Maclean's pop culture panel: The state of the network TV comedy

Two shows have already been cancelled. Can diversity fix the network sitcom? Jaime J. Weinman and Adrian Lee discuss.

Fox's 'Mulaney' doesn't quite do it for our TV critics.

Fox’s Mulaney doesn’t quite do it for our TV writers

TV’s pilot season—festive and bursting with possibility—is firmly and quickly in the rear-view window. NBC announced over the weekend that it will cancel its two new Thursday-night comedies, the rom-com A to Z and the legal laugher Bad Judge. With some of TV’s more venerable comedies winding down or on the wane, and with a new crop wobbling on its legs, it’s as good a time as any for Jaime J. Weinman and Adrian Lee to reconvene the Maclean’s pop culture panel to ponder the current state of the network TV comedy, what shows they’ve enjoyed so far this year, and why we’ll be watching Friends until the next millennium.

WEINMAN: Well, it’s that time again in the world of TV comedy: the first round of cancellations and fast flops. For NBC, cancelling A to Z and Bad Judge might finally force them to admit that their tradition of Thursday-night comedy is over and it’s never coming back.

The state of network comedy, which seemed pretty good only a few years ago, has become worrying to a lot of people in the business: The networks pick up a ton of half-hour sitcoms every year, but there hasn’t actually been a major hit since Modern Family. Shows that looked as though they had the chance to be hits, such as New Girl, have fizzled out in viewership and ratings. And let’s not even get into Mulaney, the show that was expected to save the traditional sitcom and turned out to be not very good at all, though it’s managed to avoid cancellation for now.

Why do networks have such a terribly hard time making comedies? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they don’t really know what they want, the way they usually know with drama. Every season, the networks seize on some kind of new concept or approach for comedy; this season, it was romance, with shows such as A to Z, Marry Me, and ABC’s bomb, Manhattan Love Story. (It seems as though these shows may have been partly influenced by The Mindy Project and, if networks are influenced by a show that has never actually been popular, you see one of the reasons they’re in trouble.)

Unlike drama, where most networks have some idea of what approach works for them, comedy is so unpredictable, and so subjective, that executives just keep bouncing from one approach to another in the hope of finding the Hot New Thing.

LEE: Let’s do talk about Mulaney, though, because I think it’s really germane to what we’re talking about. Beyond being merely a profound disappointment from one of the funniest stand-up comics working, it’s also a show that went through—and accepted—profound network notes and revisions, having bopped around from NBC into Fox’s lap. Say what you will about the nature of executives’ notes and the cliché of creatives vs. management, but anyone who has suffered through four episodes (as I have) knows that some of this show’s soul definitely was lost in the mark-ups. They wanted to fix it, they saddled on words like “redemption” and “saviour”—and the show flails all the harder for it.

Networks simply aren’t good at innovating—but network execs still believe in their ability to do it. I think this year’s crop isn’t so much inspired by The Mindy Project as it is the product of a desperation to recapture the magic of How I Met Your Mother‘s final seasons, a show that was never really a buzzy talking point until, really, the promise of the mother’s origin story actually started to loom. (Heck, A To Z even wholesale-borrowed HIMYM’s mother, Cristin Milioti, and its twee narration.) They want another HIMYM without really knowing how they made HIMYM in the first place. Credit networks for making some efforts with the genuinely ambitious structure of A To Z—and, hey, Selfie could’ve been dead right out of the gates, but it’s been better than expected, too. But I don’t look to networks for innovation in comedy; I look to them for comfort fodder. And that’s a tough cognitive gap for me to cross, there, between what networks are trying to do and what I want them to do.

I think viewers who head to network TV expecting subversion are looking for the wrong thing. When it happens, it’s fantastic, to be sure. See Community, when it was on NBC, or recall that Parks and Recreation abruptly shifted gears after its first season, a daring manoeuvre that did vault the show into success. But networks haven’t really been tastemakers for a while, even before Netflix and Amazon and premium cable came in and changed the game. And yet, in this age of hot takes—who can come up with the snarkiest tweet, the most popular opinion, the ultimate, decisive stance—we crave the comfortable beats and the reliable characters and the inside jokes, but refuse to give comedies the time they need to make that happen. As you say, dramas are a little simpler and more knowable in their approach, and they fuel this hot-take stuff; cliffhangers are easy to dummy up at the end of every episode, when comedies, by their very nature, cannot. Little wonder, then, that NBC has quietly, totally given up on its long-vaunted Thursday-night comedy block. They’ve been talking about shifting away from it for a while—but cancelling the entire block in A to Z and Bad Judge before they even had time to find their feet confirms that NBC will not soon be the Home of Must-See TV, as far as comedies go. Combine that with the fact that this is Parks and Recreation‘s last season, and my cynicism about the incomprehensibly plotted Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt set for the spring, and I think the NBC is basically now the Home of Dramatic Grimacing and Slow Pans.

