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Family first in prime time


Last fall, the media were full of stories about how 9/11 was going to affect popular culture. There was only one problem with all of them: It was way too early to discern anything but the most superficial effects, such as dramas like The West Wing doing overt and generally not very effective episodes about the terrorist attacks themselves.

If you want to get a first look at one of the ways popular culture really processes and then responds to such a shock to the national psyche, check out tonight's premiere of Everwood, a new WB drama starring Treat Williams as a rich and famous New York City neurosurgeon who gives up his thriving practice and moves himself and his two kids to small-town Colorado after his wife is killed in an automobile accident. Once they are settled in the town of Everwood, he starts practicing medicine again -- but this time as a family doctor seeing patients for free.

The WB thinks it has finally found the perfect complement for its much-praised 7th Heaven drama on Monday nights.

"This drama continues the family-first viewpoint of 7th Heaven but offers a different sensibility from the perspective of a man who is reinventing his life and rebuilding his family," Jordan Levin, the head of programming at the WB, says in a press release.

As much as I hate to agree with anything a network executive says in a press release, I think he might be right. The themes of family first parents' rededication to their families over their careers have certainly been sounded throughout the culture in response to lives taken and families tragically shattered by last year's terrorist attacks.

Spending more time together as a family was one of the most consistent answers heard last week during anniversary coverage when people were asked how their lives have changed. The networks are trying to tap into that mood with a number of series this fall that celebrate family like it hasn't been celebrated since the Reagan era of the 1980s with series like Family Ties and The Cosby Show.

The difference between this year and last is perhaps best illustrated with a scene from Everwood in which a man with cancer of the brain comes to Dr. Andrew Brown (Williams) as a last chance. Before his own wife's death, Brown told such patients he could save them. Now, back at work after her death, he comes to this man's bedside just before surgery and tells him to forget the operation, go home to his farm and spend what time he has left with his family.

"I can't save your life," Brown says. "At best, I can prolong it eight months, a year. And most of that time you'll be barely coherent recovering from surgery. And that's all so that this hospital can brag about its statistics with terminal illnesses. But statistics don't measure quality of life. If you have even the slightest hope of preserving your own, you'll get out of the bed and leave here as fast as your legs will carry you."

Last year, the pilot for an ABC drama, Gideon's Crossing, had an almost identical situation with a terminal cancer patient coming to a world-famous surgeon, played by Andre Braugher. The hour was spent with Dr. Gideon heroically trying to save him. There was no talk about quality of life and family.

From its opening images of the New York skyline to its sense of mortality, loss and then strength found in family, Everwood certainly seems to have the potential to connect with the culture. But, understand that being culturally relevant doesn't automatically make for hit television. There's this little matter of also needing to be entertaining. You have to first engage the audience before you can work your symbolic and cultural mojo on it. On this count, Everwood is far less promising.

I like Williams as an actor, always have. But he can sink to the level of those around him, and I'm not too sure about the kids in this drama -- Vivien Cardone as his 9-year-old daughter Delia, and Gregory Smith as his 15-year-old son, Ephram. On the other hand, who knows with kids anyway? They could get better in a hurry.

The writing also has a tendency to go a bit gooey in the middle when it tries to take us inside intimate moments between Brown and his kids. On the other hand, 7th Heaven isn't exactly Six Feet Under either when it gets family personal. Maybe sweet, soft, sentimental and teary-eyed are the ways bedside chats between parents and kids are best played for a family-first audience.

As entertainment, I'm not all that crazy about this pilot. But, as a cultural barometer, Everwood bears watching, especially by those who claim they want more family-friendly programs.


What: Everwood

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WNUV (Channel 54)

In brief: The family-friendly drama as response to 9/11-related anxieties

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