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Networks Bonding with Family Sitcoms

Sitcoms may not be burning-hot yet, but they're definitely getting warmer.

It's true the fall season hasn't produced that longed-for Cosby-sized breakout hit. But a genre once on the verge of extinction has rallied. Each network has staked out its own comedy-block territory: CBS on Monday, ABC on Wednesday, NBC on Thursday and Fox's animated version Sunday. And the credit goes to a shift in approach that has restored warmth to a form that had become almost fatally chilly.

For the past few seasons, the predominant sitcom tone has been the absurdist, ironic distance of The Office and 30 Rock. Both are funny, more or less (Rock more, Office less); both are aloof and generally cold; and both are more popular with critics and Emmy voters than viewers.

If that tone has turned, it's not because tastes have changed but because networks have finally noticed they haven't. The most popular series have always been those that allow us to invest in the characters, to pretend, for a half-hour, that their problems and victories matter, as in TV's most-watched sitcoms, CBS' Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory.

That desire to relate is why family sitcoms have been a TV staple: They provide a natural bond for characters and a natural entry point for viewers. As CBS proved with Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and ABC is proving again with its terrific trio of The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town, family bonds still work.

Our longing to connect also explains the revival of another twist on the family sitcom, the Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore notion of friends and co-workers as extended family. The idea thrives on CBS' hilariously endearing Big Bang, which sent Sheldon home to his mom just so he could realize his real home was with his friends.

Even NBC has made steps to add a bit of heat. Community is trying (not completely successfully) to straddle both worlds, having its con-man lead resist bonding for much of the episode, only to give in at the end. And Parks and Recreation is moving to humanize Amy Poehler's character by giving her a romantic interest and involving her in her co-workers' personal lives.

Of course, just because we like characters doesn't mean they're always likable - and just because a show is about a family doesn't mean it's for families. Men is as much sexual farce as family comedy. And this week, its CBS lead-in, Accidentally on Purpose, aired an episode in which the crisis turned on the show's man-child urinating by mistake on his baby's mama.

Which really is more warmth than anyone desires.

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