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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Death of Network Sitcoms

Seinfeld is not only the greatest sitcom ever made in the history of television, but it might be the greatest show of all time. The show ran for nine seasons, and still holds up remarkably well 15+ years after it went off of the air. Despite the fact that multiple stations (and now Hulu) run Seinfeld multiple times a day and we've all seen every episode at least 50 times, the show is still hysterical. And yet Seinfeld almost didn't happen. The pilot episode of the former NBC show (at the time it was called The Seinfeld Chronicles) was so bad (and it is bad) that it almost never made it to air. Luckily, there were executives at NBC who believed in the show and kept it around, and Seinfeld went on to become a mega-smash hit.

Unfortunately, we might never see another Seinfeld again. We live in an Era of Too Much Good TV. There are many benefits to Peak TV, but one of the major downsides is that you need to be good immediately. There are just too many other good shows to exist, that if your show if just mediocre, people will bail and watch something else. That creates a problem for sitcoms, as they're rarely great (or even good) right away. Seinfeld deserved its bad ratings and negative test focus reviews, but it also deserved to stay on the air and get the benefit of the doubt from NBC. Comedies almost always get better, and just because you're bad now doesn't mean you can't be great later.

The Office and Parks and Recreation are perfect examples of this. Both had atrocious first seasons (six episodes) yet both ended up being cultural milestones. And really, really funny. The Office ended up being hilarious for five and a quarter seasons (after Jim & Pam get married the show immediately turns a corner in the wrong direction) and continued to make money for NBC/Universal for another 4. Parks and Rec immediately solved it's main character issue (the show subdued Leslie Knope and her co-worker's reaction to her) starting with the first episode of Season 2 and ended up being funny until it finally went off of the air earlier this year. 

Even broader comedies and the cash cows for the networks take time to catch on, both with their humor and with their ratings. The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men weren't the immediate ratings behemoths that they eventually became. Neither was their forefather Friends

Even if a show is funny right out of the gate, it doesn't guarantee viewers. How I Met Your Mother had an all-time great pilot and an excellent first and second season. Yet the show was always on the verge of cancellation. It took a Britney Spears cameo in Season 3 to boost HIMYM  to the ratings juggernaut that it eventually became. Creatively, the show ended up being hindered by its ratings boost as the show stretched on longer that the story allowed it to, but from the network's perspective, the show was a financial success and it was able to become syndicated.

The moral of the story is that networks need to be more patient with comedies. While the audience might bail on them early, if it's good, people will eventually come back. I personally bailed on Parks and Recreation after the first season, and eventually came back to it through On Demand and Netflix. Another benefit of The Internet is that there will always be at least one TV writer and/or recapper who will stick with a show and let us all know that the show clicked into another gear. Even if a vast majority of the TV viewing audience doesn't watch a show, there's no telling that it won't binge watch it a few years down the line on Netflix or On Demand. AMC inadvertently relied on that model for Breaking Bad and is seemingly relying on that notion when it renewed the poorly rated Halt and Catch Fire

Shows like Seinfeld, The Office, and The Big Bang Theory had talented people at the top running the ship and were able to make changes early on, shift gears, and become hilarious money-making juggernauts. Any flaws that existed were able to get ironed out as the writers and actors were able to work with each other to determine character motivations and interactions in order to enhance the humor that was sneakily always embedded. Most comedy shows aren't great out of the gate, and this has unfortunately become incongruous with how Americans watch television nowadays.

This seemingly is the reason the networks just aren't making sitcoms anymore. NBC, the former haven of Must-See Comedy TV, didn't even bother airing a single new comedy show in Fall 2015 (yet has four Dick Wolf produced melodramas). CBS made a futile attempt by airing a new show that's apparently called Life In Pieces. FOX made a legitimate attempt by airing The Grinder and Grandfathered, but both shows are too much in the vein of the traditional sitcom that even Chuck Lorre can't even get through a single episode. FOX did have a legitimate comedy hit in 2015 (no, Empire is not a comedy) and that was Will Forte's Last Man on Earth, but that was a huge comedy risk that so far has had viewers, but hasn't been able to sustain its bold premise and creativity that got viewers to watch the show in the first place. 

