Miércoles 5 de Abril de 2006, Ip nº 147

Car in Every Garage, Sitcom in Every Cul-de-Sac

THE show opens with a familiar scene: post-coital 30-somethings in a pillowed two-shot. Immediately you know: this is another sitcom about attractive, sarcastic, socially active urbanites blessed with really good apartments and no shortage of dates.

"What did you say your name was?" he asks. Hmm, they might be a bit more socially active than most.

"Tammi, with an i," she coos. An i. Sounds racy.

Just then a baby's foot juts into the picture. And from behind the man comes word, "I peed," from a young boy in the same bed. The camera pulls back to a set right off the shelf from Bed, Bath & Beyond. As the boy trips off down the hall of the split-level, we know that we are not in Manhattan — or Boston or Chicago — anymore. We are in that unnamed middle place where most of America lives.

The show is "Sons & Daughters," a new comedy on ABC. In it, a well-housed extended family seems constantly on the verge of going nuclear. Cameron and Liz Walker, who as it turns out are far from single, have parents who may divorce on their anniversary, a doddering aunt who believes they are going to hell because Liz is Jewish and siblings whose marriages are happy but sexless. It seems like such a nice neighborhood, but the mortgage on the human soul is a bit dear.

That opening scene does more than just show where the Walkers live, though; in a sense, it demonstrates where television as a whole resides this season. Because now, as never before in recent memory (and TV memory is always recent), sitcoms, hourlong dramas, reality shows and all the rest of it have taken up residence at a safe commuting distance from the cities that so recently spawned all those sexy, friendly scenarios.

Just a few years ago, for a television show or film to set up house out in suburbia and depict it as a place tinged with emotions too dark for a Tupperware party seemed like a daring, provocative move. Movies like "The Ice Storm" and "American Beauty" won over critics by refusing to pretend that at a reduced population density all is sweetness and light. "Married ... With Children" and "The Simpsons" subverted the suburban ideal in broadly comic ways and then of course, along came "The Sopranos," in which the guy next door isn't just a mobster, he's a head case.

By last season the success of "Desperate Housewives" showed that suburban gothic wasn't just for cable subscribers with a taste for the macabre; it appealed just as easily to the most mainstream audiences, even the fraternity boys in whose lad magazines the shows' starlets undressed.

And this season, the balance has tipped — hard. A staggering number of programs, just like the people who watch them, now live in the land of the two-car garage. Along with a change of address, the shows are registering a change of subtext, too. The little Walker kid with the weak bladder is a reminder that seduction and consummation, the fundamental arc of most television, sometimes result in actual reproduction.

Left behind in this great migration, the urban, urbane ensemble shows that were so recently popular now look like curios in reruns, with their conjured families and quaint city rituals. Well, perhaps the search for Mr. or Mrs. Big had to end sometime.

IN a sense, it's all just a variation on television's eternal project: marooning various tribes and letting them slug it out. The good people of "Gilligan's Island" do it, the mechanical and human astronauts of "Lost in Space" do it, and even educated fleas on "Survivor" do it. So why not the residents down at the end of the cul-de-sac?

Actually, that's where so many of TV's roots were first planted. "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show," "Dennis the Menace" and, most remarkably, "Leave It to Beaver," all offered tidy life lessons on even tidier lawns. But at some point along the way television, like the kids who grew up in its glow, reached early adulthood. Suddenly the cramped confines of tenement life, with people and storylines stacked on top of each other like cordwood, looked a lot sexier than Harper Valley. There were still plenty of station wagons on the small screen, but the shows that seemed to set the pace — shows like "Cheers," "N.Y.P.D. Blue," "L.A. Law," "Seinfeld," "Ally McBeal," "Frazier," "Homicide" and "Friends" — were all situated within city limits.

That arrangement proved to have a lot of advantages. It made it easier for characters to stay single longer, and dating is always good for dramatic or comedic churn. And whenever the action fell to a lull, or the writing got a little thin, the city itself was there to fill in the gaps, a full-fledged character that always looks great and always gets top billing. Maybe "Sex and the City" didn't really give the two subjects equal billing, but it came close: Carrie chose the latter over the former on more than one occasion.

