(This is an extended preview of Sunday’s PopRox column in the Pocono Record. It’s like finding a Blu-ray Easter egg right here. Also, I’m gonna start a hashtag with this, feel free to use it yourself and get to trending. #RenaissanceoftheSitcom, yo.)
There was the reality era.
The game show period.
The vampire trend.
Television networks have tried it all over the last decade, anything to tear eyeballs away from cable, your computer or your iPhone.
After years of transition and blatant ignorance, TV networks have re-discovered the sitcom format — traditional and otherwise — and plan to force it down our throats in the fall. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Networks have developed no more than five great, lasting dramas over the last five years or so, and only The Good Wife is still hanging around as an example of how good network drama can be. Meanwhile, look at the great sitcoms developed over the last five years like Modern Family, The Middle, Raising Hope, New Girl, Happy Endings, Community, Parks and Recreation and Suburgatory. It’s pretty safe to say comedy development is far outpacing drama at TV networks.
Fresh ideas? Got ‘em. Great, untapped comedic talent? It’s in there. Tight, funny writing? Check. The sitcom is where it’s at these days on network TV — even though none of them can touch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, Dexter or even Sons of Anarchy on cable. But sitcoms is where it’s at these days on the networks.
Here’s a quick guide to the sitcoms of the fall, those that are returning and the new ones you’ll want to familiarize yourself with:
It’s hard to start any TV show without a recognizable face, but networks must have decided to load up on behind-the-scenes talent and funny premises rather than shell out the big bucks for big comedy names. NBC is the only network that landed a huge sitcom name when it scheduled Go On starring Matthew Perry as a grieving widower for 9 p.m. Tuesdays. That’s not to say there are no sitcom veterans — Sarah Chalke (Elliott on Scrubs) gets a midseason show at ABC on How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life, Mindy Kaling (Kelly on The Office) is producing, writing and starring in The Mindy Project and even Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa on The Cosby Show) has found her way back to a sitcom on Guys with Kids. Reba McEntire is back, too. But it’s obvious the networks were looking for new faces to save on big-star paychecks. Sorry, Kelsey Grammer. Looks like you’re sticking with Boss for a while.
Everything in TV is cyclical. When Lost, 24 and The Sopranos were ruling the airwaves and the reality craze was in high-gear, sitcoms were pushed to the back burner. Networks executives wanted to see the next Survivor or Grey’s Anatomy, not the next Frasier. Then a funny thing happened. As production companies continued to cash Seinfeld syndication checks a decade after it left the air, networks found out they couldn’t sell Lost or Biggest Loser into syndication because fans already knew the twists — which was the best part about watching a show like that. Then CBS sold the syndication rights for Big Bang Theory for a gazillion dollars, and the head of every network got on the horn with its development team and told them to find the next great sitcom. That was Modern Family — which sold for a reported $1.5 million per episode in syndication rights. If Modern Family makes it six seasons — a very, very conservative estimate since it just finished its third season as the highest-rated scripted show on TV -- at 22 episodes each season, that’s 132 episodes and $198 million to the network and production company for doing nothing. The shows have already been produced, paid for and aired. The show is profitable already, and then you’re going to throw $200 million more into its coffers. For doing nothing. With TV revenues in the toilet, cable syndication deals are the trend du jour to pad the long-lasting revenue stream only sitcoms can provide. And this will always be funny.
For the last few years, every network has worked to establish its own sitcom beachhead. They seemed content with just one night of its own to trick people into thinking it still cared about sitcoms. Well, they’re not content anymore. CBS fired the first shot last year by shifting Big Bang Theory to Thursdays, essentially killing NBC’s night of comedy. Now it’s setting up the kill shot by moving 2.5 Men to 8:30 Thursdays and possibly taking out NBC’s traditional Thursday night comedy block for good. Fox, ABC and NBC are all taking dead aim at each other on Tuesday nights, with each scheduling its buzziest new comedies for the night. NBC is investing the most, with Go On and the Ryan Murphy-created The New Normal at 9 and 9:30 p.m. and ABC is moving young stars Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 to those times. That’s a shot across the bow of Fox, with the darling New Girl and talked-about new show The Mindy Project. NBC (Whitney and Community) and ABC (Last Man Standing and McEntire’s Malibu Country) go head-to-head with its discards on Fridays at 8 and 8:30 p.m. NBC will try to make an inroad into Wednesdays with Animal Practice and Guys with Kids at 8 and 8:30 p.m. Although from the look of the unfunny Guys with Kids trailer, anyone who watches that over Suburgatory should probably have their TV taken away on general principle.