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The Unexplainable Surge in Good Sitcoms

Illustration: Gluekit
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Doug Hyun/HBO; 30 Rock: Art Streiber/NBC; Mad Love: Cliff Lipson/CBS; It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Patrick McElhenney/FX; Raising Hope: Greg Gayne/FOX; Community: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

THR’s TV critic Tim Goodman examines how a creative renaissance has shifted from drama to comedy.

It wasn’t the most scientific of all discoveries. But as I was putting together the recent Power Rankings! for THR.com — my weekly rating of top shows by quality — there it was, as obvious as ever: Under our unsuspecting noses, there are loads of good sitcoms, all fighting for a spot in the Elite Eleven.

In fact, I could have filled the entire list with sitcoms. There is already a slew of great ones on the air and many on the way that show promise. Six or seven years ago, a tremendous comedy was like a rare gold piece. Times were dire in the laughter business.

Now, despite all the acclaim, the spotlight’s not on the superb dramas that have created a renaissance in that genre lately. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, etc. — all on break. In fairness, three or four excellent dramas couldn’t be ignored for the Power Rankings!, but the mere fact that you could create a list of 11 sitcoms worth anybody’s time — 22 precious minutes out of a harried life — was a near miracle.

A scouring of Google or even Lexis/Nexis probably wouldn’t net many current mentions of the phrase “Sitcoms are dead.” Remember not long ago when spouting that was as in vogue as quoting Charlie Sheen is today?

Strictly in the realm of good-to-great sitcoms, choices out there include 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation and The Office on NBC (the latter three were renewed March 17; 30 Rock was previously renewed); How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and Mad Love on CBS; Modern Family, The Middle, Cougar Town and Mr. Sunshine on ABC; and Fox’s Sunday animation lineup (with Bob’s Burgers a show to monitor) plus — with the network showing better luck at launching live-action comedies — Raising Hope and Traffic Light.

Although CBS has several sitcom hits — some of them patently unfunny and catering to the base fulfillment of the masses — the ones that stand out creatively (How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang, in particular) have set up the kind of dialogue that only can happen when times are flush with choices. For example, when pickings were lean, nobody seemed to care about arguing semantics. Now the cool kids think single-camera comedies are the only way to go and that multicamera comedies reek of old-school traditionalism with their need to prompt the home viewer with a laugh track or a too-easily-pleased studio audience.

Isn’t it great to be choosy and/or snobby?

Think for a moment about the choices that abound. HBO has Eastbound & Down, Hung, Bored to Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm and animated duo The Life & Times of Tim and The Ricky Gervais Show. (Yes, Showtime has Weeds, Californication, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara, but those half-hours are far more dramatic and bleak than funny.) IFC has Portlandia and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, BBC America has The Inbetweeners, FX has It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer.

It would be compelling to say all of this started way back when 30 Rock dominated the Emmys for best comedy or because a legion of writers wanted to make the next Arrested Development. But it’s not that neat or easy. Even trying to cast our current good fortune as viewers on the fact that ABC scored — completely out of the blue — with Modern Family, Middle and Cougar Town, thus leading other networks to furiously try to close the gap, is off base. None of those theories adds up as cleanly as any critic might like. No, the fact is that making a hit sitcom that’s also funny without pandering to the masses is hard. There is no formula because comedy is far more subjective and personal than drama. When it all works, there’s hilarity — and an excess of viewers. Which makes television’s current state of riches all the more miraculous, if mostly unexplainable.

And unlike dramas, the most fertile comedy ground is in the broadcast arena (because the rewards in syndication for a hit sitcom are exponential). You know we’re living in good times when online arguments can rage over whether Big Bang or How I Met Your Mother could be remotely as funny as 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation or Modern Family.

Listen, just hearing the cacophony of discontent is life-affirming compared with the recent past, when ABC was home of the lame (or didn’t know what do to with a gem like Better Off Ted); Fox seemed content to offer up ’Til Death, Back to You, Do Not Disturb and Sons of Tucson; and CBS eschewed quality by shoveling Mike & Molly, Accidentally on Purpose and $#*! My Dad Says at viewers.

We are in fine times when one can make a good argument that Traffic Light, despite the awful title and rom-com DNA, is a truly funny series that’s worth giving a chance (Fox, are you listening?). Or hope for patience and the unspooling of potential as ABC sticks with Mr. Sunshine and CBS hones Mad Love. It would serve television well if those freshman series were given the patience that, say, NBC has afforded its Thursday night lineup.

Because, almost without noticing its slow creep, the sitcom is back. And as we all applaud the triumphs of television’s most nuanced dramas, it’s these sitcoms that are pulling our collective trousers, demanding to be seen and appreciated. Even five seasons ago, we would have held a parade for this glut of good fortune.

Now? It’s like we don’t know how good we’ve got it.

Cliff Lipson/CBS
Carin Baer/FOX