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We are standing at the dawn of the TV drama and the twilight of the network sitcom. I, for one, welcome our new Amazon Original overlords.
Once upon a time, Thursday nights on NBC were “Must See TV,” and they featured the grande dames of the sitcom genre: “Cheers” and ”The Cosby Show,” then ”Seinfeld,” “Friends” and ”Will & Grace.” You wouldn’t dare hit the water cooler without having at least a vague familiarity with those shows.
“Network TV is suffering through a Great Sitcom Recession,” proclaimed New York Magazine last year. In 2014, only 9 of the 50 most-watched network programs were sitcoms. Compare that to the ratings from 1995, when sitcoms accounted for 38 of the top 50 top network programs. Our best-viewed sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” only gets a third of the viewership of 1995’s biggest hit, “Seinfeld.”
Now, I’m not saying all 38 of those top-50 shows deserved to be there—I’m not exactly mourning for “Hope and Gloria” or “Thunder Alley” — and I’m not saying 38 out of 50 is any better or worse than our current statistics. But, how, exactly, did the network comedy fall so precipitously from grace?
For the most obvious answer, I’ll first direct your attention to Tivo, Netflix, Hulu and the good old-fashioned DVD box set. In this day and age, there’s no reason to plant in front of the TV at the exact time your favorite show airs, unless the threat of spoilers is hanging over your head. Unlike shows like ”Scandal” or ”Game of Thrones,” sitcoms are pretty hard to “spoil.” You’ll watch them when you have time.
Networks don’t have the monopoly on viewable content anymore. Viewers have become used to curating their own programming; picking and choosing what to watch online. They are no longer stuck with whatever second-rate rerun is on at any given time.
And, honestly, a lot of it is pretty second-rate. Network sitcoms are generally — how shall I put this? — kind of unwatchable. They can’t afford to lovingly hand-craft shows that appeal to niche interests, so they are forced to continually dip back into the well of the things that they know can work. Sometimes this yields a “Modern Family” or a “Parks and Recreation” or a “Community.” But most of the time, you find yourself cringing through the likes of “Dads” or “Mulaney.”
The networks have to aim for the broadest (and often lowest) common denominator. Each show has to pass through years of focus groups, advertisers and parent companies. The machinations of network television is like this: Out-of-touch institutions mold every product into a bland paste, hand it to a group of creatives to do what little they can with it, and then a ”Bad Judge” or ”Manhattan Love Story” is spit out the other side.
But not all is bleak in the world of the TV sitcom. When it comes to fresh, exciting programming, cable has always been eager to pick up the slack. Internet 2.0 also brought along with it cheap and free streaming sites, so even though most of that coveted 18-35 audience can’t afford a traditional cable package, they can pick and choose the cable programming they want to watch on their laptops and mobile devices.
In recent years, cable networks like Comedy Central, FX and Showtime have begun rolling out smarter, darker and weirder shows than any of the Big Four networks would dare broadcast. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” has dealt with everything from abortion to molestation to jihad. The too-beautiful-for-this-world “Broad City” straight-up had an episode about pegging. Genius newcomer “Man Seeking Woman” featured a penis monster in an episode. A penis monster!
I’d say “top that, CBS,” but that wouldn’t really be fair, would it? FXX doesn’t have to get millions of viewers to satisfy its advertising budget. When it comes to entertainment, the smaller the platform, the louder the voice can afford to be, and that’s a paradox with which TV still needs to come to terms.
When it was announced that NBC wouldn’t be going forward with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s long-awaited “30 Rock” follow-up “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” there was a collective gasp among TV devotees. Who dares reject the great Tina Fey? It’s a good thing Netflix was there to pick up the slack. As anyone who’s watched the show (and if you haven’t, go do so now—literally right now) can tell you, it’s a hell of a lot darker than Ellie Kemper’s sunny disposition lets on. It doesn’t shy away from topics like PTSD and the media’s exploitation of victims. Its cast is led almost exclusively by women and people of color. One episode features a character realizing it is easier in today’s society to be a werewolf than a black man.
I’m glad “Kimmy Schmidt” wasn’t confined to NBC, just as I’m glad modern comedy audiences aren’t confined to cable. But I do have one burning question: As long as no one is watching network sitcoms, why not start acting like no one is watching? More ”Last Man on Earth” and ”Bob’s Burgers” and even “Fresh of the Boat,” which shows moments of true brilliance.
The sitcom is dead. Long live the sitcom.