The current abundance of unsettling information about war in our newscasts seems to have brought about an increased need for a certain balm, a more soothing tonic from the world of entertainment. Bernard Weinraub's October 31 New York Times article explored the ratings growth this season for several comedy series - most notably NBC's "Friends," whose viewership is up more than 20 percent - concluding that it's probably a consequence of September 11.
The consensus among the sitcom producers quoted in the story is that they should steer clear of war and terror and simply seek to amuse.
Kevin Bright of "Friends" remarked, "If we were a drama, we'd deal with [the situation] in a more realistic way, but right now we think the best job we can do is to help people laugh." David Kohan of NBC's "Will & Grace" said that the series' bigwigs "didn't know of a gracious or poignant or humorous way to deal with it, and we concluded the show was pure escapism and that's how we serve the audience." Philip Rosenthal of CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond" contended that "there's something to be said for pure diversion, and that's one reason we have never mentioned current events and we never will."
CBS executive vice president David Poltrack took it a step further. He told Weinraub that there's been "an increase in not only the numbers of homes watching television, but [also in] the numbers of viewers watching television together. This is the old traditional family experience, as opposed to fragmented viewing on multiple sets in the house."
Families gathered in front of the television set? Sounds good, but before we break out the popcorn, let's ask: What are they watching? "Raymond" is not truly suitable for youngsters, but its portrait of an exasperating-but-ultimately-deeply-loving marriage is delightful. On the other hand, if "Friends" and "Will & Grace" is to be seen as today's version of "the old traditional family experience" - well, how do I put this gingerly?
I don't. We're sunk.
Gather 'round, boys and girls, and let's watch the Big News on "Friends" this fall: Rachel is pregnant! And she's not married! It's sooo cool!
It was fewer than ten years ago that Dan Quayle created a firestorm by denouncing the celebration of single parenthood on "Murphy Brown" and was shellacked for doing it. But when the silly season of politics was over, the conversation continued and in time, just about everyone - including Bill Clinton and Al Gore - was agreeing with him.
Now "Friends" is running its torqued-up version. During the family hour. And no one cares.
Maybe it's because it's one of the least objectionable things about this show. The second "Friends" episode this season tried to mine humor from such topics as a porn movie called "Dr. Do-Me-a-Little" and hotel sex ("We got a late checkout. It was the best sex we ever had, until, you know, he screamed out 'Radisson' at the end"). The third episode dealt with Ross and Joey's astonishment that condoms only prevent pregnancy 97 percent of the time. The fourth centered on the videotape of the lovemaking that resulted in Rachel's pregnancy.
In its most recent episode, "Friends" diversified, taking on not one, but two bodily functions. Sure, there were plenty of sex gags, but the real hilarity ensued at a Halloween party when people thought Ross, who was actually wearing a potato costume, had come dressed as...excrement.
"Will & Grace," which airs at 9 o'clock, is, if possible, even worse. With two of the four main characters being homosexual, the writers have, as it were, a larger field to plow. For example, when Grace's boyfriend says, "There's nothing like hopping on your hog" - his motorcycle - "first thing in the morning and riding it until your butt gets tired," the very gay Jack responds with this kneeslapper: "You're preaching to the choir, OK?"
You could hear the roar from the studio audience (and perhaps from the laugh track). You couldn't hear the dismay from those who find such a line - and the many others like it on "Will & Grace," such as the one about the gay bar that serves a drink called the Penis Colossus - utterly, unspeakably tasteless.
Will prime time ever clean up its act? Probably no time soon. The other night, HBO's R-rated "Sex and the City" won the Emmy for best comedy series. For the networks, this'll be yet another reason to ratchet up the raciness: not only does sex (supposedly) draw viewers, it also wins awards.