Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What Happened to "Must-See TV"... as Paula Cole would say Where Have all the Great Comedies Gone?

So I am going to preface this saying, I will sound like a crank, a person nostalgic for something which may not be possible anymore, but go with me on this journey.  Around this time, but in January, 43 years ago All in the Family was a mid-season show, and while I was not alive at the time I do know that at this time in history mid-season shows got far less of a push then they do today.  All in the Family is regarded as one of the best television programs of all time, there was not only a message, but it was funny.

While All in the Family was probably both the most popular with audiences, and well liked by the Emmy Awards, there were numerous other comedies in the 70s which also had messages, and pushed boundaries. The Mary Tyler Moore show was one of the first shows about a single girl making it on her own.  Maude was a brash no nonsense feminist, and liberal, who at one point in time got the show's early history got an abortion, the show aired two months before Roe vs. Wade.

In the 70s comedy had a lot of boundaries to push, but comedy has not always been about the issues. Cheers was about a bunch of people sitting around in a bar.  Seinfeld was about, well nothing.  Friends was about friendships, and their misadventures.  Frasier was about a radio broadcaster, his family, and his search for love.  The Cosby Show, which happened to be about a black family, just dealt with typical family matters, not to be confused with Family Matters.

That's not to say that The Cosby Show did not push boundaries or mean anything because it did to the landscape of television.  Cosby was the first show to represent African Americans as doctors, and lawyers, who had success.  Television comedies were still hilarious, but meaningful in the 80s, 90s, and even into the early 00s.  Murphy Brown took Maude a step further, Brown owned her words, and shared them as a broadcaster; she also became a single parent.  The Golden Girls challenged the American norms that life ends after 50.  Designing Women showed four strong independent women running a business, while mixing in message about domestic violence.  Will & Grace was the first sitcom to focus on a central gay male character, and there representation of the supporting characters was one of the first shining glimmer of the understanding of being queer with Jack and Karen.  While many of these shows were not at the top of their game all the time, their legacy is greatness, after 2005 how many "great" comedies or sitcoms have existed?I began to think about this with the end of The Office last year.

The Office had all the elements of Cheers, but instead of a bar, this centered around a an awkward group of misfits working at a paper company.  Was Michael Scott's off putting humor the flaw?  Why didn't people tune into this show people have tuned to other popular sitcoms over the years?  Is it the format, it's different, and that does throw people off.  The Office started before binge watching, and the culture of watching things online.  Sure people were watching things online, and Netflix existed, but these avenues were not as large as they are today.  Part of the problem is probably NBC who has lost their mojo, but NBC does not have the patent on "must see TV."  That title for sitcoms belongs to CBS these days.

CBS sitcoms are the highest rated, and their two dominant shows between 2005 to the present have been Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory.  Will these two shows be seen as "great?"  I do have a feeling that Big Bang will have a much stronger legacy, and if you take out the laugh track, there would probably be crickets in your living room on Thursday nights.  The show is not bad, it adds to a spectrum of characters created in the television landscape, embracing the nerd culture, but how do you equate that let's say a Murphy Brown, Roseanne, or Frasier.  You can't.  Simply put some of these CBS sitcoms are fun to watch, but their investment in Chuck Lorre's hollow humor is missing the point to what makes television funny.  Mike & Molly, another Chuck Lorre show is a prime example, like Two and a Half Men these shows try to be sinister and darker like The Office, but their sarcasm falls flat, and makes an even bigger joke of their shows.

Back to NBC, while The Office got them mild awards attention and the best ratings, 30 Rock was their savior, and the greatest show they have created in the modern era of comedy.  Rock was saved by critics, and fans, who saw this show about the behind the scenes of an SNL-like shows as something important. Alec Baldwin was the modern day Archie Bunker, like with All in the Family, you had the read through the performance to realize the flaws in the man, like his mother issues.  Meanwhile Tina Fey was the modern day That Girl or Mary Tyler Moore, trying to make it her youth obsessed industry, trying to stand by her beliefs, and have it all.  Fey knows good television, and whether she intentionally mean this message or not her show, was the epitome of greatness in the 2000s.  Even with a slight rating problem, the show stayed on the air for seven years.

