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Dead Tree Alert: Terra Nova; Plus, What Is "Family TV," Anyway?

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In this week’s TIME comes my disappointed review (subscription required) of the two-hour pilot of Terra Nova, which premieres Monday. This is a good time to repeat the caveat that a review is not a prediction of ratings: I will be surprised if Terra Nova is not the highest-rated new-series debut of the season. It’s a cool premise and an effective dinosaur-delivery device (though we’ll have to see how much CGI stays in after the long-in-production pilot). And it’s made itself a TV event before event debuting: put simply, people want to watch the show, and want it to be good. But as I say in the review, that doesn’t change the cliched dialogue or the stock-type characters; I only wish someone had spend one tenth the time figuring out its humans’ personalities as they did what the dinosaurs should look like.

I kind of don’t want to tell you this. Because it’s not just me who wanted to like Terra Nova. When I’ve talked about it over the summer, to other critics and to TV civilians, a recurring theme I heard was that people really hoped it would deliver–partly, when I was talking to other parents, in the hope that there would be a really good primetime TV show that “the whole family could enjoy.”

But is that an excuse for weak writing? I’ve already gotten a sense from some of the early coverage of Terra Nova that it will be cut some slack for precisely that reason–that is, it’s a show for grownups and for kids, and so one can’t expect much originality in the script. That offends me. It’s sort of how I feel about restaurants that load up their kids’ menus with the same breaded chicken fingers, assuming that that’s all that kids will tolerate.

We can debate that point when it comes to food. But when it comes to TV, I think I’m on pretty solid ground. As I wrote in my review, I couldn’t shake the sense watching Terra Nova that its creators felt that “family entertainment” means predictable, familiar characters.

But kids respond to great entertainment when they see it–be it Sesame Street or Harry Potter or Wall-E. I mean, yes, I think we can all agree a show for the parents and the kids will not have full-frontal nudity (at least not involving humans). But if you want to argue that “family entertainment” means you have to avoid sophistication, philosophy or original voice, Charles Schulz had an entire life’s work that argues against you. You may like Terra Nova better than I did. But no TV show–or movie, or book, or anything–needs to be graded on a curve because it’s “for families.”

Rant over, for now anyway. But a related question that Terra Nova raises is, Is it a good TV show for your family? It’s a question I get asked regularly as a critic, and one that I regularly try to duck. As a parent, I’m definitely interested in whether shows (or movies, etc.) are appropriate for my kids, but as a reader I’ve never trusted those service-y reviews that try to tell me what age range a show is “appropriate” for, or list material that might be objectionable.

And I certainly don’t trust myself to write them. Because what the hell do I know about your family? Terra Nova doesn’t have much foul language, but it does have dinosaurs who will eat people alive when they get the chance. There’s no sex in the pilot, or even the intimation of it (beyond the two-child-per-family policy), but there’s some illicit teenage drinking, and so on.

I probably won’t have the Tuned In Jrs (7 and 10) watch it, knowing their tolerance for blood (ironically, the younger Tuned In Jr’s is probably higher) but I suspect a lot of their classmates will and will be fine. (My kids have somehow developed a strong self-censoring instinct; when I put on the Emmys in their presence, they’ll put their hands over their ears at the jokes and complain, “That’s inappropriate!”) On the other hand, we watch Modern Family together, though I know other parents would be put off by some of the more adult humor. We watch Top Chef, though I’m sure some parents would rather keep their kids away from any reality TV. I know parents who will only let their kids watch Disney Channel shows, and others who forbid it because of the characters’ sarcasm. There are as many sets of family values as there are families, and as many age-appropriate ranges as there are kids.

That’s why, to me as a reader, the best “family appropriateness guide” is a good review. And the standards for a good family show should be as high as for a good show of any kind. Which I still hope Terra Nova can become, if it can turn its writing around. (My biggest concern: I’ve seen three versions of the pilot at this point, and every subsequent one involved taking out interesting elements and complicating character aspects from the previous ones.)

In the meantime, at least the dinosaurs look great.

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