A Trend Hits Home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mary Richards, Diane Chambers and Chandler Bing would be aghast.

For more than three decades, young television characters have been striking out on their own and finding their adult identities at work or with friends.

But this season, TV characters in the their 20s and 30s - some with degrees, a few with jobs, most without - are doing an about-face on the road to adulthood and heading back home to live with - or live off the largesse of - mom and dad.

The phenomenon is so common in real life that sociologists have a way to describe it: "Boomerang Generation." Now it is being depicted in myriad ways (in 11 of 39 new fall shows) on prime-time television.

"This is the way television resonates with society. There's a lot of that going on in society - adult children not successfully making the transition to adulthood and then returning home. I see it in my practice more and more, so I'm not surprised that I'm going to be seeing it on TV this fall," said Dr. Michael Brody, a Washington psychiatrist who teaches television and popular culture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"The problem is that if it's on network television, we tend to think it's the norm, that it's OK, or that it's a good thing. But it's not a good thing," Brody said. "Adult children moving back in with their parents can be horrible for them and the parents. And it is so different from what came before both in society and on TV."

Since CBS' The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, the dominant message to viewers in their 20s and early 30s was that growing up meant finding a job, leaving your parents' home to move to the city. Mary Richards, for example, found her new home in the fictional workplace of Minneapolis' WJM newsroom.

As Mary explained it to her co-workers in the final teary episode of that landmark series, just before turning out the newsroom lights, "I thought about something last night: What is family? And I think I know. A family is people who make you feel less alone and really loved. Thank you for being my family."

The workplace as family remained the core narrative of series like Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati and Cheers through the 1980s. Although Cheers' initial focus was primarily on Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), who worked in the Boston bar where everybody knew your name, as the hit series approached the end of its run in 1992, it also was more and more about the friends who gathered there.

In that sense, Cheers was a bridge to the next cycle of series targeting young adults with a message about where they should go and what they should do to feel less alone and really loved: Go to the city that never sleeps, New York City, and find your bliss among a group of true-blue friends. Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends are the series that did the most with this resonant formula.

That history is what makes this fall's crop of new network series - dull and uninspired as many of them are when judged only as entertainment - seem so dramatically different and noteworthy in a cultural sense. With Friends and Sex and the City in their last season, it appears the cycle from the '90s is ending. Consider the particulars of what comes next:

Happy Family is an NBC sitcom with Christine Baranski and John Larroquette as Peter and Annie Brennan, parents of three adult children who just can't seem to make the passage to adulthood. The pilot, which airs Tuesday, opens with their youngest child, Tim (Tyler Francavilla), about to graduate from junior college - a proud day for the family.

But, just as they are leaving for the ceremony, Tim tells mom and dad he bought the gown he's wearing from a costume shop, and that he actually failed out of school. The next shock for the Brennans comes when they find out Tim is sleeping with the "older" woman next door, his mom's tennis partner.

There is one Brennan child who is enjoying some professional success; Sara (Melanie Paxson), their daughter, works in the financial world. But she is an emotional mess who can relate only to mom, dad and a pet parrot. The pilot ends with her in the fetal position in the laps of mom and dad, who sit on the couch looking bewildered.

All About the Andersons, on WB, features Anthony Anderson as a 30-year-old struggling actor named Anthony Anderson who moves from New York into his parents' home in Los Angeles, taking along his 8-year-old son, Tuga (Damani Roberts). In the pilot, which airs Sept. 12, Joe Anthony (John Amos) makes no secret of his unhappiness at his son's return, referring to him as a "freeloader" and a "250-pound boomerang." Tuga gets a room in the house, but Anthony must pay rent to sleep in the garage, with his electricity rationed and a lock on the family refrigerator.

WB will also offer Run of the House, which features three adult children and their 15-year-old sister living in their parents' home in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Mom and dad are in Arizona treating dad's heart ailment.) In the pilot, which airs Sept. 11, one of the brothers arrives home after dropping out of law school during the first week. The WB Web site offers this description of the adult siblings: "Sally (Sasha Barrese), Kurt (Joseph Lawrence) and Chris (Kyle Howard) are three perfect examples of The Boomerang Generation."

ABC's It's All Relative shows a woman in her 20s (Maggie Lawson) and her boyfriend (Reid Scott) moving into her parents' attached guest house. Her parents, a gay male couple (John Benjamin Hickey and Chris Sieber), consider it better than the alternative - her and the young man running off to get married. But, again, the adult children are living under the parents' roof and off the parents' money.

