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Infants Terrible When TV sitcins trade sweet nothings for baby talk, they lose their edge -- and their audience.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is the birth of Baby Buchman going to be the death of a once great sitcom?

That might be an unpleasant question to ask in this holiday season of good cheer, but it is one that can no longer be avoided after last week's "Mad About You," which took place entirely outside the door of Mabel Buchman's room as her guilt-ridden parents let their infant daughter cry herself to sleep for the first time.

Helen Hunt, the best actress working in sitcoms, was again terrific. Paul Reiser wasn't bad either. But 22 minutes of an infant wailing was way too much Baby Buchman for me and perfectly illustrated how goo-goo, ga-ga, baby-obsessed this once savvy, sexy sitcom has become.

For his part, Reiser insists the baby has not overtaken the sitcom, about a young couple in the big city, and says "Mad About You" has never been better.

"We've been talking about a baby for three or four years, and I was the president of the let's-not-do-a-show-just-about-a-baby club, because I wouldn't want to watch that kind of show," he said in a conference call to promote last week's episode.

"And I'm really proud of our work. I think we've done some of our best shows ever this season, and our batting average is higher than it's ever been."

But that's not what the audience seems to think. Ratings are down for "Mad About You" in this, its sixth season. It's no longer a regular in the Nielsen top 20 despite some of its weakest competition ever.

In fact, it has barely been able to beat the military drama "JAG" on CBS, while ABC has taken the 8 o'clock Tuesday time period during key sweeps weeks in November by counterprogramming with extra episodes of "Home Improvement."

Furthermore, once a darling of the critics, "Mad About You" is starting to take some hits, like a recent jeer in TV Guide about Paul (Reiser) and Jamie (Hunt) suddenly seeming strangely out of character in their cluelessness with the baby.

In its decidedly thumbs-down review of last week's cry-baby episode, USA Today called Mabel Buchman the "most ill-conceived television baby since Murphy Brown's controversial Avery."

Reiser says he had not been aware of any criticism of the series. As for charges that the baby is changing the show for the worse, he points to a history going back to "I Love Lucy" of sitcoms with babies doing just fine.

Indeed, sitcoms and babies do seem to go together like, well, love and marriage, especially during May sweeps, when everyone is looking for a ratings bump -- like the one 'Mad About You" got last spring.

But the dominant pattern going back to Lucy is that most series did not know what to do with the baby come September. Lucy gave birth in 1953. The next season of shows featured the Ricardos and Mertzes on a cross- country car trip to Hollywood as Ricky pursued a film offer. This is when the famous episodes of Lucy with William Holden at the Brown Derby and John Wayne at Grauman's Chinese Theatre took place.

Baby Ricky, meanwhile, was left with Lucy's mom, Mrs. MacGillicuddy.

The season after that, the two couples went to Europe. This is when Lucy stomped grapes in preparation for her big break in films. Again, baby's out of sight.

It was not until 1956 that Little Ricky (Richard Keith) appeared regularly in the sitcom -- suddenly old enough to play the drums and do an occasional guest shot at dad's Club Babaloo.

Baby with the bath water

A more recent birth that quickly resulted in producers realizing they had to ditch the baby to save the show came in 1991 on "Murphy Brown." Little Avery Brown all but disappeared after the controversy surrounding his birth was played for every ratings point possible during the 1991-1992 season.

And how about the trip "Roseanne" took to baby land in search of ratings?

In May 1995, Roseanne Conner announced she was going to have a baby girl. But, when she gave birth in the fall, it turned out to be a boy.

Roseanne, the star, explained the gender switch by saying she changed her mind during summer hiatus. It didn't matter, though -- we hardly saw the baby, and the sitcom was on the skids anyway.

That's another pattern: babies used as a device to shake up a series that's foundering. It almost never helps and often accelerates the collapse.

One of the sorriest examples involves one of my all-time favorite goofy-smart sitcoms, "ALF."

In May 1988, Kate Tanner (Anne Schedeen) -- the mom in the family with which ALF had come to live after his spaceship crash -- gave birth. The next season opened with ALF's adventures in baby-sitting.

The baby was all over the place that fall, and "ALF" was history by the end of the season. The problem: The acerbic, wiseacre alien was funny when he was drinking beer and trying to snack on Lucky, the Tanner cat, not when he was changing diapers on the Tanner brat.