But am I wrong? Should I expect more from network comedies? Can they be saved—or should they even be?

WEINMAN: I haven’t a lot to say about Mulaney, really, because I didn’t have the same expectations for it that everyone else seemed to. Of course, I was hoping it would be good. But a show with a thin premise, based around a young comedian with little acting experience (even Jerry Seinfeld had been on a sitcom before, though he got fired from it), is hard to bring off unless it has a very clear and unique voice of its own. Perhaps the mistake Fox made was trying to thin out the premise even more. The original NBC pilot was about Mulaney trying to quit drinking. This might have been considered too serious for a light comedy, but, in fact, most of the popular light comedies have something serious like that at the root. Remember Cheers, about an alcoholic, washed-up athlete and a woman who’s just been dumped by the man she was going to marry? Network comedy often winds up veering away from anything that could be considered serious, even when the premise seems to call for it: Mindy Kaling plays an ob-gyn, but has said abortion isn’t an appropriate subject for her show; the cops on Brooklyn Nine-Nine are pretty carefree, as cops go; and most new shows are, as they have been since Friends, about people with no real problems other than romantic ones. I don’t know if that works anymore.

I think network comedy is still needed, though, because, frankly, cable and Netflix and Amazon still haven’t caught up with broadcast network stuff when it comes to that one form: the half-hour sitcom. These outlets are good as sorta-kinda comedies, such as Louie and Girls, or comedies that are more than just comedies, such as TransParent, or subversive parodies of the whole sitcom form, such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But for the pure comedy, with all the formulas and beats that entails, broadcast networks are better equipped: They have bigger writing staffs, they can write more jokes, they punch scripts up more fully and just plain get more laughs from a wider variety of people. This is why cable networks and syndication alike still depend for a lot of their viewership on reruns of network comedies: your Seinfelds, your Two and a Half Men, your How I Met Your Mother (and Then Didn’t Care Much When She Died). And most cable comedies just don’t have the impact of their dramas: They don’t drive conversation as did Breaking Bad, or turn into huge hits such as The Walking Dead. Broadcast comedy is still where the action is, whether it’s a big hit such as The Big Bang Theory or a cult show whose influence goes beyond its cult, such as Community. If broadcast can’t get its act together, cable isn’t going to pick up the slack.

Not that broadcast is completely doomed. There have been some bright spots for comedy this year, if you look hard enough. ABC’s Wednesday lineup of single-camera family comedy—The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family and the new Black-ish—has solidified into a genuinely popular, if not blockbuster, night by going after an under-served audience (families who watch comedy together) and focusing on people you don’t often see on TV (yes, sadly, you don’t often see a black family on TV these days). The same network’s Cristela, though dumped on Friday nights, is a good studio-audience sitcom that has restored a bit of lustre to the form after the disappointment of Mulaney. Does this mean that, next year, networks will all suddenly decide that “diversity” is the magic formula for comedy? Well, at least it would be better than “romantic comedy.”

ABC's 'Black-ish.'

ABC’s Black-ish

LEE: I will eat all of the hats if, next year, networks flock to diversity as the salve that cures them—especially given that it took until 2014 to cast a Chinese male love interest in a TV sitcom, but, you know, that’s some private biases. But you’re absolutely right: Gawky white guy John Mulaney’s failure stands in immediate contrast to all the legitimately good stuff that’s happening from non-white sources. Black-ish ties with Marry Me as my favourite comedy thus far (too-early caveat here, of course). And Cristela has impressed me in some specific ways so far. But networks acknowledging this would require a tectonic shift in attitudes that would, frankly, be the most innovative thing networks could do.

Lest we forget, too, that NBC thought their cure-all for Thursday Must-See Comedy last year was to try that daring and not-at-all-tired genre of family comedies (“The New Families of Comedy,” naturally), before cancelling The Michael J. Fox Show, Sean Saves the World and Welcome to the Family in one fell swoop (again, naturally).

