Fall TV trends: Mixed families, Hispanics and secret agents

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May 17, 2003 |

ABC-TV: Fall PlansHope and faith aren't just characters on a sitcom coming to ABC. They're also the feelings engendered in TV viewers scanning the fall schedule.

We hope the 2003-04 season will bring about improvement in our favorite shows, along with new series we actually can get excited about. We want to have faith that TV as a whole won't let us down to the point that we're forced to dig through Michael Jackson's closets again during sweeps.

But based on what the past two seasons have hurled at us, the wise viewer knows to curb his or her enthusiasm. Fall's still months away.

Remember, though the past week's "upfronts" in New York give those of us in America's hinterlands something to look forward to, they were for advertisers, not us common folk. Of course, the networks are going to paint their schedules like Monets, presenting everything in the rosiest colors.

And I'm not being completely fair, because there are bright spots. For one thing, scripted shows have trumped reality this fall season. Even ABC, where reality sprayed like buckshot all over the schedule after midseason, has only two hours per week on the fall grid. Of course, reality's quick and cheap, which makes such shows perfect Band-Aids over the inevitable hemorrhages brought on by cancellations.

And who knows? Maybe all of fall's series will be imaginative, impeccably executed concepts, producing a string of runaway hits and making us ecstatic that we're watching more TV than ever.

Ha! Yeah, sure. Anyhow, here are a few trends materializing.

Secret agents everywhere

Just as the past few seasons saw the number of police procedurals skyrocket, look for this to be the season of the special agent. Blame it on the success of "Alias" and "24," particularly the latter spicing things up by playing on very real global terrorism threats. As if news reports of attacks like the one in Saudi Arabia weren't enough, ABC's "Threat Matrix" will have its elite Homeland Security task force chasing down fake ones around the world. (Until we see the thing, elevate your TV threat advisory status level to Orange.)

But you know, the fake task force isn't the only breed this season's special agents will come in. There's super and sexy, a la Rachel Leigh Cook in The WB's "Fearless"; ridiculously power-enhanced, like UPN's "Jake 2.0"; extra youthful, like the FBI kids that Joe Pantoliano grimaces over in CBS's "The Handler."

Lest we forget our other men and women in uniform, ABC also has a show about a youthful sheriff ("10-8") and a hot U.S. marshal ("Karen Sisco.") And on CBS, "CSI's" formaldehyde flavoring also permeates "JAG" spin-off "Navy CIS" and Fox's "Tru Calling," where the heroine begins her temporal backtracking in the hospital morgue.

I feel safer already.

Seeing brown

I like the fact the coming season appears to take into account recent population shifts. Now that Hispanics are officially America's largest minority, we're seeing Hispanic actors enjoying a more prominent presence on network shows. Well, mostly on Fox. Still, that means four shows about Latino families on television: ABC's "George Lopez" and Fox's "Luis," a vehicle for Luis Guzman, "The Ortegas" and "Skin." Which soothes the sting of NBC's "Kingpin" being passed over, and "Greetings From Tucson" getting the ax on The WB.

That network is placing its bets with the second-largest minority, the black viewers UPN desperately courts. Steve Harvey is back. He has a new show on The WB, as does comic Anthony Anderson.

But let's be real. TV's embrace of minorities probably is driven less by census reports than the notion that many Hispanic and African American viewers are younger, falling into the 18-49 demographic advertisers treasure.

Living in perfect harmony

TV's modern methods of addressing our culture's differences have proven shaky at best. Currently we have shows with mixed families, like Wanda's white sister-in-law on Fox's "Wanda at Large," or interracial couples, such as Gunn and Fred on The WB's "Angel." They kiss, they hug, they love. No one talks much about the racial divide. And there's "Will & Grace," funny enough to make Middle America love gay men, in concept.

Again, haven't seen the new shows, so who knows? Maybe the coming season could break new ground. The description of "Skin," a "West Side Story" kind of thing in which a Latino boy falls in love with a rich white girl, says the topic will come up as the story develops. On "Like Family" on The WB, which has a black couple helping raise their white single friend's teenage son, race is supposed to be less of a big deal than the addition of more people into the house.

As for what to make of "It's All Relative" on ABC, which has a couple attempting to blend their in-laws -- his traditional Irish Catholic family and her gay fathers -- sorry if I'm cringing this early in the game.

Coming home to roost

Census Bureau stats for May 1991 indicated societal trends, including a recession, divorce rates, delayed marriage and advanced education, meant more adult children were living at home. While no results from the recent census seem to have been crunched yet, maybe TV knows something we don't. More likely, though, it's just more rampant cloning of last year's family shows.

CBS's "Two and a Half Men" has a divorcing chiropractor and his son moving in with his Hollywood brother, while on ABC, a fired soap-opera actress shacks up with her suburbanite sister's family in "Hope & Faith." NBC's "Happy Family" has the adult kids moving back home, as does The WB's "All About the Andersons."

On the other hand, Fox's "Arrested Development's" grown son tries to get away, but since his dad's arrest jeopardizes the family business, he has to go back to the bosom of family -- and invites his sister's brood into the household.