It’s rough out there for the American TV sitcom, especially after CBS’s surprising decision to cancel The Millers 4 episodes into its second season. It was the third highest rated sitcom during the 2013/2014 TV season, and now it’s gone, exposed as a timeslot hit that couldn’t carry enough viewers once it was robbed of the luxury of airing behind The Big Bang Theory. There are now only two truly popular network sitcoms on TV right now, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, the ladder being the newest of the two and it debuted 6 years ago. Of this year’s new broadcast crop of comedies, four out of the nine which have premiered have been canceled (A to Z, Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, Bad Judge), two are most likely soon to follow (Mulaney, The McCarthys), two improbably earned what amounts to full season orders (Marry Me, Cristela) leaving room for only one true hit, Blackish. The networks don’t seem at all confident about any of the midseason comedies on the way. NBC’s actually already given up on two of them, pre-emotively canceling the Will Ferrell-produced Krysten Ritter project Mission Control, and letting Netflix take the Tina Fey-produced Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt off of their hands. Netflix then immediately renewed Kimmy Schmidt for a second season before any of us have even seen the pilot. Who do you think Tina Fey wants to pitch her next comedy to now?
All of this led to one TV executive telling The Hollywood Reporter that the current dry spell for the American sitcom has officially reached what the industry regards as “a state of emergency.” It’s not just network TV either. TV Land has somewhat quietly been churning out traditional multi-camera sitcoms for years now, but it just canceled Hot in Cleveland (albeit after 5 seasons) and its first single-camera sitcom (Jennifer Falls) failed to make it to a second season. USA’s first ever batch of original half-hour comedies has thus far resulted in one second season renewal (Sirens), one which aired its most recent episode in June and still does not know if it has been canceled or renewed (Playing House), and another which just premiered this past month (Benched). The network, broadcast or cable, which appears to be in the strongest shape with sitcoms right now is FX (Always Sunny…, The League, etc.), and that’s partially because they can/will go darker with their shows (You’re the Worst) than the competition and also because they created an entirely new network (FXX) which is absolutely desperate for programming.
There are a great many reasons why this has happened. As Pajiba argued earlier this month, many of the new shows on the broadcast side of things are high concept comedies, i.e., based on gimmicks. That doesn’t really work for a sitcom. How I Met Your Mother pulled it off, but it did so in the long run not because of its gimmick but because it turned into Friends for a new generation.
In fact, sitcoms historically have 3 default templates: workplace comedy, friends hanging out comedy, and family comedy. The problem from a marketing standpoint is that those have been done to death, although the continued existence of The Middle and The Greenbergs and new success of Blackish indicate family sitcoms still play fairly well on network TV. FX can do fundamentally traditional sitcoms but still feel fresh because its characters can behave in ways network standards & practices never would have allowed on something like Seinfeld, and they can center sitcoms around comedians even if the sitcom doesn’t present the comedian as being particularly likable or even all that funny (Louie, Legit). On the opposite end, TV Land can continue acting like a retirement home for sitcoms stars of years past, giving us new, very traditional multi-camera affairs featuring Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, 3rd Rock from the Sun’s Kristen Johnston, 3rd Rock/Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, and Scrub’s Donald Faison, to name a few. The now-departed Hot in Cleveland was the pinnacle of this model, gathering together an absolute dream team of sitcom veterans, anchored by the peerless Bette White.
That doesn’t mean the broadcast networks can’t make traditional sitcoms with familiar stars. In fact, they’ve tried and failed spectacularly, audiences continually rejecting Matthew Perry (most recently with Go On) and Sean Hayes (Sean Saves the World, The Millers) while proving resistant to the feel-good, come-back story that was supposed to be The Michael J. Fox Show. Those specifics moves were made by NBC as an attempt to broaden the appeal of its comedy brand, a directive handed down by its then newly hired boss Bob Greenblatt. He inherited a network with reliable performers in The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community, and he understandably favored going for a bigger piece of the pie rather than a consistent smaller piece. As such, the network sunk millions into luring back legends of the Must-See TV era, but this bid for a broader appeal didn’t just result in a couple of failed sitcoms. No, it also resulted in a not insignificant brain drain by alienating up-and-coming writers/producers who’ve never forgiven them, like Tad Quill (his Bent was burned off in just 3 weeks) and Stephen Falk (his Next Caller never aired; he’s now the man behind FX’s You’re the Worst). More established vets were also pushed away, with 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon and The Office’s Greg Daniels having since left to work for rival TV studios.