Instead, I’d wager that the success of network TV’s new, more diverse shows is happenstance correlation, rather than causation. Black-ish works because it’s familiar ground tread in a different(-ish) way (even if I struggle to believe Laurence Fishburne is Anthony Anderson’s dad, when their age difference is nine years), and the crisp-cut production value is actually some of the highest I’ve seen this year; it reminds me a lot of Modern Family, in that way, and may yet be seen as a natural heir. Cristela is a reminder that shows premised on a single star can still work—the way that loving The Mindy Project is about buying fully into the personality of Mindy Kaling, for instance, and the way that Mulaney is effectively a failure of its central figure—but that star must be extremely charming, and Cristela Alonzo is downright effervescent, regardless of her skin colour, and she overcomes mostly tired material (and a laugh track, which I just bristle at). John Cho is a lead in Selfie, which is getting some good critical reception, despite its horrible title and Millennial-hating premise—but that’s more on the strength of Karen Gillan’s character, an alt-take of Zooey Deschanel in New Girl.

Ultimately, I agree fully with what you said: Broadcast needs to continue to exist. But, in a time when the Internet froths whenever an old show that’s on TV all the time anyway, such as Friends, hits Netflix, there’s less awareness than ever, I think, of how shows become popular. Will we notice before it’s too late, and all we’re watching are old shows still, and whatever canned stale family comedy has become the lowest common denominator on TV? What will have to change? Will it have to come from viewers changing their own habits?

ABC's 'Cristela.'

ABC’s Cristela

WEINMAN: I suppose the question is: Will audience tastes in comedy ever go in what we might call, for want of a better word, a more sophisticated direction? It’s already happened in drama, to an extent: The Walking Dead puts up numbers that surpass any broadcast drama, and while it’s not exactly the most sophisticated show on the market, it is a serialized drama that requires you to pay attention, remember what happened last week, and accept that everything won’t work out for the best—in other words, not a cop procedural. But comedy audiences won’t be budged: They will accept no more serialization than we got on Friends (which was pretty serialized, but still fairly new-viewer-friendly), they like laugh tracks and simple character types, obvious punchline jokes and a clear demarcation between comic and dramatic moments. Part of the history of the last 10 years or so of television comedy involves producers, writers and executives expecting audience tastes to develop and mature at any moment, so that shows such as 30 Rock will become hits. It hasn’t happened and I’m not sure it ever will. Sitcoms are all about casual comfort viewing, and a great sitcom is one that manages to surprise you in the middle of casual, comfortable viewing. A sitcom that demands you pay attention and do your homework, the way Mad Men or Game of Thrones do, is probably kind of a lost cause.

So how would we get a new hit show in this environment, when the new and rapidly evolving media don’t fit with the public’s old-fashioned and slow-to-change tastes? Obviously, if I knew the key to making a popular sitcom, I’d be out there making one. But I think it might help to target under-served segments of the audience, or, at least, do shows about people who aren’t usually on TV. That’s the secret to the success of ABC’s Wednesday night lineup, as I said earlier, but it’s been the key to many hit sitcoms: We forget that when Friends was new, there weren’t a lot of people like the friends—too young to be adults and too old to be kids—on television. The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, and The Big Bang Theory are all shows that went wide by going narrow. By focusing on a relatively unique assortment of people–rich African-Americans, Miami retirees, science nerds—they managed to attract large audiences, charmed by the fact that there were no other people exactly like these on television. Which is all another way of saying the obvious about sitcoms: It’s not about the uniqueness of the premise, it’s about the uniqueness of the people. And the first step to building a hit is to find people we aren’t seeing on every other channel.

LEE: There are still elements of the universal there: class discomfort drives Black-ish; social awkwardness, Big Bang. So maybe diversity helps, but I’m not positive it’s the take-one-pill cure-all. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is about a white guy and a bunch of wacky police officers, and we’ve seen both before, and it’s doing fairly well for itself.

Networks are going to have to keep existing—someone has to make the stuff that goes on Netflix—but I guess I’m just worried that we’re going to get so comfortable receding to the familiar that we’ll be watching Friends on our wrist-holograms in 3014.

WEINMAN: Well, don’t worry, by the time they get around to making wrist-holograms affordable, all of television will have been wiped out by the upcoming entertainment apocalypse. (Perhaps I’ve said too much.) It could be that the era of the popular sitcom is simply coming to a close, much like the era of broadcast TV. On the other hand, writers have underestimated the public’s appetite for easy, cheap laughs before, and they’ve always been wrong. When Friends hits Netflix on Jan. 1, it’ll be a sort of celebration of the fact that, when it comes to comedy, we’ve never grown up. Sort of like the Friends never really grew up in 10 years.

LEE: Sigh. No one told me life was going to be this way.

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