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Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Carmichael Show and The Ranch: Throwbacks to the Sitcoms of Yesteryear

Two of the best new sitcoms to be released within the past 12 months are The Ranch, which had its entire first season drop on Netflix on April 1, 2016, and The Carmichael Show, which premiered on NBC on August 26, 2015. Tonally and spiritually, these two shows have nothing in common; however, both shows represent The Ghost of Sitcom Past. The landscape for sitcoms is remarkably different from what is what when Friends and Seinfeld left the airwaves. Nowadays, sitcoms have to be fully formed right out of the gate like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or be able to be traditional with a different perspective like Black-ish or Fresh Off The Boat. There is seemingly no room to be good and “working on it” as seen with the recent cancellations of The Grinder and Grandfathered. Yet two sitcoms have recently emerged that have helped buck this trend, and they have been able to do so in large part by going back to the original drawing board.

The most recently released sitcom to do that is Netflix’s The Ranch, created and co-written by Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson. I know it’s an easy comparison considering its two main leads were actors on the show, but The Ranch has the same feel and the same comedic sensibilities as That 70’s Show. The set ups are different, but its warmth is the same. That 70’s Show was never groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it was pretty funny and lasted 8 seasons. The show ended right around the sitcom bubble burst. Since then we’ve seen the rise of the Millennial Sitcom and comedy shows that aren’t terribly funny. However, since That 70’s Show went off of the air, we haven’t seen a lot of sitcoms like it. In part, because shows like That 70’s Show were disposable, and the TV market doesn’t have roomfor disposable shows. I don’t mean that as a knock or to be disparaging, but That 70’s Show never became this huge cultural icon or had a whole lot to say about the human condition either. That being said, there’s a good reason the show was able to produce 200 episodes. It was funny and we loved watching this group of high schoolers grow up and become adults.

As The Ringer’s Andy Greenwald is want to point out, the success of a sitcom is derived from the familiarity we have with the characters. That notion has seemed to have gone by the wayside since That 70’s Show (and to a larger extent How I Met Your Mother) went off of the airwaves. I miss that style of sitcom, which is part of the reason I enjoyed The Ranch so much. It’s easy to dismiss The Ranch without even seeing it as so many people have, but doing so ruins the comforting feeling you’re going to get. The Ranch follows Kutcher’s Colt Bennett, a mid-30’s former high school QB champion who struggled to make it in college and the pros thanks to his party boy lifestyle. After all of his opportunities flame out, he moves back home with Dad (played by the incredible Sam Elliot who deserves award love for his work) and his brother Rooster (Masterson).  Across town is the Bennett matriarch Maggie (Debra Winger) who has a very complicated relationship with her technical husband. The show deals with Colt Bennett’s evolution and the realities of moving back to his small town, the relationship between Elliot’s Beau and Winger’s Maggie, as well as the Bennetts struggling to save their cattle ranch. However, like all sitcoms, the show’s success is hinged on its jokes. Obviously, the jokes hit and work well, but they land successfully thanks to this Bennett family being fully formed right out of the gate. From the first episode, you understand where exactly these characters are coming from and why they have years of pent up resentment against one another. You immediately know who these characters are and enjoy them right off of the bat. The show sucks you in, says “I got this,” and allows you to turn your brain off and enjoy the humor.

On the other hand, we have The Carmichael Show, a show in the style of a Norman Lear 70’s show like All In The Family, that makes you think about yourself and the society around you. There’s no way you’re turning off your brain for this one. Created by comedian Jerrod Carmichael (Neighbors), The Carmichael Show follows the fictional Jerrod Carmichael, his family, and his live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West). The show is basically an excuse to do a 30 minute stand-up routine as the family, which includes Jerrod’s father (David Allan Grier), mother (Loretta Devine), and brother (Lil Rey Howery), bickers over a new topic of the week. Those topics include online pornography, Facebook, and in one of the show’s best episodes, Bill Cosby. With the insight of a South Park and the style of Norman Lear, Jerrod Carmichael uses his television show as a way to inform his audience of the truth of the matter. As Carmichael recently stated in a Vulture podcast, the most important thing for him is truth, and he uses comedy to get there.

What is great about The Carmichael Show is that it never loses sight of its characters. David Allan Grier’s Joe Carmichael doesn’t all of the sudden get a personality transplant from episode to episode so that the show can make its point; rather, it often uses the old school thinking and mindset of an older generation using the parents as its mouthpiece versus the millennial school of thought via Jerrod and Maxine to mine for comedy gold. Normally a sitcom has to be character driven and characters first. You watch Friends because you enjoy the company of Rachael and Chandler. You watch Cheers because you enjoy the company of Sam and Diane. However, you don’t really watch The Carmichael Show because you enjoy the company of The Carmichael Clan. That doesn’t mean The Carmichael Show any less enjoyable, but it does make it pretty revolutionary for today’s TV marketplace.

There are obviously a handful of sitcoms currently airing that follow today’s traditional TV tropes, but two of the best sitcoms out right now, The Carmichael Show and The Ranch, are successfully precisely because they are bucking those tropes. By feeling like a sitcom of yesteryear, they are able to have creative success this year. 



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