USA Today, September 30, 2003

    Real reality TV uses star's death for good

    By Bruce Kluger

    They're calling it "a journey into uncharted waters."

    No, the quote doesn't refer to the American military's
    continued presence in Iraq or the historically hysterical
    recall effort in California.

    The remark originated with ABC executives, who
    announced that the popular TV sitcom 8 Simple Rules for
    Dating My Teenage Daughter will continue this season,
    despite the untimely Sept. 11 death of its 54- year-old
    star, John Ritter.

    At a news conference, Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment Television
    Group, said, "Future episodes will take viewers into the Hennessy household as
    they experience the loss of a beloved father and construct a new life."

    In other words, although the Hennessys are only a fictional clan, ABC made the
    bold decision to acknowledge the kind of genuine, tragic events that occasionally
    befall a household, even if this one doesn't fit neatly into the warm-and-fuzzy 22-
    minute formula normally associated with the traditional situation comedy.

    The show's new season began a week ago tonight. The first three episodes were
    taped before Ritter's death. After the third episode, ABC plans to run transitional
    reruns while the show's writers work Ritter's death into the plot. Those episodes will
    air later in the season.

    Ritter "believed in this show," said Amy Yasbeck, his widow, who supports the
    network's decision to carry on. "He believed in its message: that a strong family can
    get through anything."

    This, America, is the real reality TVnot the mean-spirited, shame-flaunting
    circuses that in recent years have come to define that dubious genre.

    While shows such as Survivor thrive on duplicity and rivalry, 8 Simple Rules talks
    about working together as a family and embraces cohesion. Most importantly,
    where Fear Factor and the rest of the motley lot support the belief that, in the end,
    a champion must prevailno matter what he or she has to do to taste victory8
    Simple Rules, and its continuation despite Ritter's death, serves to remind us that,
    in real life, sometimes no one winsand yet we manage to pull through anyway.

    Time was, the situation comedy held up a mirror to the American family. After years
    of idealized Father Knows Best-type households, TV got brave and began exploring
    nuances of living-room life that were perhaps not as comfortable (or instinctively
    funny) as those of earlier sitcom scripts.

    When All in the Family debuted in 1971, America was delightfully shocked to find
    itself laughing at its own worst behavior. Archie Bunker brilliantly reflected the
    ideological bullheadednessand unspoken bigotrythat lies, at least a bit, within
    all of us. All in the Family showed us the underbelly of the America dream. As
    viewers, we were all busted.

    TV back then also stepped up to the black American family, painting a portrait of
    everyday life that provided an intimacy even the best civil rights legislation could
    not. TV programmers themselves became enlightened to the era's racial
    inequalitiesas if they needed to take responsibility for their part in the genuine
    struggle of black families. Shows such as Good Times and Sanford and Son forced
    television to acknowledge that African-Americans also deserve middle-class
    comforts. That's when The Cosby Show was born.

    Even the notion of non-family has been explored and celebrated by TV. In 1966,
    Marlo Thomas (in That Girl) became the first leading lady on TV to choose a career
    over marriage. Her mind-set would have shocked the June Cleavers and Donna
    Reeds of yesteryear, yet it inspired the birth of what would become an ongoing TV
    sisterhoodfrom divorced working woman Mary Richards to successful single mom
    Murphy Brown.

    Meanwhile, shows such as Maude and The Golden Girls reminded us that neither
    youth nor marriage are requirements for creating a family of loved onesthat small
    community of people who hover and intrude and argue, yet truly care for each

    I'm hopeful that the reality television revolution of the past half-decade is beginning
    to lose its magic. Even as viewers continue to be subjected to the freakish sideshow
    antics of The Jerry Springer Show or the downright cruelty of American Idol "judge"
    Simon Cowell, those who care about the legacy of family television have not slowed
    in their efforts to offer up new and more complex perspectives of the American

    The Bernie Mac Show introduces us to a childless husband charged with caring for
    his sister's children while she's in drug rehab. The new Luis follows the divorced
    owner of a doughnut shop in Spanish Harlem who is also his building's landlord.
    Even the non-sitcom Queer Eye for the Straight Guywhich some deride as "gay
    tokenism"has managed to do one thing no other reality show thought of: bring
    together people of different orientations and lifestyles with the simple, common goal
    of betterment. Imagine that.

    And, of course, there's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. In the
    previous season, I never watched the show. Like Ritter's character, I'm a work-at-
    home dad, also with two daughters. I figured I didn't need to witness someone else
    juggle work and home life, when I'm in mid-juggle myself.

    But ABC has changed all that. By bravely deciding to show that, even after the
    worst of family tragedies, life indeed goes onon both sides of the camerathe
    network has made me a regular and permanent viewer.

    (Photo of John Ritter by AP. The following correction ran in USA Today on 10/2/2003: "Tuesday's Forum
    column about actor John Ritter mischaracterized the marital status of The Mary Tyler Moore Show character
    Mary Richards. Richards was never married."]