TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club talks about network sitcoms.

Entry 9: Why I’m sad that the network sitcom is nearly dead.

What will be tomorrow’s Friends?

Still courtesy of NBC


I want to talk comedy. It was, depending on how you look at it, either a really wretched year for comedy or a very good one. The “death of the sitcom” meme that has been in regular rotation since before “meme” was even a word got trotted out again this year, after a historically rotten fall network season. The network sitcom has almost died many times before, but this time around there really do seem to be some outsized forces working against it. Of the new fall shows, only Black-ish —not coincidentally, the best new sitcom of the fall—was a hit. The other new series trotted out, many of them half-baked rom-coms, were dead in the water. (I do want to second June’s recommendation for the canceled Selfie, though, which is finishing up on Hulu and deserved better.) And the thing that really scared the bejesus out of people who care about this sort of thing is what happened to a second-year show, The Millers, which was a hit last year and then over the summer hiatus … became a flop. CBS canceled it. While that frees up Margo Martindale and Will Arnett to go on to better things, it introduces a whole new hurdle for already hard-hurdling sitcoms: They have to win an audience over twice now.

Of course, most of these shows were not very good. Even the ones that weren’t bad did not feel all that distinctive. The networks seem to be having an impossible time understanding that “broad” doesn’t have to mean toothless. As you said, Mo, a show with a clear point of view is better than one without it every time. Black-ish is a prime recent example, but, going back a few years, so are series like Seinfeld and Frasier, which were both very specific and broadly appealing. Tell me, how is one romantic comedy about lovelorn white people in their 20s different from all the others? Certainly, the networks didn’t clarify. It felt like they weren’t really behind any of these shows to begin with, which is a bit like playing for your life and stacking your team with a bunch of players you know can’t play that well—and then not coaching them either.

Still, there are forces working against the sitcom besides what sitcoms are doing to hurt themselves. For one thing, sitcoms are not appointment viewing. This, of course, constitutes so much of the genre’s cozy appeal. It’s why Friends and Seinfeld in endless rerun are still so great and comforting to stumble upon. There they are, no explanations necessary, welcoming and familiar. But in this particular moment, when an unending panoply of cultural products are all desperately vying for fragments of our attention, being the thing people don’t need to watch right now is not the best thing to be. Serialized dramas and serialized “comedies” (Transparent, Girls, even Louie now) are where the buzz is.

Who cares, you say? If this year stunk for the networks, it’s been just fine for comedy writ large. Jim, you recently tweeted about this: This year saw a proliferation of great, funny shows that just didn’t hew to the standard format, like Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Review, The Kroll Show. Looking at all of these series, as well as cable sitcoms like Broad City, You’re The Worst, and the fantastic Veep, it’s hard to feel too torn up.

And yet, I really love coming upon reruns of Friends. Honestly, if only to fill my future quota of comfort sitcoms, I would like the network to get their comedy game together. (Broad City may one day scratch my comfort-show itch, but I seriously doubt there are going to be 235 episodes of it to keep me company.) But I’m not convinced, especially after this past fall season, that the networks are any closer to fixing—or even understanding—their problem. That’s because so much of the conversation around sitcom dysfunction still seems to be orbiting around questions of format and not content, theme, or point of view. Is what’s turning people off sitcoms all these single-camera shows? Will audiences ever ken to laugh tracks again? Call me crazy, but maybe start by making a new show that is good, à la Black-ish and then perhaps you won’t have to divine whether audiences are more likely to watch a TV show that reminds them of their childhood. (How much longer are the networks going to have audiences whose childhoods were full of multicamera sitcoms anyway?)

Fox’s Mulaney, both an artistic and commercial failure, was still a really interesting experiment, and one I think that will be repeated a lot in the years to come—a hip comedian putting himself in a multicamera format. Networks seem to think that’s the thing that’s going to save them: the really good multicam. Maybe they’re right! It’s true that single-camera comedies haven’t been bringing in hordes of viewers (Modern Family and The Office excepted) and that The Big Bang Theory does gangbusters (as do well-made procedurals like NCIS, kind of the drama equivalent of the network sitcom). But I simply don’t believe that the primary thing keeping audiences away from sitcoms is what a show looks like. (Case in point: Cristela, one of the better new fall sitcoms, was multicamera and laugh-tracked, and it has been watched by very few people.) Believing that the audience will come back as soon as a network finds that silver-bullet multicamera show is a bit like believing in aliens: Maybe they are out there, but I wouldn’t want to be the company whose entire business model depended on them showing up.

I think there is more to discuss with regards to comedy. What about The Comeback, which triumphantly returned to TV after many years, having built up a vocal fan base only to be watched by… very few people? And, seriously, do ratings matter anymore? Netflix won’t report them and it’s doing fine. Also, as I was writing this, Jim posted a piece about the 10 worst TV shows of the year, which seems like a delicious topic to a trash-talker like me.

My vote is for I Wanna Marry “Harry,”