The networks' new fall television season begins tonight with the premiere of Family Affair on WB. It's an ill-conceived, lifeless and sorry show, which makes it the perfect launching pad for a largely unimaginative, limp and lame lineup of new network series.
Reminding us that there is nothing so rare as an original idea in network prime-time programming, Family Affair is a remake of a series that ran on CBS from 1966 to 1971 and was no great shakes the first time around. The original, though, did at least have a bit of resonance with the larger culture, something the producers seem not to have understood at all in their ham-handed, copycat update.
The series is set in the swank Manhattan penthouse apartment of Bill Davis, a highly successful, globe-trotting engineer and very active bachelor. He is also the employer of a gentleman's gentleman, Giles French, and the uncle of 6-year-old twins Buffy and Jody, and 15-year-old Cissy.
In the pilot, the three, along with Buffy's beloved Mrs. Beasley doll, come to live with Davis after their parents, his sister and brother-in-law, are killed in an accident. With their arrival, Bill Davis, playboy bachelor, becomes full-time Uncle Bill.
Brian Keith played Davis in the original, and both the actor's persona and the story line set him up as representative of post-war American masculinity in all its success, muscle and international know-how. He was a primetime television personification of a nation's sense of itself as liberator and rebuilder of Europe. He was the Marshall Plan come to the family sitcom. The presence of the very English Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) as his butler was a constant reminder of American superiority.
Part of the humor involved the domestication of Uncle Bill as he and the cranky Mr. French reluctantly gave their hearts to the orphans dropped on their doorstep. Not that the original Family Affair consistently hit on all these cylinders, but the potential was nevertheless there.
Despite the massive changes of the past 30 years in terms of how we see our place in the world, tonight's pilot opens with Davis (played by Gary Cole) arriving home from a trip abroad and boasting to his doorman about the giant bridge he's just back from building across the Yangtze River in China.
Sorry, Bill, wrong era. The Chinese don't need us to build their bridges, and most of our best engineering minds are thinking homeland security these days. But, hey, why bother doing a real adaptation and creating a version that's relevant to today when you can just recycle scripts from the original?
OK, maybe cultural relevance is too much to ask from a WB sitcom. But how about two lead actors who don't appear to be in a coma - or standing around on the set half asleep waiting to move on to a project they can believe in?
Cole has always been wooden from the chin up as an actor, but Tim Curry once seemed to have such promise. Here he barely bothers to move a facial muscle. French is supposed to define straight-laced propriety and fussiness, not someone lost in a trance. Together on the screen, Cole and Curry are dead and deader.
As for the kids, there isn't a lick of acting talent in the lot. It takes more than casting lots of blond, moppet curls to make a family sitcom.
WB says it is going for nostalgia with Family Affair, but even nostalgia does not come this easy and cheap.
What: Family Affair.
When: Tonight at 8.
Where: WNUV (Channel 54).
In brief: A sorry family sitcom launches a lame lineup of new shows.