Norman Lear has a new fighting family, but this one isn't funny


POLITE PEOPLE used to be raised with the admonition that politics and religion were not to be discussed in social settings. And that usually included the nightly dinner table where the family was advised to stick to timely items like when Junior's first tooth would come out or if that cute boy would ask Sis to the prom.

Such niceties used to rule in the "Father Knows Best" world of prime time until one day in 1971 when a producer named Norman Lear decided that there was a war going on -- both in the rice fields of Vietnam and the living rooms of America -- and that it was high time television started paying some attention.

He introduced a character named Archie Bunker on an unsuspecting public and television has never been the same since.

In "All in the Family," the generation gap between Archie and his son-in-law, Mike Stivic, represented a no-man's-land between competing political and social outlooks. Both sides used everything from howitzers to sneak attacks as they assaulted the positions of the other, finally delivering the ultimately affirming message that the family was perhaps the only structure that could withstand such bombardment and remain intact.

Now, 20 years later, Lear has decided that it is time to take on the other half of the be-polite formula -- religion. This important aspect of America rarely shows up in prime time, where the characters are oddly stripped of spiritual values, its presence replaced by some sort of innocuous, politically correct morality, soft and squishy, feel-good ethical positions that are rarely the subject of controversy or debate.

About the only religious references that ever show up on prime time, other than the occasional joke at the expense of an evangelist, are ethnic-styled references to Italians, Irish Catholics Jews, and even then you can feel the network types back-pedaling, trying to keep from having a show classified as having only an ethnic appeal.

And no one ever goes to church because the feeling is that they would have to go to a specific church and then you risk getting into inter-denominational squabbles. Even NBC's "Amen" uses its church setting more as a community, rather than religious, center.

Nor does Lear get that specific in "Sunday Dinner," his new half hour for CBS that gets a trial summer run starting Sunday night at 8 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL). But he does give many of the characters a definite spiritual point of view that will come into play in these episodes.

He also seems to be re-working his own most successful formula by putting an irascible father played by an admirable journeyman actor at the center of the storm. In "Sunday Dinner" it's Robert Loggia as 56-year-old widower Ben Benedict who, in Sunday's opener, has a bit of surprising news for his family -- he's just become engaged to an environmental lawyer named T.T. who is 26 years his junior, and a knockout to boot. Teri Hatcher plays her.

This is announced at the Benedict clan's Sunday dinner -- the centerpiece of every show.

The family includes two daughters -- a flaky new-ager who's just left her husband, and a no-nonsense scientist (studying biology at Johns Hopkins, by the way, commuting on weekends to the family home in Long Island where her daughter lives) -- and a son, a slightly wacko type who's always on the verge of another get-rich-quick scheme. They all meet at the house of their prim and proper church-going aunt, played by Marian Mercer.

Ben is either the eye of, or the generator of, the storm. The wifty daughter is into all sorts of spacey spirituality, while the scientist is totally skeptical of that realm. Ben's new fiance is supposed to represent the amalgam, a woman who looks at the environment as an expression of the spiritual ethos and who has no-nonsense conversations with her version of God, whom she refers to as The Chief.

All of this is well and good, but there's one major problem lurking about -- "Sunday Dinner" is not very funny. About the only laughs come from the cheap malaprops delivered by the geeky son.

With "All in the Family" -- as you will be able to see Sunday night at 8:30 as CBS has taken the unusual (and cheap) move of bringing back that venerable show to prime time as a companion piece of "Sunday Dinner" -- you always had the feeling that, whatever its jokes and exaggerations, the Bunkers were battling just like countless other families across the country.

Too often the "Sunday Dinner" characters sound as if they are delivering position papers for each of their spiritual stances rather than having conversations. And yet, because they are not going to church or other clearly identified forms of religious worship, their positions lack the kind of hitting-home specificity that was the hallmark of "All in the Family."

Indeed, in "Sunday Dinner," you get the feeling that these television writers are patiently explaining spiritual positions to an untutored nation, trying to mask their intentions with a patina of domestic comedy.

So, good intentions aside, "Sunday Dinner" ends up serving up just what America doesn't want to hear about spiritual matters -- a sermon from Hollywood.

"Sunday Dinner"

** A 56-year-old man surprises his three grown children by announcing that he is going to marry a beautiful 30-year-old in the first episode of this new comedy from Norman Lear.

CAST: Robert Loggia, Teri Hatcher

TIME: Sundays at 8 p.m.

CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)

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