The Life and Death of Comedy TV

With the fall TV season winding down, it’s a good time to step away from Thanksgiving celebrations and discuss the “warm, warming glow” of television. In our preview of the TV season, we talked about some exiting shows both in terms of potential quality and potential disaster (oh “The Playboy Club”…). Now it’s time to take a closer look at the state of the sitcom: shows that will return, might return, and ones that are still gaining ground.

JAKE: So, the big news on the internets has been NBC pulling “Community” from its midseason schedule. No return date has been set, though the entire third season will air at some point. What are your thoughts? Are you preparing yourself for news of cancellation or still hopeful for six seasons and a movie?

JC: I’m definitely hopeful for one more season. If it was CBS, where they cut their lowest-rated shows even if they have more viewers than the best NBC show, I’d say sayonara and hope the replacement was at least better than “Whitney”, but it’s NBC, a channel that has kept “Chuck” on past its prime. There are really just two questions to ask (and I can’t answer either): (1) How much money will NBC gain by syndicating the show next season? and (2) How much are they making on DVDs? The second question is why NBC was reluctant to cancel “Heroes”.

JAKE: Yeah, the thing to consider here is Sony, who has pressured networks into keeping low rated shows for an extra season to reach the syndication number. Plus, NBC is in a terrible place. It cannot get a hit to save its life and is just limping along until “The Voice” returns in the spring. Most of what it puts on will fail and “Whitney” is unlikely to survive the move to Wednesday nights. And, like you said, this is the network that has given “Chuck” (which I love) five seasons. The show should never have made it past two with the numbers it pulled. So there is hope for one last season, which given the show is based on four years at college, is all I really want anyways. In the meantime “Community”‘s former time slot will be filled by “30 Rock”, coming off a really strong rebound season, followed by “Parks and Rec”, which keeps its time slot. I know you have given “Parks and Rec” another chance after me alternating between begging and threatening. So, with that in mind, if you could only keep one show, which would survive? “Parks and Rec” or “Community”?

JC: “Community” for sure. Not only do I prefer “Community”, but anyone critiquing its low ratings need to be aware that it’s under attack from all sides. The first show of a network TV comedy block tends to have weaker ratings (CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” is a ratings juggernaut now, but faced almost certain cancellation after two of its earlier seasons; ABC’s “The Middle” was given some slack and its ratings are improving). What show bucks this trend? “The Big Bang Theory.” CBS moved “The Big Bang Theory” to Thursday specifically to put the final nail in the NBC coffin by dismantling the Thursday night comedy block that once featured “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” And FOX threw the under-performing (but over-performing compared to NBC) “The X Factor” against “Community” as well. Heck, even “The Vampire Diaries” on CW is giving “Community” a run for its money.

So why do I have higher hopes for “Community”? Consider this: At 8pm ET, 15 million Americans watch “The Big Bang Theory” and 3.6 million watch “Community”. At 830pm ET, “Parks and Rec” gains 60,000 viewers more than “Community.” Where did they come from? Well, more than 4 million fewer people watch “Rules of Engagement” than “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS and no other shows provide a comparable increase. This means 3,940,000 people might actually prefer to turn off the TV than watch “Rules of Engagement” or “Parks and Rec.” That’s larger than “Community” or “Parks and Rec”‘s total audiences.

JAKE: Oh “Big Bang Theory”, how much I dislike you these days (and not just because a character on the show is based on me). “Parks and Rec” is probably the best comedy on TV in terms of the number of laughs and consistency week to week. Plus, it has Ron Swanson. But nothing beats “Community” for me. The meta-awareness, pop culture references balanced with characters you truly care about, and willingness to experiment (Zombies! Scored to ABBA!) all make this show a contender for favorite comedy ever in my book (the only real competition is “Arrested Development”).

So we are on the same page here and I suspect we will remain so as we turn to the next piece of bad news this week, ABC pushing back “Cougar Town” and cutting the season order. This poorly named comedy quickly shook off its original premise (obviously adapted from the British show “Cougarton Abbey”) and evolved into a very funny show about some wine-loving people just hanging out. Unlike “Community”, this news strikes me as the beginning of the end for “Cougar Town”. ABC has an entire lineup of good comedies and “Cougar Town” has never found an audience large enough to justify keeping it on, and that was in a post-“Modern Family” time slot. Are we about to start our final game of Penny Can?

