It’s primetime. Do you know where the family sitcom is? Among the top 10 rated shows of the 2003-2004 season, only one, Everybody Loves Raymond, centers on a family of parents with kids, along with assorted other relatives. Further down the season-end Nielsen rankings (featured in 18 June’s Entertainment Weekly), a single other family-focused situation comedy, Two and a Half Men, scored inside the top 25. One more statistic: among the 162 network shows broadcast last season, a total of 34 squeezed into this once-mighty programming subcategory.
The overblown swan songs of the grown-up-filled Friends and Frasier incited considerable wailing about “the death of the sitcom,” but sitcom kids have been on life support for years. Blame it on reality TV, crime/forensics joints, cable and all that multimedia, but have any young network-TV thespians assumed the klieg-lit spots left behind by the Drummonds, Huxtables, Keatons, even the grating Tanner girls of Full House? Where are the put-upon parents, the science fairs, the food fights, the somber drug/alcohol warnings, the hijinks?
My nostalgic yearnings seemed answered with the announcement of Quintuplets‘ summer debut. The five-teenager concept recalls the genre’s headiest moments, when more kids vying for toilet time meant more laughs: Just the Ten of Us, Eight Is Enough, and, of course, The Brady Bunch. For me, the “quints” theme also conjured memories of the few high-concept shows about twins and triplets, even though these siblings aren’t identical, and thus can’t play the switcheroo shenanigans mastered on The Patty Duke Show and Double Trouble.
The five young actors of Quintuplets aren’t related or similar-looking, but the make-believe genetic novelty is still, well, a novelty. After all, unlike the Bradys, the tykes of Kate and Allie or My Two Dads, this particular super-nuclear family wasn’t created by remarriage, death or divorce, but by crafty Mother Nature herself. That said, the current ubiquity of fertility-drug-induced multiple births makes the Chase family seem a very modern clan.
As it turns out, they’re a little too modern to fulfill my wistful pipe dreams. Bob (Andy Richter) and Carol (Rebecca Creskoff) didn’t bioengineer their babies, but did enjoy some media hoopla following the quints’ miracle births. Now that the kids are pubescent and aesthetically uneven, the gravy train of endorsements, magazine covers, and donations has subsided. “I miss the days when we would get stuff for free!” Bob laments. (Indeed, the manic pilot episode fails to establish how Bob and Carol actually earn a living to support their brood.) Bob’s more conventional harried-father complaints focus on lack of sex and private time with his wife. Frizzy-haired and practical, she’s too busy mastering a minute-by-minute schedule board for everyone in the house, even earmarking quality time sessions for parents and children.
I’m not sure I’d want to hang with any of these kids, alone or en masse. There’s bespectacled Penny (April Matson), who explains her unpopularity as a matter of choice: “I don’t eat with the losers, I eat by myself!” Her polar opposite is Paige (Sarah Wright), blond and bodacious, with more friends and romantic prospects than she can count. Paige has a male counterpart in Parker (Jake McDorman), another self-confident hottie, who scores effortlessly with the ladies. Less fortunate are gawky space cadet Pearce (Johnny Lewis) and runtish Patton (Ryan Pinkston), whose creepy, hormonally charged zingers (“There’s a rumble in my jungle!”) hint at Quintuplets‘ raunchy heart.
The quints typically bicker, but come together in pursuit of a common goal. When Mom and Dad leave them home alone to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert, the kids agree on a course of action: party! It’s the perfect venue for Paige and Parker to win back their cool-kid friends after an embarrassing misstep, and for the remaining three to wallow in their social ineptitude. By the time the night is over, an anonymous girl goes topless, Pearce and Patton are locked in an accidental homo-incestuous kiss, a thong-wearing “bitch” gets asked to leave, and Bob imbibes a pot brownie at the concert. Oh, yeah: it’s on Fox!
Although the pilot concludes with a smug nod to sibling togetherness, it’s not quite the revival I’d hoped for. Television comedy has evolved into an intermittently brilliant species, with edgier fare expanding the possibilities of both content and format (see: Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, even Will & Grace and Scrubs). And yet, kid-friendly small-screen laughs (found in series from Lucy through Cosby) are worth preserving as well, even if real-life families are more fractured and cynical than ever. If today’s filmmakers can rediscover the merits of a Douglas Sirk melodrama or a John Carpenter slasher flick, why can’t TV’s current creative types experiment with the classic family sitcom in all its pulpy, naïvely wholesome goodness, without the MTV-style jump-cuts and played-out American Pie sleaze? I’d definitely watch — and so would my inner 10-year-old.