NBC has since somehow passed on The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, their loss being Fox’s gain. Neither of those are ratings hits, but they at least earn more critical respect as well as slightly more viewers than almost every comedy on NBC right now.
Not that NBC seems to particularly mind because while its comedy brand is pretty much non-existent at this point it has still managed to become the reigning ratings king thanks to football, The Voice, and The Blacklist. The fact that NBC’s ratings surge has coincided with it gradually abandoning the sitcom is probably not coincidental. It certainly has fewer low-rated sitcoms pulling it down than either Fox or ABC.
The problem, in general, is that sitcoms are not imperative viewing the way a heavily serialized drama might be. So, even if a sitcom is actually pretty good it will consistently lose out in the on-going game of deciding which shows to watch first. That’s partially why we’re in the mess we’re in now. The networks responded by trying to eventivize the sitcom this season, prioritizing concept over character, resulting in a batch of sitcoms that appear to have been designed to make it through the pilot process, not to a full season of TV let alone 100 episodes and syndication.
Case in point: Selfie. It’s like My Fair Lady for the Twitter generation. Oh, cool. I get it. How do you actually make that into a long-lasting TV show? Umm, you mostly have the Henry Higgins stand-in slut-shaming poor Eliza for way too long. The frustrating thing, though, is that Selfie actually turned into a decent show because of two strong central performances from John Cho and Karen Gillan. The same thing is true of A to Z and Marry Me with its central pairs, Cristin Milioti/Ben Feldman and Casey Wilson/Ken Marino respectively. All three shows have highly suspect supporting casts, with both A to Z and Marry Me seriously suffering from oddly similar and equally noxious bearded best friends. In fact, all three shows have the appearance of being sold on gimmicks and then awkwardly building outward from that point forward, with often random results (Marry Me’s cast, in particular, feels less like a collection of genuine human beings who are friends and more like a “Hey, what if so-and so was a…[black lesbian]/[airhead blonde]/[set of gay dads]/etc.”).
I say all of that because I watch all of those shows, and not because someone is paying me to do so. I watch them because I love sitcoms, raised on Cheers re-runs, guilty pleasure Wings, Frasier, and Friends, and these are actually worth watching. Karen Gilan, Cristin Milioti, and Casey Wilson are actresses worth watching and rooting for. However, I haven’t watched a single episode of Selfie, A to Z, or Marry Me live. In fact, I’ve only watched one or two episodes of any of them through my cable box. I watch all of them on Hulu.
Last night, I finally watched Marry Me’s Thanksgiving Day episode which first aired nearly 7 days ago. By the close of the episode I felt a sudden tinge of guilt. I am not a Nielsen viewer meaning anything I watch on traditional TV simply does not matter as far as ratings are concerned. However, Hulu’s different. As far as I know, they share their data with the networks, who are increasingly curious to catch data for all points of exposure to their programming, live, DVR, On-Demand, online streaming, etc. In some incredibly minor way I can help these shows by supporting them on Hulu, yet I’ve been waiting to watch them until several episodes have built up. I do that because some other heavily serialized show I like, such as The Flash or Vampire Diaries, always takes priority. But according to Lonestar and Awake creator Kyle Killen, TV advertizers only truly care about ratings within the first 3 days of a show’s airing. He said that in relation to Nielsen, but does that also extend to Hulu even though Hulu’s ads are more flexible and less time-sensitive? I don’t actually know. It still occurred to me that in some small way I might actually be helping to kill the American sitcom, or am I simply watching sitcoms the way most all of us will years from now, even if by that point most sitcoms are airing somewhere other than network TV?