One hypothesis about what's gone wrong with "Mad About You" centers on a similarly radical change in Hunt's character now that there's a baby on board.

"I think one thing that could have happened in this case is that they've de-sexualized Helen Hunt's character by making her a mom," says Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who writes about television and film for the Journal of Popular Culture.

"It's the old madonna-whore thing of our culture. By her now being a mother, this person is no longer as sexualized. And I wonder if NBC doesn't already know this, because, if you saw Helen Hunt on 'Saturday Night Live' recently, you saw how sexualized they made her by putting her in all these sexual situations in skits."

Sexuality -- with Jamie as the object of desire and Paul doing most of the desiring -- was a big part of the series. Remember the pilot? Remember what happened on the kitchen table between Jamie and Paul while a living room full of guests waited for the couple to bring out dinner?

Losing the sexual spark is no small matter to such a series, as the producers of "Moonlighting" and "Northern Exposure" found out.

There are a lot of possible explanations for the trouble with "Mad About You," but they all ultimately point to the baby.

Disconnected

One theory says the ratings dip is the result of viewers who don't have children losing interest in the baby-centered show. Another theory says those viewers who do have kids are tuning out, because they already have all the crying babies they need.

Brody says some viewers can even experience a form of sibling rivalry when a new child joins the cast of their favorite series and starts to get all the stars' attention.

Such viewers wind up angrily tuning the show out, in essence, rejecting it in response to the rejection they feel.

At the heart of all the explanations is an understanding that our connections to our favorite sitcom characters are complicated and deeply emotional. Once we make the leap and allow ourselves to believe and trust in a sitcom, we have certain expectations as viewers that must be met.

We know that week by week the established order of the sitcom will be threatened with some sort of disruption. But we also know that the fundamental order will almost always be re-established by the end of the episode or story arc.

Uncle Phil (Mel Brooks) might show up one week and throw the entire Buchman universe into seeming chaos with his deathbed request that the baby be named after him (using his real name: Deuteronomy).

But, then, it turns out Phil only has incredible gas, not a fatal disease, and the deathbed pledge on names is rescinded. Jamie and Paul are free to choose a name on their own and still have Uncle Phil's love.

That was last year. Uncle Phil came, Uncle Phil made everybody crazy with his old-time ways, but everything got straightened out, and Uncle Phil left with hugs and kisses at the end of the episode -- just as Uncle Tanoose (Hans Conried) had done 40 years ago in an almost identical role on "The Danny Thomas Show."

This year, though, the disruptive element doesn't leave -- the baby is still there at the end of the half-hour week after week -- and the sitcom has yet to establish a new world order with the baby in it that viewers find as pleasurable as the old one.

Despite his insistence that the sitcom's never been better, maybe Reiser understands that problem. Several times during that conference call, he spoke about the possibility of the Buchmans leaving their apartment to move into a home somewhere, saying, "maybe that's how we'll end it."

He said the producers and cast will decide in January whether or not to go on for a seventh season.

Telling moments

Looking back at tapes of the season, I can now see that the sitcom was in deep trouble from the first episode, which dealt with bringing the baby home from the hospital.

The most important space in the apartment -- the bed they shared -- was different with the baby there. It wasn't the de-sexualization of it so much as it was that the bed had been the place where Jamie and Paul had their best conversations. It was the place of their intimacy.

But in this year's opener, they used the bed only as a place to collapse silently, exhausted, after dealing with the baby. At one point, Jamie's mom (Carol Burnett) walks in, wakes them up, announcing it is time to feed the baby.

Grandma then climbs into bed with Jamie to supervise the breast-feeding, essentially forcing Paul out. When Paul returns, he stands off to the side of the bed eating a bowl of ice cream, the odd man out.

"Hey, little baby," he says to the child at Jamie's breast, "I'll trade ya."

Reiser seems unsure how to deliver the line -- yuk-yuk funny or wistfully.

There's another, earlier moment not only telling but, perhaps, prophetic.

Upon arriving home from the hospital, Jamie and Paul call Murray, the dog, over to see Mabel.

"Look, Murray, you have a sister," Paul says excitedly. "What do you think about that, huh?"

Murray looks at Paul and then turns his back and walks away, showing absolutely no interest in the newcomer.

Maybe they should have listened to Murray.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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