Notes on the Death of the American Network Sitcom

Linsey Fields

1. Last week, ABC’s Manhattan Love Story was the first series of the 2014-15 television season to be canceled. That the show was dinged after four episodes wasn’t shocking. Not only was it unpopular — its last episode earned an anemic 0.7 in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic — it was also actively terrible, a mean-spirited, toxic cocktail of boorishness and bullshit whimsy. What was surprising about the end of Manhattan Love Story was that it took four whole weeks for the ax to fall. The first casualty of a TV season usually occurs much sooner. That ABC1 stuck with this stinker practically until Halloween is a clear sign that, when it comes to comedies, none of the big four networks has the slightest idea what it’s doing.

2. You know what’s a popular network sitcom? The Big Bang Theory. In its eighth season, the show averages more than 16 million viewers a week. You know what else is a popular sitcom? The six-year-old Modern Family. It wins all the Emmys and is watched, without fail, by 10 million people. You know what else is a popular network sitcom? Nothing. Literally nothing.

3. Obituaries for the network sitcom are nothing new: “The conventional thinking among the entertainment press was that the half-hour comedy was dead.” That’s Warren Littlefield, the former NBC Entertainment president, musing about 1983. A few months later, he would help green-light The Cosby Show, thus launching what was arguably the greatest run of sitcoms — and inarguably the greatest night for sitcoms — in TV history.

So, yes, it’s always darkest before the light. But no matter how gloomy it looked 30 years ago, it’s downright disastrous now — and this time there isn’t a sweater-clad savior lurking just around the corner.2 Nine new sitcoms debuted this fall. One, Black-ish, is a legitimate hit — and deservedly so. Another, the aforementioned Manhattan Love Story, has been banished to Fresh Kills. And a third, CBS’s The McCarthys, will finally premiere on Thursday. The remaining six can charitably be placed in categories ranging from “floundering” to “hemorrhaging.” On NBC, the treacly A to Z seems intent on finding a new, heretofore undiscovered 27th letter to reflect the extremity of its decline, and on Fox, Mulaney continues to attract absolutely no one. (The former rocked a putrid 0.9 in the demo last week. The latter lost just under half the audience of its Family Guy lead-in.) Outside of Black-ish, none of these shows is a hit and none of them is ever going to be. So why are they still on the air? And how did we get here in the first place?

mulaney-3Fox

4. A necessary caveat: Broadcast network ratings are falling every season. Last year’s floor is this year’s ceiling. Soon the only people watching network TV of any kind will be the elderly, the infirm, and fugitives who actually need to find out how to get away with murder. Everything on this earth is temporary, my child. And that includes you, me, and numbered think pieces like this one.

5. An important corrective: Family comedies still work on networks. Behind the scenes, it’s the one framework that is both universal enough to pass muster with the suits and specific enough to resonate with the writers. And in front of them, family sitcoms join live sports and award shows as one of the few things suitable to watch as, yes, an entire family. Black-ish is a terrific show, easily the best new network series of the year, thanks to its keenly specific point of view and its outstanding cast. The McCarthys is surprisingly solid for more or less the same reasons. I’m not worried about the state of the family sitcom on the broadcast networks. I’m worried about absolutely everything else. Got it? Good.

6. Here’s a date to consider: August 4, 2005. That’s the day It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia debuted on FX. The bawdy, low-budget series concerned good friends, bad behavior, and worse accents, and, though it was never much to look at, proved to be quietly revolutionary. Despite its filthy mouth, It’s Always Sunny had a deep respect for the classic multi-cam comedies of the ’80s and ’90s. (Hell, even the ’70s: Why else would they be so quick to cast Louie from Taxi?) It had plenty of sexual tension, high jinks, and even the occasional hug. It was, in the broadest of strokes, familiar. But it’s what the show lacked that mattered more. Removed from the morals and mandates of a broadcast network, It’s Always Sunny was free to be as nasty as it wanted to be. Its only master was laughs, its only muse the dudes giggling off their Yuengling buzz in the writers’ room. Ensemble comedies from Mary Tyler Moore to Cheers had suggested that dysfunctional people could come together to form functional, surrogate families in order to navigate the wider world. Seinfeld took it a step further: What’s so great about that stupid world anyway? It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia took that misanthropy and lit it on fire.

