Play Nice

The rise—and fall?—of the mean sitcom.

Modern Family

In the days after Charlie Sheen’s spectacular implosion, CBS kept saying that his hit series, Two and a Half Men, would soldier on. But that’s seeming less and less likely. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the show without Sheen. Few actors can match his smugness, his snarl, his blanket disdain for fellow human beings.

If Two and a Half Men does die, let’s hope a TV trend goes with it: the half-hour of meanness. That’s Two and a Half Men in a nutshell: a family show in which the central family value is contempt. Charlie Harper (Sheen), a rich, oversexed jingle writer, bankrolls his broke younger brother Alan (Jon Cryer) while constantly putting him down. Alan swipes back lamely. Alan’s son calls his father a loser and his uncle a lush. Occasionally, Charlie and Alan’s mother drops by and hurls insults at all two and a half of them.

Clearly, people like this sort of thing. For most of its eight seasons, Two and a Half Men has been the nation’s top-rated comedy, and if Sheen hadn’t self-destructed, there would have been no reason to change the formula.

But Two and a Half Men finds its future uncertain at a time when Americans finally seem to have maxed out on bullying (states are passing laws to stop it), on cruel awards-show hosts (Ricky Gervais is done emceeing the Golden Globes) and even on some of the most extreme political chatter (Glenn Beck’s ratings are down on Fox). Perhaps it’s little surprise that viewers are also embracing a new trend in TV comedy: the sitcom about people who are nice to each other.

That’s what Christopher Lloyd and his producing partner, Steven Levitan, were aiming for when they developed the ABC hit Modern Family. The show, which premiered in 2009, won last year’s Emmy for best comedy. Episodes routinely end with a sweet voice-over or a heartwarming moment. “We didn’t want to be cynical, we didn’t want to be snarky.” Lloyd told me. “[A] word that we used a lot was nourishing.”

The concept of nourishing the soul—like a fable or worse, an After-School Special—is anathema to a series like Two and a Half Men, which might bring a character to the brink of showing sincere emotion, but always pulls back at the last moment in favor of a barb. The emotional bait-and-switch was also a hallmark of shows like Arrested Development and Extras. In recent years, “what had happened in comedy was that for some reason it was a race for who could say the most outrageous thing,” says Lloyd. “There was never going to be any sentiment.”

Sitcoms have always had the potential for meanness, largely thanks to the laugh track, once a TV staple that now survives largely on CBS, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel. It demands a rhythm of setup-joke-repeat, which lends itself to wisecracks and grouchy catchphrases. (“One of these days, Alice …”) On multicamera shows, characters who supposedly adore each other still spend a lot of time putting each other down. If your real friends ever talked to you the way the characters on Friends did, you’d probably stop calling them back.

But in the past, plenty of characters who mocked each other still wound up hugging in the end. Workplace comedies were often built on mutual affection, epitomized by the gang from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which ended its run, famously, with a group hug).Family comedies, from The Brady Bunch to Diff’rent Strokes, offered tidy moral lessons.

Indeed, the truly cynical sitcoms of more recent memory might have been a reaction to the glut of family shows that flourished in the ‘80s, force-feeding viewers wisdom from the likes of Nell Carter and Charlotte Rae. Fox’s Married with Children, which premiered in 1987, turned family dysfunction into a sort of contact sport. Seinfeld debuted three years later with a proud absence of redeeming characters or uplifting story lines. Creator Larry David’s mantra was “no hugging, no learning,” and that approach spread steadily across networks and formats.

Some series bought into David’s philosophy more than others. Frasier, another Christopher Lloyd production, had its share of sentimental moments, and the ‘90s did give us Mad About You. But much of the critically-acclaimed TV comedy from the ‘90s through the mid-2000s fixated on the nastier sides of human nature—and saw affection, redemption, and contrition as signs of comic weakness. Family Guy, with its matricidal baby, became a hit. Arrested Development, with its Ron Howard voice-over, brought Opie over to the dark side. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiabasked in its characters’ detestability. Flight of the Conchordsgave us brilliant music parodies and the nonstop humiliation of the band members, who never seemed to like each other much.