During the subway years, invoking the suburbs became a way to show that a show (or a movie) was in on the joke — that it didn't really believe all that white-picket-fence fairy-tale happy-family nonsense about life amid the crabgrass. So what if John Cheever, John Updike, Richard Ford and so many others had so beautifully proven the point, so many times over, so many years before? Situating "The Simpsons" in Springfield, the same town in which Father Knew Best, was a way of commenting on Springfield — or Springfields, generic towns with generic names in generic states. On "Married ... With Children" the title itself was a sarcastic joke — something that was once supposed to sound appealing, repurposed as a code phrase for "kill me now."

The joke was on those boring, homogeneous suburbs, and the people in the city were telling it in the glamorous cocktail lounges, penthouses and private jets where of course all real city dwellers spend their free time.

YET today no one's snickering — certainly not network executives — at prime time's predominance of well-groomed lawns. Among the many offerings are "Weeds," "Big Love," a new season of "The Sopranos," dark takes all, along with fluffier but no less toxic shows like "Laguna Beach," and "The O.C." Not to mention all those home-makeover shows, all those nanny shows, half of those wife-swap shows, and "The Real Wives of Orange County," a three-fer attempt to combine reality, desperation and geography into a ratings hit.

So what changed? How did the youthful possibilities of new job, new guy, new apartment get replaced by a sense of grown-up obligations of mortgages, braces and college tuition? And how did we end up, in the first half of 2006, in a neighborhood crowded to overflow with pot-dealing PTA moms; hardware-store owners in multiple marriages; and tattooed, wiccan home-swappers?

Unquestionably, and self-consciously, Tony Soprano led the way: it's no accident that during his show's opening credits he leaves the city, hits the tollbooth, cruises through streets of tightly packed houses and finally up the driveway to his very own McMansion. "I think it is really important that the story takes place in the suburbs," said Carolyn Strauss, the president of HBO, who was talking on a cellphone right after dropping her kids off. "Tony is an aspirational guy who was approaching 40 and his business was troubled. He has problems with his kids and his marriage, everything that many people go through in America — except he was a mob boss."

National demographics have played an important role. Locked in S.U.V.'s waiting for a familiar exit to loom up out of the sea of brake lights, half the country now lives in suburbs. Small wonder that they might respond to exaggerated versions of themselves in weekly rotation. "With the suburbs," Ms. Strauss added, "there is a sort of shorthand that goes with it."

That goes for the people who make it as much as the people who write it. "I live on a street in Pasadena where the houses are cheek to jowl and you can't help but hear the little dramas that go on next door," said Mark V. Olsen, who, along with Will Scheffer, created "Big Love," HBO's new series about polygamy among the patios. "Mark and I both grew up in places like that," Mr. Scheffer said of its suburban setting. "It is part of our personal oeuvre." And they write what they know: while the youngest of the three wives on "Big Love" does not mind sharing a husband, she draws the line and says she needs her own car. This is the suburbs after all.

But the most important factor may turn out to be creative ennui. "Between 'Ally McBeal,' 'Frazier' and 'Sex and the City,' " said Marc Cherry, executive producer and creator of "Desperate Housewives," "it seemed like the whole urban thing had been done. It's only natural that writers wanting to do something fresh would turn their attention elsewhere. Why not do something about the suburbs?"

As Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment of Showtime Networks said, "we all once believed in the bucolic ideal.

"I think we know by now that a lot of things went on behind those manicured lawns."

We also know by now that a lot of viewers, and a lot of Emmys, lie in wait.

Whatever the case, it's clear that television's long drive out of town has turned into a traffic jam, and it may not clear for a while. Stephen McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment, gave the green light to "Desperate Housewives" then found himself inundated by similar pitches after the show soared in the ratings. "When we said yes to 'Desperate Housewives,' we weren't saying that we wanted something that was set in the suburbs," he said. "In the same way that there were a lot of mediocre imitations of 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends,' people need to find the next thing, not try to mimic what has already succeeded."

  02/04/2006. The New York Times.


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