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Family-Show Foraging, 12.12.02 ...

After I panned the holiday movie Miss Lettie and Me, some outraged e-mailers took me to task.

``At least it wasn't about robbery, murder or other evil in the world,'' said one.

Another said it was nice ``to have some family movies we can watch together.''

``I happen to think (with the world in the shape it's in) we need some romantic old-fashioned movies,'' said a third.

While I don't back away from my criticism of the movie, all these notes were going to an issue that plagues all of us as viewers: the seeming lack of nice shows that families can watch together.

That need has sent some families fleeing to channels such as TV Land, where they can watch old-fashioned comedies such as I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch, Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show, or to Nickelodeon for The Cosby Show. They may be older shows -- and they're often trimmed to make room for 21st-century commercial loads. But part of their appeal is that, as grown-ups, we can revisit shows we comfortably watched with our parents.

After all, in contemporary prime time, many popular shows just are not family viewing. NBC's Friends and UPN's Buffy the Vampire Slayer air at 8 p.m., in what used to be considered a family hour, but both have embraced adult content, especially where sex is concerned.

On the other hand, some shows pass themselves off as family shows, such as The WB's 7th Heaven, but are also very bad.

And when a good family show -- ABC Family's State of Grace, say, or the likable but short-lived NBC comedy Built to Last -- does come along, its audience sometimes proves too small to satisfy the network overlords.

And by now, I've probably irked some of you. (I can see the 7th Heaven fans are lurking out there.)

When we decide what makes a good family show, we bring to the decision what we watched as kids, what we think is appropriate for our own offspring, and what will entertain our own jaded selves.

As much as I love The WB's Gilmore Girls -- and have watched it with my sons -- others have objected to its language and to Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) sleeping with her ex-husband.

All of our viewing choices as families involve broad considerations about proper levels of sex and violence. Still, those judgments are often subjective. (Complaints about Gilmore make me want to say something more suitable to NYPD Blue.)

Viewers also make decisions based on concerns about faith, morality and politics in shows.

One media watchdog group built a 1994 guide to prime-time TV around the way shows handled conservative issues, with its highest rating indicating ``conservatives will find this show acceptable.''

A year later, the group changed its guidelines, redefining the most acceptable shows as ``family-friendly... promoting responsible themes and traditional values.'' But you can still see concerns that go beyond a TV character's possible use of profanity.

Although profanity, by itself, is a big enough problem. There have been phrases used in prime-time, broadcast network shows that I'm not allowed to print in this space.

So what's a family to do? Well, there are those reruns of old shows. Another alternative is to seek out favorites on home video. (The great ABC drama My So-Called Life is now in a box set.) Then you've got a supply of good programming for those nights when, in spite of the dozens of channels out there, it really seems that there is nothing on.

Another course -- at least when there are younger children in the house -- is to find a children's show that you'll like, too.

I'm not crazy about the makeover Sesame Street underwent earlier this year, but the idea of it still makes me smile. And in supposed kid shows such as Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants reside a sensibility that can make a grown-up laugh.

Just as you might look for entertainment in children's shows, think outside prime time in your search for material -- then tape it for viewing later. Game shows still provide a lot of family pleasure, whether it's a war horse such as Jeopardy (which hooked both me and my 13-year-old again earlier this week) or newer fare such as Pyramid and the syndicated version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

Not that every game show is safe, as Fear Factor weekly demonstrates.

On the other hand, the much maligned reality genre can offer some family pleasures.

Stay away from Survivor, which has surprised family audiences with its language and occasional violence. Forget those looking-for-romance shows unless you want your children to think true love comes only when cameras are turned on. But The Amazing Race is energetic entertainment with far less of the social intrigue of other reality games.

Beyond that, you could try to settle for flawed but semi-palatable material. 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter -- the ABC sitcom with John Ritter as a harried father -- has attracted a family audience, even if it's not very good.

The same thing has apparently happened with ABC's My Wife & Kids, which won aratings-battle with the funnier Bernie Mac Show, which at least in my house has a nice family feel.

Pax has gone the family route with series such as Docs, the medical drama starring Billy Ray Cyrus. But while they can have their effective moments, they're of modest quality most of the time.

Comedies such as Fox's The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Malcolm in the Middle are often funny looks at family life. Still, when it comes to content, your mileage may vary.

Those Fox shows air on Sunday nights, which is about as close to a family night in network prime time as you'll get. It also includes Doc and NBC's earnest drama American Dreams, which has the dubious distinction of being NBC's token family show. It's not that good, but it sure tries.

As do most parents. They have to, because it's not easy to find shows that have good messages and quality productions, and that people of many ages will watch. Even then, the watching is the easy part. The bigger challenge comes afterward -- when you need to talk as families about what you've seen.

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