In an episode of the NBC comedy series "Mad About You" called "Sofa's Choice," the young newlywed urbanites played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt go shopping for their first jointly owned piece of furniture.
Two adults merging their single lives into a shared romantic venture, they bicker, they negotiate and they eventually settle on a plush, low-footed settee in a faded floral upholstery that is described in the script as "tea-dipped Irish linen."Cut to: the Los Angeles home of the co-executive producer and director of "Mad About You," Barnet Kellman; his wife, the actress Nancy Mette, and their daughter, Kate, 5. There in the living room is an almost identical plush, low-footed settee.
"Nancy and I have been friends and lovers for 15 years, but buying that sofa still dredged up the unresolved anxieties and fears of the relationship," recalled Kellman, who with his wife has been furnishing their home for a year. "Traditional sitcoms are usually driven by `moral dilemmas' - the kinds of melodramatic issues that rarely threaten a marriage. In the past, the buying of a sofa would not constitute a large enough idea for a plot.
"In fact, that's what drives contemporary life. The simple act of furnishing a home can set off a charge that challenges - and sometimes solidifies - a real relationship."
Like Kellman, many other people who are involved in making television programs are quoting their own experiences on tape, not just in the story lines but literally, in the stage sets viewers see each week. They want to personalize their shows, of course, but they also want to make their characters seem real by showing each week what is real to them.
On the set for "Seinfeld," the production designer Tom Azzari filled Jerry's New York kitchen shelves with dozens of boxes of breakfast cereal rather than a random mix of groceries. The show's star loves cereals, he said, and besides, details communicate the quirks that differentiate a character from a cliche.
And Reiser, who is a creator of "Mad About You" as well as its star, suggested that the production designer Bernard Vyzga include a piano in the bedroom, just as the actor had had as a child.
For most of television's history, stage sets did not aspire to reflect most people's domestic realities. Although there have been a few exceptions, the look of classic television homes of the 50s, 60s and 70s, watched now by a third cathode-ray generation on all-night cable reruns, was contrived to convey orderliness, conformity and success, not the day-to-day details of ordinary lives.
Like the professional, middle-class and nuclear families that inhabited them, these prime-time addresses were immaculate and blandly artificial - from the black-and-white American dream homes of "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" to the full-color homes of "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family." These houses may have existed in America, but no one actually seemed to live in one.
Things changed a bit in the '80s, when most television settings seemed to have been designed by talented if somewhat unimaginative interior decorators. The average sitcom family, no matter how non-traditional - from the Seavers of Long Island ("Growing Pains") and the Keatons of Columbus, Ohio ("Family Ties") to the three-dads "family" in San Francisco ("Full House") and "The Golden Girls" of Miami - lived a tastefully appointed and well-matched life. Everyone had perfectly matched new kitchen cabinetry and granite-top cabinets.
"Like most people," Kellman said, "I had a vision of domestic reality from sitcoms that was flat and two-dimensional, not like life, but like a podium for jokes."
Even in so-called reality-based dramatic shows like "thirtysomething," "everyone looked too wealthy and well-off," Vyzga said. "When their homes looked messy, it didn't seem real. You just wondered why they didn't hire someone to clean up."
The impulse to make stage sets as familiar as home is hardly surprising, given the long days of television production schedules. At the core of this new commitment to realism, however, is something larger than comfort or creative narcissism: in television as well as in the heartland, sociologists say that people are experiencing a growing craving for home and for comfort.
A 1992 Monitor report based on a survey by Yankelovich Partners, marketing consultants who track consumer values and behaviors, said many of the 2,500 respondents expressed both a fear of the future and a feeling that the past was irrelevant. They are seeking what Watts Wacker, the managing partner of the firm, based in Westport, Conn., calls "present reality." And more and more of them are seeking it in their living environments.
This appreciation of the authentic is echoed today by Garvin Eddy, production designer for a top-rated show of the 80s, "The Cosby Show," which was set in Brooklyn Heights, as well as for the hit "Roseanne," which takes place in Lanford, Ill.
"If the Huxtable home is what people aspired to," Eddy said of the luxurious town house he designed for Bill Cosby, "then the Connors home reflects how people are."
Eddy said the "Roseanne" set, based on his Midwest upbringing, evokes more response. "People always remark about the afghan over the back of the sofa," he said. "Everyone seems to have one."
Basing a set on the at-home life of a producer or star isn't always successful. When Roy Christopher was first designing "Murphy Brown," he researched the homes of the television anchors Connie Chung and Diane Sawyer, but, he said, "none of it was useful, none of it looked real."
Christopher chanced on an Architectural Digest article about the apartment of the show's star, Candice Bergen, and used its overstuffed eclecticism as the key for his first attempt at decorating Brown's Georgetown manse.
Bergen's first reaction to the set, Christopher said, was, "Oh, no, it's too Beverly Hills." When he pointed out that it was based on her own New York apartment, she laughed. "That's exactly what my friends always say about it," she said, "that it's so Beverly Hills!"
Christopher then started again, with the idea that Brown had inherited some pieces from her family and had collected others on her round-the-world travels.
The trend toward the new naturalism will probably continue.
Norman Lear, who based Archie Bunker's favorite chair in "All in the Family" on his own father's leather "throne" back in Revere, Mass., has paid to keep the "All in the Family" set in storage since the series went off the air.
(The chair was so authentic a detail in the lives of American television viewers that it is now ensconced in the Smithsonian Institution.)
Lear is now preparing "704 Hauser Street" for CBS. Sound familiar? It's the Bunkers' old address in Queens.
The new show visits the house where Archie, Edith, Gloria and Mike once lived, reconfigured to show the evidence of the families who have made changes in it over the last 20 years.
"It's a black family who lives there now," Lear said, "with a liberal father whose son is growing up to be like Clarence Thomas" - meaning a conservative.