ABC will also offer Married to the Kellys, starting on Oct. 3, which features a young New York couple leaving the city to move back to her hometown in Kansas so they can be closer to her large family. While the couple doesn't actually move in with her parents, the Kellys of the title, they are dominated by them.

Tom (Breckin Meyer), the husband half of the young couple, is a writer who grew up in New York City. In Kansas, he is as much a fish out of water as was Dr. Joel Fleishmann (Rob Morrow) in CBS' Northern Exposure. But happiness here is defined as Tom learning to adapt to the Kellys.

The move away from New York City to the heartland is part of a mini-movement among prime-time series. Last season, WB struck paydirt with Everwood, a drama starring Treat Williams as a father who moves his medical practice and children away from New York to Colorado after his wife is killed in an auto accident. It was the first prime-time series that seemed to be responding in its own symbolic way to the attacks on New York's World Trade Center the previous year.

Now come All About the Andersons and Married to the Kellys. The latter is especially intriguing in this regard, as Tom is exactly the kind of character - young, funny, media-savvy and Jewish - that would have fit perfectly on Seinfeld, Friends or Sex and the City.

And there are even more boomerang series waiting in the wings. CBS' first midseason replacement will be The Stones, a sitcom starring Robert Klein and Judith Light as a middle-aged couple suddenly faced with having two adult children move back in.

The extent to which boomerang series are a reflection of Hollywood producers, screenwriters and directors reacting to cultural change is suggested by Marco Pennette, the executive producer of All About the Andersons, who explained where the punch line in the pilot about the son being a 250-pound boomerang came from.

"We love that term, 'Boomerang Generation,'" Pennette said. "I've been intrigued with it since seeing a cover of Time or Newsweek a couple of years ago that was about these kids moving back in with their parents after the crash of the stock market and the dot-coms. You know, they went out there, they tried it, and now they want to creep back into their old bed and pull the covers up.

"What I found interesting about the story was that most kids revert back to their 15-year-old persona," he said. "They want their mothers to cook their dinner and do their laundry; they revert back to children. And we're playing with that, too, a little bit in coming episodes."

Janet Shope, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Goucher College, said such a depiction would conform with real-world research on the behavior of boomerangers.

"For one thing, the phenomenon [shows] twice as many men as women living at home," Shope said.

While she explained that a variety of structural factors are involved overall in the phenomenon, such as a "contracting economy, high divorce rates and changing norms about sexual relations," she added that some sociologists believe more men are living at home because they can continue to "enjoy the fruits of male privilege" with their mothers doing the cooking, cleaning and laundry for them.

Like Pennette, David Guarascio and Moses Port, the 34-year- old executive producers of Happy Family, said they shaped their series in reaction to societal change. Furthermore, they believe one of the reasons their series found a spot on NBC's prime-time schedule this fall is that so many of the people to whom they pitched the idea had experienced the phenomenon firsthand.

"We know a lot of people who graduated [from] college and are our age who are still searching and seeking. And it struck us that something has changed in the last 30 years. It seems like there are more adult children who are moving back home and needing their parents' help either financially or emotionally or both," Guarascio said.

"When Moses and I were writing the pilot, we felt like there was something really resonant about it - something people were going to get, because there's real life in it. And when we were selling it to the studio and the network, one of the reasons that we had a really easy time is that everyone just sort of got it. At some point, they [studio and network executives] either lived through it or know someone who is going through it," he added.

Port said there are positive aspects to adult children moving back home, such as the young person "getting emotional support and having more choices" as a result of his parents' help. He said that while Happy Family will deal with adult children losing jobs or never finding them in the first place, the series is "going to be more about the emotional rather than the financial help" parents are being asked to give.

Indeed, the pilots for all the series described do end in true family sitcom fashion with an upbeat, affirmative message of emotional support, love and happiness being found in the new, multigenerational living arrangements - strained as they were just 22 minutes of running time earlier in the episode.

"And that's just the problem," Brody said. "These series about adult children returning home are going to present the experience in a positive light, even though what usually happens is not positive. Often, the adult child who moves back home never grows up - never individuates. And the parents don't individuate, either.

"But a commercial TV network isn't going to put a series on in prime time that makes people feel bad about themselves. Who would watch after the first week? The idea is to make the audience feel good.

"The arrival of all these series this fall is a case of television reflecting society through the minds of the Hollywood writers and producers. But once the series go on the air starting next week, then it's a case of television starting to shape the culture by offering viewers a way to feel about what's happening in their lives."

One of the major story lines of the new fall season is whether America will accept or reject these feel-good tales of the Boomerang Generation.

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