Reality television continues its assault on society's most fundamental institutions tonight with the debut of ABC's The Family. The idea here is to see how mean and boorish members of the same family will be to one another in an effort to win $1 million.

The answer: The 10 members of an extended middle-class family from New Jersey who are brought together to live for a month in a fabulous Palm Beach mansion are more boorish than mean in the first hour. There are, though, nine more hours to come, and the highlight clips show ample evidence of vulgar verbal attacks, back-stabbing and tears.

Will there be enough ugliness to reach the ratings stratosphere of Joe Millionaire? Reality TV seems to be demanding a new aesthetic by which it should be judged, and one of the first questions the critic must ask: How debased is it?

Despite the near-sacred status of the institution it seeks to mock, The Family rates only a "B" in debasement, due mostly to lack of focus in concept and flawed execution.

The series tries to be too many things and too clever for its own good. With both the title and the Italian-American family from New Jersey that it selects, The Family appears to be playing with stereotypes created by series like HBO's The Sopranos - not as a crime family, but rather as a clan given to internal feuds.

The family here, whose last name is not used, is headed up by a husband, wife and their grown son. They are identified as Uncle Michael, Aunt Donna and Anthony. They are the first ones introduced to viewers.

"I'm Uncle Michael, and I can't imagine not winning this thing. As the leader of the family, they would not respect me. I'm going to have to be smacking people around real fast," he says.

Next up, his wife: "I'm Aunt Donna, and my claws are out. So be careful. I'm the bitch of the family."

Their son, Anthony, is a dance instructor who identifies himself as a "playboy." He's living in a John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever time warp, and he's everything one might expect of a young man raised by such lovely people as Michael and Donna.

The other seven people living in the house are Anthony's adult cousins and the staff. The latter is supposed to provide the show's most inventive twist on the reality formula, with the butler, chef, head housekeeper, social secretary and fashion stylist forming a board that each week votes one of the family members out of the running for the $1 million.

The family members don't know that the servants determine their fate.

As clever as it might sound on paper, introducing such a strong element of social class doesn't work on-screen.

It is impossible in the first hour to figure out where the producers are trying to direct viewer identification. Is it with the arch social secretary who mocks some of the family members for their lack of sophistication? Or, is it with the family members who question some of the pretense of the upper-class milieu in which they now live?

Another major problem involves the elimination games the family members are forced to play - they are too complicated for even some of the family members to understand. And, then, there's the host, George Hamilton, doing a tongue-in-cheek take on the proceedings.

The Family wants to have a sense a humor about itself, right down to the opening credits that mimic such 1980s prime-time soap operas as Dynasty. But, in the end, it simply isn't cleverly crafted enough to have it both ways: creating ugliness to attract a big audience and then winking at viewers as if they and the producers are in on a joke that the contestants aren't.

Still, with Fox trying to build on the momentum of Joe Millionaire to further debase love and marriage via the premiere of Married by America last night, what's left except family and church? Can a show featuring 10 clerics of various faiths sequestered in a church be far behind?

And how will that one work? Will each be tempted with versions of the seven deadly sins to see which will be first to secretly denounce his or her faith when they think no one is watching? Of course, millions of us would be watching via hidden cameras in this dark winter of reality TV.

The Family

When: Tonight at 10

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Reality TV tries to prove money matters more than family.

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