Where Fathers and Mothers Know Best

Despite Quayle's complaint, television is filled with families who may have faults but at least stick together

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"I'M SURPRISED, IN THE first place, that Quayle watches Murphy Brown," Johnny Carson cracked last week, just a couple of monologues before his last appearance as host of the Tonight show. "Isn't that opposite F Troop on cable?"

Forgive the easy Dan Quayle joke. (Was there ever a better week for easy Dan Quayle jokes?) Carson hinted at something important: there's a lot more on TV than Murphy Brown. If the Vice President is correct in suggesting that the behavior of prime-time characters can affect the behavior of real-life people, then the issue is not just Murphy Brown. It is the value system conveyed across the spectrum of what TV has to offer. And the fact is that, far from tearing down the family, prime-time TV these days is boosting family values more aggressively than it has in decades.

In the 1950s and '60s, TV broods were happy, homogeneous, parent-dominated units, unburdened by any problems that couldn't be solved by a heart-to-heart with Dad at the end of the episode. The era of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver began to fade during the '60s, but it didn't really end until 1971, when All in the Family presented a more realistic, unsentimental picture of family life than TV ever had before. That ground-breaking series gave rise to a string of untraditional TV families, from Maude (who defied the conventions of TV momdom by having an abortion) and One Day at a Time (a single mother, her two teenage daughters and lots of talk about sex) to such '80s sitcoms as Kate & Allie and My Two Dads.

The huge success of The Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984, rejuvenated TV's interest in the traditional two-parent family. Today relatively stable, two- parent families make up the overwhelming majority on TV: nostalgic ones (The Wonder Years, Brooklyn Bridge), contemporary ones (Home Improvement, Major Dad), farcically expanded ones (Step by Step) and lovingly close-knit ones (Life Goes On). Even hip, teen-dominated shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, 90210 have, at their center, strong families. The comparatively few single parents on TV nearly always have other caring adults around the house -- a trio of fathers in Full House, a compassionate black housekeeper in I'll Fly Away -- to reinforce the pro-family message.

Yet the past few years have also seen the emergence of a new sort of TV family: the grungy, dysfunctional clans of Married with Children, The Simpsons and (to a lesser degree) Roseanne. All have, at one time or another, been attacked by the family-values police. Married with Children was the chief target of Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta's 1989 campaign to clean up television. Roseanne Arnold has drawn fire for her crude behavior both on and off camera. President Bush told a group of religious broadcasters in January, "We need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons."

But what are these shows really attacking -- the family, or simply TV's sentimentalized portrayal of it? For all the Bundys' biting sarcasm and Roseanne's mordant wisecracks, the one thing that is never questioned is the sanctity of the family. Roseanne's rebellious kids have something most of their real-life counterparts do not: two wise, empathetic, firmly in-control parents. Even the crass Bundys -- TV's broadest caricature of a "bad" family -- have a stubborn, low-down sense of togetherness.

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