Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NBC's Future: Comedy Night, Done Right?

30 Rock and The Office are Closing.  More to Follow?

For over two decades, Thursday nights on NBC was the place for "Must See TV."  Some of the most popular sitcoms in history made their home from the 8-10pm time period.  "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers" got the ball rolling in the '80s.  "Frasier" and "Friends" led a still thriving NBC into the 21st century.  Those four shows, along with "Seinfeld" and many others, garnered mass audiences for a reason.  The were broad.  People of all demographics could relate to the stories that were being told week after week.  I was barely a teenager when I first started watching reruns of "Frasier" and "Friends" and I never had a hard time understanding most of what was happening.  Sure, there was some minor adult humor that may have went over my head but those jokes didn't exclude someone of my demo from enjoying the show.

Since "Frasier" and "Friends" ended their initial runs back in 2004, NBC has moved away from the broad, laugh track laced, traditional sitcom. Half hour comedies are now being shot in the single camera format often associated with the hour long drama.  Laugh tracks are replaced with cuts to fantastical gags ("Scrubs" and "30 Rock") or mockumentary type commentary by the characters "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation." The most successful of NBC's new age sitcoms has been "The Office."  "The Office" premiered near the end of the 2004-05 TV season with a short run of six episodes.  This was the same TV season that marked a resurgence for the struggling ABC.  "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," and "Grey's Anatomy" all premiered during the 2004-05 campaign.  Those three shows, along with FOX's "House," were near the top of the rating charts.  Those first 6 episodes of "The Office" didn't come any where near the popularity of these hour-long programs.  Furthermore, overwhelming critical praise for the show was lacking.  This looked like another case of an American adaptation failing to live up to the original British version.

And yet, NBC did renew "The Office."  The second season was much improved and the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy in the fall of 2006.  The improved storytelling, the Emmy win, and the newfound fame of Steve Carell (who had starred in The 40 Year-Old Virgin that summer) had transformed "The Office" into a legitimate hit. Fall of 2006, NBC launched the "30 Rock." This Tina Fey starring and produced show would take the Outstanding Comedy Emmy crown from "The Office" and keep for several years.  Unfortunately for NBC, Fey's popularity and the Emmy wins did not translate into higher ratings.  If anything. "30 Rock" has often had the benefit of having "The Office" be its lead in. 

Earlier this year, it was announced that the upcoming season would be "30 Rocks" last.  This week, it was announced that ninth season of "The Office" would also be its final one.  I don't have a problem with seeing either of these show leave the airwaves of NBC.  I stopped watching "The Office" after Jim and Pam got married.  I didn't stop watching as a demonstration of protest.  I wasn't angry that they got married.  I acutally loved that episode.  But I never felt the urge to tune in since that fantastic episode.  From what I've heard since I stopped tuning in, most viewers and critics have had similar feelings.

I have gone back and forth with "30 Rock." It's always been a silly, albeit intelligent, comedy.  Some seasons have weighed more on the silly side a little too much for my liking.  And I have to admit, it's really hard for me to remember any of the arcs that have taken place in previous seasons.  I know Fey's Liz Lemon has dated characters that were played by guys like Jon Hamm and Matt Damon (funny how she dates handsome guys like them even though the actress/writer/producer always implements self-deprecating humor into the show's weeks plots).  Despite not having memorable seasons, the show has produced a numbers of memorable episodes, including this past season's live episode (I don't know the name of the episode off the top of my head, but that's not important).  Anyway, I think NBC should be proud that it gave a critically loved but ratings challenged show seven seasons to do its thing.

Now the question becomes, will NBC grant future seasons for a couple of its other fan favorite comedies?  Obviously, I'm referring to "Parks and Recreation" and "Community." Neither of these shows has received the love of the Emmy voters in the same way that "The Office" and "30 Rock" have.  Plus, "Community" has already lost Dan Harmon, its creator and former showrunner, and has been moved the Friday nights (where shows go to die). "Parks and Rec" is entering its fifth season.  NBC may view five seasons as being generous on their part.  Both shows are not getting any popular and NBC is desperate to return to the glory day of "Must See TV."

So it's strange to think that, in approximately nine months, "Community," "Parks and Recreation," "The Office," and "30 Rock" will all be cancelled and/or concluded.  After all, it was only a couple of years ago when NBC was using the slogan, "Comedy Night Done Right" to promote this Thursday night lineup.  Now, they may have a Thursday night lineup that they feel is more "broad" and inclusive than "Community" and "Parks and Rec." I'm confident that NBC will discover that shows like "Animal Practice" and "Go On" will appeal to a wider audience.  Families, from grandpa to granddaughter, will enjoy a show that features an adorable monkey. But how many families will tune in together? To what lengths will they go to make sure they don't miss an episode? Will they use a DVR, On Demand, log in to Hulu in case they miss it live?  Will they miss it when it goes on hiatus? History and common sense tells us they won't do these things.  Not to the same degree that fanbases for cults shows like "Community" do. 

Over the last decade, critics have been harsh on NBC.  They have knocked it for its aweful ratings, its lack of buzz worthy dramas  The network has been criticised for failing to create a distinctive brand like its competitors have been able to do.  Most recently, it was criticized for its various flubs during the Olympics.  Some of those flubs included the promotional material for "Animal Practice." The one saving grace for the network has been its comedies.  They may look and sound different from what older viewers may be used to.  They may be aimed at a much smaller audience.  But those who watch "Community", love "Community."  Those who love "Parks and Rec," will fight for "Parks and Rec."  I can safely say that if "Animal Practice" fails, there will be no "save the show" campaign.  Because the target audience for that type of comedy is not a loyal one.   

For me, a "Comedy Night Done Right" is one that makes me laugh for two whole hours.  You can do that with both "cult" comedies and "broad" comedies.  It's not an either/or situation.  The two can co-exist.  To abandon original, creative, and hilarious storytelling would be the opposite of doing right by comedy.  That's Comedy Night Done Wrong.

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