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 TV—not 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 prevail—no matter what he or she has to do to taste victory—8
Simple Rules, and its continuation despite Ritter's death, serves to remind us that,
in real life, sometimes no one wins—and 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 bullheadedness—and unspoken bigotry—that 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
inequalities—as 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
sisterhood—from divorced working woman Mary Richards to successful single mom
Meanwhile, shows such as Maude and The Golden Girls reminded us that neither
youth nor marriage are requirements for creating a family of loved ones—that 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 Guy—which 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 on—on both sides of the camera—the
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."]