The only network that has been able to air semi-traditional sitcoms that are both funny and critical successes, and been able to suck in viewers has been ABC. Shows like Fresh Off The Boat and Black-ish are very much in the vein of the sitcoms NBC ran in the early 90's, yet have been able to survive in today's vast TV marketplace by being both traditional and innovative. By giving underrepresented minorities to tell their version of a sitcom, we're able to get the comfort of watching a sitcom with humor that holds up to today's modern times. Compared to shows like Grandfathered which give us the comfort of a traditional sitcom with the enjoyment of watching paint dry on a wall. 

Networks have tried producing traditional-style sitcoms in recent years, but they've been to varying degrees of little to no success. FOX aired Mulaney last year starring and created by former SNL writer and hilarious stand up comedian John Mulaney. Mulaney was a show that should have worked and was given time to work (relatively) before failing. John Mulaney is a tremendously funny stand up whose previous day job was to come up with funny premises. Yet none of that translated to his final television project. Had Kevin Reilly, the man who gave John Mulaney his chance, stayed at FOX, maybe John Mulaney would have been allowed to tweek and re-tweek his show so that its second and third seasons would have been so good that viewers would have come back to it. Maybe if John Mulaney had a believer in FOX the way Jerry Seinfeld had a believer at NBC, Mulaney would still be on the air today and actually get viewers. However, Mulaney's failed execution and Reilley's ousting meant that the show was soon cancelled and forgotten about before it ever had the chance. 

The flip side to allowing a show like Mulaney a chance to succeed has been The Mindy Project- created by the very funny Mindy Kaling who's prior writing included a best selling book and some of the funniest episodes of The Office, The Mindy Project should have been a show that grew better with time. The show even re-tooled early on by adding actors like the very funny Ike Barinholtz and then re-tooled again after a full season by adding the very funny Adam Pally (who was signed after his barely-watched yet immensely funny network show Happy Endings was cancelled) and then re-tooled again by becoming a romantic comedy by focusing the show on the relationship between its two leads before then getting cancelled by FOX. Mindy Kaling had three seasons to right the ship, simplify the show's plot, and thus attract fans. Unfortunately, The Mindy Project never became the show it had the potential to become, and after airing 67 episodes and countless number of guest stars, the show was never going to become the next Seinfeld, or even the next How I Met Your Mother


The real question that next needs to be asked is, "Who Cares?!" Do we really need to mourn the death of an outdated model? Things change, entertainment adapts. Why should we shed any tears over the taxi companies that is network sitcoms when we have the better Uber at our disposal? The death of network sitcoms doesn't mean the death of comedy on television, it just means a reinvention. There will always be shows that make us laugh on television or whatever device we watch television shows on, it just won't be a network sitcom. 

Comedy Central seems to be one of the only networks that understands that, and have developed shows that conform to the ways that Millenials watch TV and the way television watching seems to be heading. Even better, they're producing outright hysterical shows. Comedy Central's renaissance, which just so happened to coincide with the rise of Peak TV, had brought us fresh and original comedy and ways to watch that comedy. Shows like Broad City, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and The Daily Show are some of the funniest things on television right now. Further, these shows are able to work in the modern world where we're not just watching things on television, but on our mobile devises, On Demand, and You Tube. Don't have the attention span for a full Key & Peele episode- here's the funniest sketch from last night's episode. Wanna watch that one thing Amy Schumer did to Break The Internet- check it out on Comedy Central's app.

Further, we have networks like Netflix, HBO, and FX, the three biggest producers of original content nowadays and thus are directly responsible for Peak TV, that are producing some of the funniest shows on television. This TV arms race has produced some of the funniest shows around with the likes of Veep, Silicon Valley, Master of NoneBoJack Horseman, and You're The Worst.

Speaking of Netflix, they're proving just how flawed the traditional method of producing and distributing shows (including comedies) are. Netflix has the reach of a broad audience thanks to its day job or streaming and renting material, but doesn't have to cater to that broad audience either. Therefore, they can produce material deemed too niche for the networks yet still distribute that material to the mass audience anyways. They act like cable or premium network (like say an FX or HBO) by giving their creative employees the freedom to be creative. They can also air a show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Arrested Development to fill a necessary hole in the television watching marketplace without necessarily worrying about ratings. This has caused other "networks" like Hulu with The Mindy Project and Yahoo! with Community to follow suit.


Truthfully, I don't actually believe network sitcoms are dead. They are absolutely on the decline, but they're not dead. People are been claiming sitcoms are dead since Everybody Loves Raymond went off the air in 2005. But even if they are eradicated from the television landscape, we'll be OK. We will always be able to watch television that makes us laugh. If not, we'll just have to settle for Seinfeld re-runs on Hulu instead.



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