Same Guys, New Sitcoms

Because I’m always missing stuff, I didn’t realize until I read McGrath’s post that Fox had announced the cancellation of Back to You, touted last year as the last best hope for the multi-camera sitcom. Turns out that the Fox studio is trying to interest CBS in picking up the show, on the accurate theory that it should have been there all along. It’s a reminder of how the current habit, of having networks mostly air shows that their own studio produces, is actually not a very good deal for the studios in many ways: Back to You was courted by several networks, Fox won the bidding war in part because it was a Fox property (at least I’m assuming that was part of the reason; Steve Levitan, the talented co-creator of BTY, has been at the Fox studio for some years now, producing one flop after another). Now the studio is reduced to trying to peddle a failed show to the network that probably should have had it in the first place.

Back to You had a number of problems that the writers never really solved — I remember watching the pilot and being surprised that The Big Bang Theory, much reviled at the time, was actually more promising — but one big problem it always had, probably the biggest, was that any time a sitcom is built around the star of a big, beloved long-running hit, it’ll have serious trouble living up to the attendant hype. That’s not to say that once someone stars in a hit sitcom, they can never do another good comedy. (Though it’s certainly hard to name anybody who starred in a huge hit sitcom and then did one that was equally good. You could say Mary Tyler Moore, though her role on The Dick Van Dyke Show wasn’t precisely a starring or even co-starring role. Newhart, I guess.) But the expectations for the follow-up show will be very high, even though the actual record shows that the best sitcoms tend to be the ones that don’t have stars with a proven track record of hits. The best sitcoms tend to draw their cast members from the following talent pools: Respected, funny actors with a long track record of flops; stand-up comics without a lot of acting experience; “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors; former second or third bananas on successful shows (Mary Tyler Moore fits into this category). What you don’t usually find is the headlining star of a hit show starring in a show that’s just as good. The dispiriting thing about TV shows in general, but especially sitcoms, is that you get to star in one huge hit and everything from then on is diminishing returns. That’s how you get from I Love Lucy to The Lucy Show to Here’s Lucy to Life With Lucy.

So Back to You had a built-in problem despite the fact that both Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton are very funny and talented and professional: the expectations for a show with this cast were out of whack with what it was likely to deliver. This is especially true in the case of Kelsey Grammer, who had already made the leap from second banana to star and therefore had to be considered unlikely to strike paydirt again; Patricia Heaton probably had a better chance to headline a hit, because she was technically the second banana on Raymond. (Brad Garrett has a reasonably successful show, after all, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a good show; second bananas still have somewhere to go and something to prove, so the audience is willing to follow them to a starring role and not judge them by what they’ve done in the past.) I’ll try a baseball analogy: if you take a 30 year-old superstar and judge him by what he has done in the past, he looks like a great free agent signing, and he commands a huge salary. If you judge him by what he’s likely to do in the future, he doesn’t look quite as good, because most players have their best years before they’re 30. The analogy breaks down because actors, unlike athletes, don’t decline in skill as they get older. But the best bets for a hit sitcom are nearly always — not always, just almost always — the ones with people who have not yet become established stars of hit sitcoms. So Back to You was a problematic investment because the presence of Kelsey Grammer made it more expensive to produce, even though casting another, cheaper, less well-known actor might actually have made it more likely to succeed.

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