Sure, the show can be extreme. But when compared to the lesson-learning gagbots populating most sitcom pilots, the antisocial monsters at Paddy’s Pub are downright human.

7. It’s Always Sunny begat The League and, in a circuitous way, Louie. FX helped establish the idea that lovable sitcoms didn’t have to be all that likable and that comedians on TV didn’t even have to be funny. On the other end of the spectrum, TV Land has, since 2010, been producing and airing sitcoms that are explicitly designed to be throwbacks. Hot in Cleveland and The Exes are easily digestible comfort food, exactly the sort of inoffensive fare the networks gave up on years ago. It’s their loss. Squeezed at both ends of the creative spectrum, the big four have been forced to set up camp in the mushiest of middles. And the results — spineless shows that desperately splash around in the muck and then insincerely apologize for getting dirty — haven’t been pretty.

8. Here’s another date for you: July 24, 2012. That’s when newly hired NBC boss Bob Greenblatt stood up at the TCA conference and announced his goal to “broaden” the appeal of his network comedy brand. Remember, when Greenblatt said this, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community were all still on his air. Instead of green-lighting shows that followed in their smart, savvy footsteps, Greenblatt funneled millions of dollars into time travel, programming a whole host of tired shows starring the graying survivors of NBC’s “must-see” past. One by one these creaky relics debuted, and one by one they failed: Matthew Perry’s Go On, Sean Hayes’s Sean Saves the World, The Michael J. Fox Show. Though NBC has suddenly surged to the top of the ratings heap thanks to the chairs of The Voice and the smirks of The Blacklist, its comedy brand has never recovered. By focusing on the past instead of the future, a whole generation of potential Thursday-night saviors was unceremoniously chased out the door. Among them: Tad Quill (the great Bent was burned in three ugly weeks back in 2012), You’re the Worst’s Stephen Falk (his Next Caller was canceled before it aired the same year), and 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon, who ended up signing an overall deal with 20th Century Fox.3 Greg Daniels, the man responsible for carrying NBC’s quality comedy torch into the new millennium with The Office, became so fed up with his shabby treatment that, in 2013, he up and walked away from a lucrative deal with Universal TV, NBC’s in-house studio.

9. The biggest irony? Even the current, first-place NBC would kill for the ratings it was getting in 2012 from its supposedly “narrow” Thursday lineup. Sure, it was ugly — The Office’s season premiere earned a 2.1 in the demo; Parks a meager 1.7 — but it was dependable and it was a hell of a lot better than what A to Z (0.7) and Bad Judge (1.0) are managing this year. Not only that, it was just better. What the hell is Bad Judge meant to be, anyway? In theory, it’s a ribald farce about a jurist who bangs more dudes than gavels. But in practice, it’s something far worse. NBC neutered the already sterile pilot, turning it into a show about a judge who says “dude” a lot and whose greatest crime is that she cares too much. Who is the target audience for this show? What stories does it hope to tell? Don’t spend too much time trying to answer those questions (NBC’s comedy development team certainly didn’t): Bad Judge will be canceled soon and no one will mourn it. NBC’s problem isn’t that it has low-rated comedies — all comedies are now low-rated.4 Its problem is that it has low-rated comedies that are impossible to care about.

10. The sinking ratings and aging hits have caused the networks to react in predictably foolish ways. With the competition for eyeballs so fierce and the window to capture those eyeballs so small, broadcasters have begun vetting sitcoms like blockbusters. Meaning: Premise is valued over character, hooks matter more than tone, and if the entire show can’t be sold on a poster, it’s not getting on the air. That’s the reason for the surfeit of romantic comedies this year: They come with tension, stakes, and a serialized arc already baked in. The problem is that romance depends on chemistry — not just between the leads but between the characters and the audience. Sparks may fly in the script, but we need to spark to the would-be soul mates as well. The very best sitcom romances happened organically; they emerged from the plot but didn’t drive it. Think of Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Donna and her Mercedes. A to Z isn’t a hopeless mess because of Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti. It’s a hopeless mess because nothing worthwhile was constructed around them. Falling in love is just one story. A weekly TV series requires a lot more than that.