And if anyone has a darker comic sensibility than Larry David, it’s Ricky Gervais, whose BBC show The Office was built on awkward moments, uncomfortable silences, and unredeemable people. When NBC imported the show, the grouches’ TV takeover seemed inevitable.

But it could be that the American version of The Office, which debuted in 2005, actually helped to reverse the meanness trend. Executive producer Mike Schur recalls a meeting in the writers’ room after the show’s abbreviated first season, when Greg Daniels, who had adapted the show for American TV, announced the need for a change.

David Brent, the boss Gervais played in the British version of the show, was relentlessly boorish and despised by his colleagues. But Daniels thought that Michael Scott, played by the likable Steve Carell, had to be a smidgen likable himself. In the season two premiere, “The Dundies,” Scott’s officemates rushed to their boss’s defense when he was heckled by patrons at a Chili’s. If he didn’t exactly command his employees’ respect, Scott at least had their affection.

That dynamic has come to define The Office; the show still revels in its characters’ discomfort, but Scott has evolved into a kind of workplace pet. As Carell prepares to leave the show this spring, the fondness has been even more pronounced. In last week’s episode, the whole office conspired to help Michael propose to his soul-mate. And when Michael announced that he was leaving Scranton, his employees were distraught.

Schur and Daniels’ Parks and Recreation, which debuted on NBC in 2009, also swiftly converted from cynical to sweet—so sweet that last week, Vulture called the series a study in the “comedic potential of super nice people.” As Vulture noted, this wasn’t always the case. In the show’s first season, Amy Poehler’s lead character, city government employee Leslie Knope, was played as a fool and a punch line. Schur says the writers soon tweaked the show to make it clear that Knope was good at her job, not naive so much as idealistic, and as charming as the actress who plays her.

“You don’t want to make it a Pollyanna-land where everyone just loves everyone unconditionally,” says Schur. But producers do now want the characters to appreciate each other. Even Leslie’s misanthropic boss Ron Swanson, played by a glowering Nick Offerman, is at heart a father figure with a comic moustache. In a recent episode, he solved a quartet of problems vexing his employees in one rapid-fire speech—delivered while riding with them on a Ferris wheel.

That scene perfectly captured the way Parks & Recreation routinely manages to hit the sweet spot between funny and kind. Unlike Seinfeld—and certainly unlike Two and a Half Men—the show treats its characters with respect, and asks them to do the same to one another. It assumes that viewers won’t run screaming from a happy ending or an emotional beat. These days, this approach seems more and more common. You see it on How I Met Your Mother, Cougar Town, even Community, whose star, Joel McHale, is the host of E!’s snarky talk-show roundup The Soup.

This isn’t to say that, with Two and a Half Men on hiatus, TV is devoid of sitcom cynicism: 30 Rock is loaded with insults (tempered by a smidgen of platonic love between Liz and Jack) and the still-going Entourage is fueled by a mostly-unpunished Ari Gold. But even Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, has taken a turn for the soft-hearted. His multi-camera sitcom The Big Bang Theory is ostensibly about nerds picking on each other. But the show has lately reminded us how much the characters appreciate each other. One recent episode was built around the idea that Sheldon, the nerdiest and most petulant in his circle of friends, is nevertheless important to them. When he abandons Howard, Raj, and Leonard for a new clique, the old crew admit they really miss the know-it-all.

This season has also brought us Lorre’s new series Mike and Molly, about a couple that meets at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The show launched with a string of cheap-shot fat jokes, and it continues to feature some of the tiredest tropes of cynical TV: the laugh track, the dumb sister, the insult-hurling best friend. But at its core, it’s a sweet story of an imperfect couple who accept each other’s flaws. On a recent episode, Mike and Molly couldn’t quite bring themselves to use the word “love.” But the episode ended, pointedly, with a hug.