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Archive for Thursday, December 27, 2007

Family shows not ‘hot’ but popular

December 27, 2007

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Phil Keoghan of "Amazing Race" hosts the "The 9th Annual Family Television Awards" (8 p.m., CW), honoring outstanding achievement in categories including favorite actor, actress, comedy, drama, new series and many more.

Just how do you describe "family" programming? You could borrow Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Perhaps the narrowest definition of family programming is something viewers from two separate generations can watch together and enjoy without feeling mortified, embarrassed or motivated to erupt violently from the recliner to change the channel and send the little ones scattering out of the room.

Not long ago, a consortium of advertisers in search of family viewers helped back the "Gilmore Girls." That smartly written, engaging and sweet show has come and gone, and its void has yet to be filled. I thought the CW had a possible winner with the fractured-family-in-the-jungle saga "Life is Wild," but that adaptation of a BBC series has yet to find or really deserve much of an audience.

"Aliens in America" also showed great promise and asked viewers to question stereotypical high school assumptions about cliques, prejudice and mindless consumption. Unfortunately, the makers of "Aliens" flirted frequently with the gross-out humor, pushing this naturally sweet comedy into uncomfortable territory for many parents. I'm not a fan of parental ratings, but it's hard to call "Aliens" a family show when it frequently earns a TV-14,D,L with gags about sex and masturbation.

At the very time when the family-friendly sitcoms seems on the verge of extinction, two of TV's most popular shows - "American Idol" and "Dancing With The Stars"- are G-rated throwbacks to the variety-show era.

Call them cheesy, insipid, middlebrow or worse - both shows fulfill a network's mandate to "broadcast," as in reaching an audience beyond a specific niche or trendy demographic. Contrast "Dancing," a show that reaches upward of 25 million viewers, with "Gossip Girl," a show about the sullen and the spoiled that barely reaches 3 million viewers.

To those who dismiss "family" broadcasting as fluff, I will also point to the example of "Freaks & Geeks," the brilliant but quickly canceled 1999 series created by the talent now responsible for the recent hit movies "40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Sure, these movies trade in some rough humor, but they also extol the essential decency and humanity of their characters. And isn't a shared humanity what we're all looking for in our entertainment?

Tonight's other highlights

¢ Earl helps Frank on "My Name is Earl" (7 p.m., NBC).

¢ The voices of Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo animate the 2002 comedy "Ice Age" (7 p.m., Fox).

¢ The black-and-white ball unfolds on "Ugly Betty" (7 p.m., ABC).

¢ Jack's rival plays dirty on "30 Rock" (7:30 p.m., NBC).

¢ Darryl demands a raise on "The Office" (8 p.m., NBC).

¢ Another tiny crime scene on "CSI" (8 p.m., CBS).

¢ Izzie talks about George on "Grey's Anatomy" (8 p.m., ABC).

¢ A movie stuntman takes a powder on "Without a Trace" (9 p.m., CBS).

¢ A homeless boy's condition raises eyebrows on "ER" (9 p.m., NBC).

¢ Insomnia on "Private Practice" (9 p.m., ABC).

¢ "Born in the Wrong Body" (9 p.m., MSNBC) profiles women awaiting gender-altering surgery.

Cult choice

Long before the latest Spears family saga, Kirsten Dunst starred in the 1998 made-for-TV cautionary tale "Fifteen and Pregnant" (7 p.m., Lifetime Movie Network).

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