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Dead Again

What will become of the family sitcom?

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A big fat tear is already forming in the CBS Eye, with the scheduled shed date Monday, May 16th. That's the night the network and the nation say goodbye to Everybody Loves Raymond, airing its final first-run episode after nine rollicking, profitable years on the network.

Raymond will remain a nearly bottomless gold mine in syndication, but its network prime-time reign will be over. Inevitably, that leads us to wonder if this is also the End of an Era -- a question that gets asked about once a week in TV these days. Eras end at the drops of hats.

From the beginning, situation comedies, which had started in radio, were a staple if not the mainstay of prime time, and the classic prototype was I Love Lucy, a weekly look at the adventures of a wacky Manhattan clan and its subordinate satellites.

Over the years, there were comedies about talking cars and talking horses, visitors from outer space and visitors to outer space. But the hearty perennial was always the family sitcom, realistic in setting and premise, presenting a family that reminded viewers, however remotely, of their own.

The death of the domestic sitcom has been declared many times -- in the 1960s, for instance, when the topsy-turvification of America seemed to warp and reorder the values reflected and shaped by TV. But along came producer Norman Lear and All in the Family in 1971, and the family sitcom was back and in frank new fettle. In the '80s, domestic sitcoms "died" again -- until Bill Cosby brilliantly reinvented and rejuvenated them.

Raymond wasn't particularly revolutionary, but it was a rock-solid example of a genre that's as integral to network TV as the evening news. But now -- oh, no! -- even the evening news is on the operating table, or at least undergoing cosmetic surgery. It's time to ask again if the family sitcom is out-of-date and due for extinction.

A new magical buzzword has been buzzing around TV for years now: "Unscripted," sometimes gussied up as "reality-based" or just, with stunning inaccuracy, "Reality Television." Audiences, it appears, are tired of the formulas used to concoct assembly-line sitcoms populated with recycled stars.

Unscripted or partially scripted shows can come across as less packaged and less predictable, and viewers don't seem to care where "unscripted" ends and "scripted" begins.

At HBO, scripted and "un-" have been successfully cross-pollinated. On The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling played a talk-show host with an unmistakable resemblance to Garry Shandling; guest stars played themselves in talk-show segments that were largely improvised.

The experimentation was taken a giant step further with Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry (Seinfeld) David's inspired comedy series in which David plays an exaggerated, bumbling version of himself, a bumbling social-misfit. Much of each script is written, but some of the scenes are just sketched out by David and fellow writers and then, when filmed, depend on improvisation from the actors.

Television's longest-running comedy is about a family, of course: The Simpsons, Fox's seemingly indestructible classic, so topical that it changes with, and adapts to, the times, even though its characters don't get any older. Several other family sitcoms remain on the air, but they're either terrible or just passable; they don't add anything new to the format and conspicuously lack surprises.

What television needs now and network executives breathlessly await, is a new Raymond -- a show that (virtually) "everybody loves" and which keeps the authentic family sitcom alive, even perhaps advances it a step or two into untried territory.

It would be a loss, the family sitcom. TV and its audience have become so segmented and fractionalized, but here is a program type that has the potential to bring the family together again. There's something warmly reassuring -- in an increasingly shaky and uncertain world -- about hearing that simple yet immortal phrase, "Honey, I'm home!"

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