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Eight Best Family Dramas, 11.20.03 ...

1. "Gilmore Girls." WB. Yes, oddly enough it did pop up on our previous "falling from grace" drama list. And if it is in the midst of a down year, that doesn't diminish the fact that "GG" has, in the past, been far and away the smartest, most assured, funny and moving family drama on television.

Lauren Graham plays the mom as lovingly confused as to the road map of child rearing -- which should make all parents feel better. Her daughter turned out great but the thorny issues with her own parents remain. Modern and complicated, mature and hip, it pulls off the near impossible -- making all three generations interesting.

2. "Joan of Arcadia." CBS. The trick that "Joan" manages so well is luring a young audience to a network (and, by association, a show) that screams, "My parents watch that." But the dynamics here are sound. Two parents with their own issues to sort out, three kids with varying degrees of pressing age-appropriate problems (not to mention that one talks to God regularly). All told, something for everyone, the point of this list.

3. "American Dreams." NBC. Maybe too obviously PC for some people as it tracks the hot-button issues of one seemingly close-knit but internally fractious family through turbulent decades. But the history lessons here are as entertaining as the more straightforward family-familiar plotlines. Nobody said using a family as a metaphor for post-Kennedy America was going to be easy. It's a big task and despite low ratings, fans are passionate for this series.

4. "Everwood." WB. OK, so the dead mom conceit is overused, but Treat Williams as a formerly too-busy-for-his-family neurosurgeon is great, as is Gregory Smith as his moody son -- typical of the WB's ability to mesh adults and teens successfully. The series can at times fall into a bag of saccharine, but it's a hit among the youth demographic while still remaining compelling for adults. A lot of readers have said this series has launched discussions in their homes; given the closed-mouth nature of most teens, that's really saying something.

5. "Smallville." WB. It's the Superman saga updated and given the WB sheen, but it's also a home run with the target audience. Like any series based on a superhero, there are dramatic flights of fancy that you just have to go with -- this ain't gritty reality. But more often than not the storytelling is solid and the outcome entertaining. Part of the parental responsibility, of course, is actually sitting down and doing the watching. You could do a whole lot worse than this, no question.

6. "Judging Amy." CBS. It's been around awhile, it's no longer fresh, possibly never hip and is often lost among each season's new crop. But this is still a fine family show, and Tyne Daly is about as real as you can get when it comes to characterization. Plus, it's Amy Brenneman, for God's sake. Wait, is it wrong to lovingly gaze at another TV wife/mom? This is so confusing. Anyway, maybe not your first choice but a solid show.

7. "The O.C." Fox. Granted, not for the really young. You'd hate to have to constantly explain the sexual urges, or more dangerously, the bitchiness and money lust. But still, this season's surprise hit pairs teen interest with parental interest. The acting is solid on both levels (Peter Gallagher and Adam Brody in particular) and there's enough soapy theatrics to keep everyone glued for their own specific reason. Hey, not every family show has to be "7th Heaven."

8. "7th Heaven." WB. Have you noticed a trend here? Yes, congratulations to the WB for landing four of eight shows on this list. "7th Heaven" was essentially the one that woke up the WB to an interesting fact -- while young teen girls were always the target and hipness was always the hook, staid, faintly religious "7th Heaven" became the real hit. Family shows, it turned out, weren't such a bad idea. You could still get the youth by going through the parents. Lots of practice is probably why there are so many series here -- deservedly. It must be said, however, that "7th Heaven" has pretty much covered every family storyline imaginable and is getting long in the tooth.

What's interesting to network observers is that the WB's biggest competitor in targeting the family -- ABC -- has essentially opted out of this genre in favor of grittier, more adult fare like "NYPD Blue," "Alias," "Karen Sisco" and "The Matrix."

Too bad, really. While there are restrictions on where you can ultimately go with the content of these shows, there's something to be said about the shared experience of watching TV together.

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