ABC has not been part of the conversation much, namely because they fail to give their comedies a chance. They do not nurture their sitcoms they are rather quick with a trigger finger, and have cancelled most things recently (see Happy Endings).  Modern Family is the most recent example of television that will be seen as great, and it is.  The show has some social messaging, it portrays the evolution of the family, the humor is sharp, and unlike many television shows centered around families, it does lot get caught up or lose steam because of children who grow up.  Modern Family is the best example of one of the the last "great" shows.  While the quality has lowered of the last few years, this show, still is one of the best.  Even through a weaker third and fourth season this season this most recent season has only improved.  Modern Family is that show right, now but what about the other comedies, does the cheese stand alone?

Let's look at some of the recent shows that are trying to attain that "great" or classic factor.  If you look at the nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards, you can gather a good image of what the industry finds great at the time.  Let's start with 2006, the first year The Office debuted at the Emmy Awards, and the first year for Two and a Half Men.

2006 Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy Nominees
Arrested Development 
Curb Your Enthusiasm 
The Office 
Two and a Half Men

Many of you have probably been screaming, Arrested Development, Arrested Development, how could you not mention that as a great show.  Arrested Development became a classic, but while the show was on the air it got poor ratings.  Development like The Office, and 30 Rock were save by critics, and the Emmy Awards.  Development won Outstanding Comedy Series in its first year, which helped keep it on the air for three years.  Development led to the continued growth of shows like The Office, 30 Rock, and eventually Parks and Recreation and Community.  Arrested Development not only fits as a classic, but its resurrection on Netflix proves the power of the show.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is an interesting example on this list, for me its hilarious must-see television, it comes from the creator of Seinfeld Larry David, and fits within that pattern of that style of comedy.  Enthusiasm is a niche HBO show, with niche humor, like many cable, and pay cable nominees, or shows not nominated, for example Louie, Girls, Entourage, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Veep.  All of these shows have been nominated for this category, but at they "great," are they classics in the way we judge them in the pantheon of television history?  You may find one or two of these shows on those "top" lists at some point now or eventually at some point in history, but are they classics, do they advance the genre?  Do they they fit within the pantheon of Cheers, All in the Family, Frasier, The Cosby Show, and many more?

When I put together my list of shows that should nominated, and critics do the same, there are fewer and fewer comedies to choose from to make a top five or top six list, and even of those five or six they do not always seem to impact the the genre and the evolution of comedic television.  With larger numbers of options to watch on television there has become a fractured system in the type of humor seen.  30 Rock, Arrested Development, and Modern Family seem to be three examples people could get behind as modern classics, you could probably add The Office too.  Yet only one of these is still currently on the air, does anything on today besides maybe Parks and Recreation, or I guess I will count The Big Bang Theory resemble, or reach the level of classic "must-see" television.  Television has done such a great job with drama, and there is a rise on blended series mixing the drama, and comedy, which started with Ally McBeal.  

Yes I have ignored the blended shows throughout this piece, but let's go back to the ones mentioned above, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Girls.  I think you have to look at these three shows differently based on their age concept, whether they advance the genre.  Weeds is the senior member of this crew, and told the dark tale of a suburban mother turned drug dealer.  Weeds got lost in the shuffle as its quality dragged in the end years, but if you look at the basic product, it's funny, and it pushes comedy with a modern sensibility.  Things are so bad for this woman that she has to sell drugs in order to maintain her lifestyle.  This has the makings of a classic, I would argue the latter seasons ruin that more than any show like Dexter, but to me Weeds is classic television.  Nurse Jackie is in the middle, and while the Emmy Awards love this show, which is far more drama than comedy, always has been.  Showtime started rubber stamping these female lead shows, like United States of Tara, and The Big C, which I applaud, but none of them scream classic comedy, maybe Tara because the split personality thing was funny.  Girls is too new, too fresh to tell, if you asked me season one I would have said yes, season two no, and now with season three maybe.  I think Lena Dunham is a strong voice of her generation, and if she continues to bring fresh comedy to the table she can help advance the genre.

The main question is how do television comedies evolve?  How do you challenge networks, and now internet providers to bring people more laughter rather than tears?  How to does evolution of the type of comedy like more blended series with drama and comedy like Weeds find its place as a classic? I do not know that solved or further created a problem with my thesis, but I think these are interesting question.  At the end of the day comedic television has stagnated, there have been a couple shows here and there that have pushed the medium forward, and allow artists/creators to share their truly creative visions with people.

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