne is hardly an abode of peace and contentment either. Mom has a constant chip on her shoulder -- about her job, her housework, her nagging kids. "They're all mine," she says in a moment of reflection after a Thanksgiving get-together. "Of course, I'd trade any one of them for a dishwasher."
Now comes TV's latest hit family, The Simpsons. Here the characters are animated but still a grungy, bickering lot. "Sometimes I think we're the worst family in town," says Dad gloomily. His solution is to drag his brood to a therapist, who hooks them up to electrodes as part of behavior- modification treatment. Result: they start giving one another electric shocks.
( After nearly four decades of sweet, wholesome TV clans, from Father Knows Best to The Cosby Show, a new clutch of anti-family sitcoms is exploring the squalid underbelly of domestic life. And making a killing. ABC's Roseanne is the No. 1-rated show on TV. The Simpsons, on the Fox network, is a smash mid- season success; it and Fox's Married . . . With Children, airing back-to- back on Sunday nights, have jumped into the Nielsen Top 20, an unprecedented triumph for TV's fourth network.
The anti-family shows aren't against the family, exactly, just scornful of the romantic picture TV has often painted of it. Was Dad once a pillar of wisdom and understanding? In the new shows he is either a slob or an oaf. Did Mom used to be the nurturing guardian of home and hearth? Now if she even knows how to put a roast in the oven, she could sear it with her sarcasm. TV kids have always been mischievous, but now they are bratty and disrespectful as well. Standards of decorum have gone out the window too: Dad burps out loud at the dinner table; a kid snaps photos of his mom shaving her underarms.
Why is America tuning in? One reason may be the refreshing dose of real- world grit these shows provide. "With Ozzie and Harriet, everyone felt guilty," says Barbara Cadow, a psychologist at U.S.C. School of Medicine. "With these new programs, we see that we're doing all right by comparison." Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an adviser to The Cosby Show, suggests that these shows, with their exaggerated nastiness, are an "outlet for people who feel, yeah, they really would like to knock the kid in the head, but they know it's wrong."