JC: Absolutely. “Cougar Town” is going to need an amazing start when it comes back in the spring. Unlike my complaint about “Community”s time slot, if “Cougar Town” can’t get an audience when following “Modern Family”, there’s nowhere it can go but down. The show is consistently funny, with more than a few shades of “Scrubs” (with Dr. Kelso as Courtney Cox’s dad and Dr. Cox’s wife playing the same snarky role) and, even though the son’s character became a whiny little bitch I couldn’t stand to watch, I was still eager for this upcoming season. However, the ABC sitcom that really doesn’t get much chatter is “Happy Endings.” A mid-season replacement, it started out weak and poorly written, but became significantly better and forced the cancelation of “Better With You” (a surprisingly enjoyable sitcom), then stole “Cougar Town”‘s time slot. It also stole Damon Wayans Jr. back from “New Girl” (yes, that’s a different black man than in the pilot…).

JAKE: “Happy Endings” followed the same course as “Cougar Town”, with a bad premise turning into a nice comedy about a wacky group of friends. Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans Jr. are fantastic together and the writers have even managed to make Elisha Cuthbert funny in recent episodes. It is a show people can just jump into, which I think we would both recommend.

I think that about covers returning comedies (except “It’s Always Sunny”, which is having a phenomenal season, and “Modern Family”, which is probably an argument for another time), but what about the new comedies that premiered this fall? I added three into my rotation (“Up All Night”, “Suburgatory”, and “New Girl”) and all three are fairly funny shows still trying to find the right balance. “Up all Night” is trying to combine a great show about two new parents with a completely different (and average) show about an Oprah-like character straight out of an episode of “30 Rock”. “Suburgatory” also features two leads who work real well together but has struggled to flesh out the rest of that world without going over the top. “New Girl” is the best of the bunch, but has problems making the characters consistent and is still reeling from the loss of Wayans Jr. That being said, when the show comes together, it’s very funny and well worth your time. Any thoughts on the new comedies to carry us out of this rather lengthy discussion?

JC: We’ll keep your dislike of “Modern Family” for another discussion. “Suburgatory” made me roll my eyes from the start and hasn’t won me over (I also think it stars Betty White as a high school girl (or at least the actress is about the same age…)). “Up All Night” was originally written as a parent comedy. Instead, some genius at NBC decided to amp up the “behind the scenes” element and added Nick Cannon to the cast. Will Arnett, of course, had a far better show in “Arrested Development” but I’d argue Christina Applegate’s previous show “Samantha Who?” also had more potential. “New Girl” is the best of the bunch, but it will have some growing pains as it struggles to define itself as a show more complicated than “Isn’t Zooey Deschannel just adorable?” That being said, I haven’t watched “2 Broke Girls” which I hear is better than expected. In the spirit of disclosure, the only comedies I watch consistently are “Modern Family” and “Community” (not including “30 Rock” and “Cougar Town”, as they were off the fall schedule).

We started this conversation with a discussion of “Chuck”, a show on past its prime. Want to know a show that is not only past its prime, but has been collecting social security for five years? “Weeds.” Despite the last few seasons being lackluster, Showtime has renewed it for yet another season to start next year. How much have the Showtime execs been smoking? And can they share it with the people at NBC? It couldn’t hurt.

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If you read this far, thank you. Please note that the TV and Movies sections of this blog will be on hiatus with a return TBD. Thank you for all of your loyal readership over the past few months as we passed the big 10,000.

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2 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Comedy TV

  1. 1. Why does no one else love Cougar Town? My co-interns ALL made fun of me at Intern-Thanksgiving for watching it.
    2. It’s Always Sunny SUCKS this season, except for Mac eating in confession.
    3. I can’t lose community, especially with this delayed season 30 rock
    4. I watch the big bang theory AND NBC thursday comedy…who gets credit for my multiple DVR-ing?
    5. Samantha Who was great, but I look forward more to the Netflix-only Arrested Development new season…how’s THAT going?

  2. Pingback: Five Things About NBC | that essence rare

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