11. (Here’s the part where I feel compelled to mention FX’s You’re the Worst, the best comedy on TV and a hilarious rebuke to everything I railed against above. It’s a rom-com that intentionally flipped the script: The sex came first, the feelings came later. But that’s not why the show is a success. The reason You’re the Worst is a triumph is because it presents a fully realized, entirely coherent world in which the humor serves the characters and not the other way around. On my podcast with creator Stephen Falk, I blithely referred to Gretchen and Jimmy, You’re the Worst’s leads, as “terrible people.” Falk quickly corrected me, saying he didn’t see them that way at all. In fact, he couldn’t. Calling Gretchen and Jimmy “terrible people” is the easy, lazy, network pitch. A good writer is able to see them simply as people and let the story spin out from there.)

Selfie-2ABC

12. Nothing currently on the air better demonstrates the disconnect between pitching and actually producing than ABC’s Selfie. A modern-day version of Pygmalion (or, if you’re musically inclined, My Fair Lady) is a cute idea that plays well in a meeting. The concept is immediately familiar and the social media update — Eliza Dooley isn’t Cockney, she’s a living tweetbot — is flattering to cool-hunting suits in the executive suites. Awful title aside, where Selfie falters is in the execution. How could it not? The weight of all that exposition and all the surgical character modulation required to make such a hoary concept fly (remind me again why it’s OK for John Cho’s Henry to spend a large part of his time slut-shaming a twentysomething work colleague?) could crush even the most promising of shows. Selfie is a poster child for sitcoms green-lit only to slam into a creative wall of their own making. It was designed to make it through the minefield of pilot season, not an actual season of TV.

13. Except here’s the thing: Selfie is actually pretty good! Cho brings a wobbly dignity to what could be a dull straight-man role, and Karen Gillan takes a one-note character and turns her into an electric symphony. (Her reactions are especially great; her whole body vibrates whenever Eliza’s cell phone rings.) And, as she proved on Suburgatory, creator Emily Kapnek has a knack for turning cartoons into community: Supporting players Da’Vine Joy Randolph and David Harewood (clearly thrilled to be on a show more plausible than Homeland) have done much to broaden and brighten Selfie’s limited world. But I don’t know if they’ve done much to extend its life span. With so much expositional rubble to dig itself out from, Selfie faces a near-impossible road to coherence, let alone renewal.

14. I can’t help but think that Emily Kapnek would agree. I’ve written before about how the ruinous broadcast development cycle — listening to hundreds of pitches, ordering dozens of scripts, making numerous pilots, green-lighting a handful of shows, canceling most of them, rinse, repeat — hurts the networks. But the real damage might be done to creators. Too often it forces people to squeeze their best square-peg ideas into the frictionless, round maw of corporate desire. My guess is that Kapnek wasn’t daydreaming about remaking Pygmalion or saddling a series with a name that even this lady thinks is a little on-the-nose. But Kapnek is a writer, and so she wants to write. It’s neither profitable nor professionally wise to sit out a development cycle in order to make something perfect. TV is a business of imperfection, of making the best out of any number of bad situations.

Let me rephrase: TV is a business. Kapnek is doing an admirable job saving Selfie from itself, but it’s likely not enough. And so, next year, she’ll be in those same pitch rooms, drinking those same mini water bottles, trying to make it all happen again.

15. Making exceptional television in this network environment isn’t impossible, but it is rare. Not only do all the stars have to align, you also literally have to align the right stars. Comedies live or die on their casts, and there are a finite number of talented performers out there — and all of them are reading the same pilot scripts and making decisions at the exact same time. What’s most disheartening is that even when networks manage to stumble into casting greatness, they fumble the ball. ABC’s Happy Endings overcame a clumsy premise and a rocky start to become a zippy delight. Seeing Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans Jr., Adam Pally, Elisha Cuthbert, Casey Wilson, and Zach Knighton freak and prank each other week after week was like watching Olympic pinball on fast-forward. And yet ABC canceled the show not because it wasn’t doing well — as Vulture’s Joe Adalian noted this week, its early demo ratings would inspire envy in 2014 — but because it wasn’t doing well enough. Now all six cast members are scattered to the winds, doing strong work on lesser shows. This doesn’t have me singing the blues. It has me singing Joni Mitchell.

