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As ABC cancels its clever, funny and different sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, we could drag out the “comedy is subjective” argument yet again. Yes, drama is subjective too, but more people understand, like and will follow a drama — particularly a cookie-cutter procedural — than they will a sitcom. One person’s belly laugh is another’s cue to change the channel.
I liked Don’t Trust the B—- (even though the title was flawed) because it was so much different than other shows. Krysten Ritter was the bitch in the title who had a seriously flawed moral compass, disliked pretty much everybody (except James Van Der Beek, who played a hilarious version of himself) and sometimes her naive roommate June (Dreama Walker). For a network series, it was harsh and offbeat and insidery — all the things that made it funny. There were notable and brilliant guest appearances by Kiernan Shipka, Kevin Sorbo, Dean Cain, etc., with everybody willing to do what creator Nahnatchka Kahn and her writers dreamt up.
The series will be replaced by a double run of Happy Endings, another ABC sitcom with a dubious future. But ABC hardly is alone among networks trying to make the next funny comedy that people like. Seriously, not every sitcom can be The Big Bang Theory, which is drawing roughly 65 million viewers a week. Outside of a rare group — like Modern Family — most comedies struggle for an audience. At least the ones that are truly funny do.
Outside of the better years of How I Met Your Mother, I’m not much of a fan of CBS comedies, though I can make it through an episode of Big Bang Theory without stabbing myself in the thumb for better entertainment. After that, forget it. CBS comedies are broad, base and boring. Most of the jokes you can see coming from six days out.
Again, comedy’s subjective to a killer degree. But networks don’t seem content to settle for the small but loyal audience that tunes in for their favorites. That’s why so many sitcoms die. Paul Lee, head of ABC, never seemed to like Cougar Town, and that series was saved from death only by moving to TBS. Those kinds of savior stories are rare indeed. From Arrested Development and Scrubs to Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Action, Better Off Ted and down a lengthy list of very funny sitcoms, you will find low numbers, nervous entertainment presidents and eventually heartbreaking stories of cancelation.
Who among us believes Community on NBC has a future? As 30 Rock, arguably the funniest sitcom on broadcast television, has its series finale at the end of this month, how secure is Parks and Recreation? How much patience will Fox have with The Mindy Project or Ben & Kate, even Raising Hope and New Girl? All of those are funny shows that I adore, but neither is a massive hit. And perhaps the enormous numbers generated by BBT skews what’s far more likely in the scared new world of broadcast television: smaller but loyal audiences. The Big Tent stratosphere-piercing hit that the nets pray for is the outlier these days. But that won’t stop networks from trying to find the combination. Look at poor, confused NBC trying to rebuild the moribund Up All Night by changing it from single camera to multicamera long after anyone really gave a damn. That was a show with real potential, with very talented stars, but it lacked a clear identity and was abandoned by fans before it could find that identity. Just another good show that didn’t work.
I like NBC’s 1600 Penn and Fox’s Bob’s Burgers but have worries about their future. I mostly worry about the four Fox live-action comedies mentioned above and Parks and Recreation. If they go, I would be especially disappointed, mostly because I care about so few network dramas these days. But I’m a fan of a lot of network comedies — perhaps that’s the reason they’re all dying. Few comedies are truly safe on television. Of those that are, I like Modern Family and The Middle and Suburgatory (those latter two are safe, right?).
I would hate to see them all go. But I do have a number of comedies on cable that I also adore, from Louie to Sunny to Girls, etc, etc. But we’re conditioned to believe that lower-rated comedies on more niche cable channels can survive on smaller Nielsen numbers. So my confidence in their survival is strong. The broadcast folks have yet to buy into that willingly. I mean, NBC kept around all of its low-rated sitcoms because at least people loved them and wrote about them. But as it makes a bid to stay No. 1, you will see that patience in lower-performing comedies wane.
Anyway, put another tombstone in the crowded graveyard of funny sitcoms. And if the networks don’t recalibrate their expectations about modern-day ratings results, we’re going to need a lot more shovels.
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