16. This past spring, Casey Wilson married Happy Endings creator David Caspe, and together the two have a new show on NBC called Marry Me. It has the same manic dynamic as their previous collaboration, the same autobahn speed limit, and, thanks to Wilson, at least one-sixth of the same performative verve. It also had the same bumpy pilot I gave a pass to based on past success. Last week’s episode made me reconsider my temporary bout of charity. It was a truly awful half hour spent in the company of shrieking nonsense people: Ken Marino acting like an idiot, Wilson acting like a lunatic, and the grim supporting cast acting as unpleasant as possible. I didn’t for a second believe that any of these fictional people were friends or had even met before the the cameras rolled on the pilot. I didn’t believe they were people at all.

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17. I don’t think Marry Me’s failure means that Caspe and Wilson have suddenly become less talented or have lost their good taste. I just think that producing something fresh under these stale circumstances is a Herculean task. Caspe already made a show loosely based on his friends back in Chicago. And Marry Me is drawn not from the entirety of his life with Wilson — check out how happy they look! — but from one tiny sliver of one facet of it. The rest feels like a tired grab bag of How About It, What Have You, and Why the Hell Not. Two gay dads! A Botoxed blonde! A sassy black lesbian! (Four of the season’s new comedies feature noxious, bearded dude-bros. Marry Me’s just might be the worst of the lot.) Not all comedies have to be “true,” but all ought to be based in some sort of recognizable truth. When writers are forced to shave their experiences thinner and thinner every year in pursuit of a green light more elusive than Gatsby’s, bad things tend to happen.

18. Amazon is the talk of the industry at the moment for its oceans of cash and a willingness to let creators splash around in it in search of a personal, idiosyncratic muse. (Oh, did you think CBS was going to let Whit Stillman film a martini-dry comedy of errors on location in Paris?) I’m not saying every veteran of the network comedy trenches has a Transparent in him or her, but they’ve probably got a something. I’m sure that Kevin Biegel (Enlisted) and Aisha Muharrar (Parks and Recreation) have passion projects that only they could bring to fruition. The problem is, those projects likely already received a pilot commitment from Fox in 2013. And then were passed over in favor of Dads.

19. So what’s the answer? Well, if you’re a network, it’s easy: You try to manage to the margins.5 This means swapping the roller coaster ride of original pitches for the relative stability of preexisting intellectual property. If you think this fall has been rough, just wait a year. The 2015-16 development cycle has been the most depressing in history, with the biggest checks going only to the most exhausted of ideas. In the cards are TV adaptations of occasionally remembered movies Bachelor Party, Big, Problem Child, Real Genius, and Monster-in-Law. Sure, it might be possible to Trojan-horse a good show into one of these creaky setups. (Kevin Biegel, for instance, is behind Big.) But to me, it all sounds as amusing as the ending of Marley & Me. (Soon to be a half-hour series from NBC! No: seriously.) If you’re a comedy writer, your options are limited. You can keep getting network checks and learn to survive in a system that is set up for you to fail. Chuck Lorre has managed this quite nicely, as has the great Mike Schur.6 Or you can take your talents to cable and learn to survive without a swimming pool.

20. As for the audience? Well, that’s where things get really serious. I don’t see the situation improving and, worse, I don’t see much momentum to even try. For half a century, the greatest tradition the broadcast networks had was making us laugh. Now the best we can hope to do is grin and bear it. Comedy may be tragedy plus time. But the time for networks to salvage the once-proud sitcom is running out. And, like Manhattan Love Story, there’s nothing funny about it.

Filed Under: TV, Sitcoms, Comedy, Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, John Cho, Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, brooklyn nine-nine, the last man on earth, transparent, Parks and Recreation, marry me, it's always sunny in philadelphia, FX, The League, Hot in Cleveland, TVLand, Matthew Perry, Michael J. Fox, sean hayes, The Voice, The Blacklist, You're The Worst, Bad Judge, a to z, Karen Gillan, Ken Marino

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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