Recently (since 30 Rock ended its run, and with The Office set to close its doors in May), people have begun to speculate on what the sitcom landscape will look like in the near future. Vulture has gone so far as to throw the gauntlet down and declare New Girl the best sitcom on TV. (Although they’ve also recently undergone the task of looking back to the sitcom past). And so I couldn’t help but wonder, where are we headed with sitcoms?
*Note that this list is just sitcoms, so it doesn’t take into account The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live or The Soup, shows that crack me up on the reg. Also, please watch all the clips I embedded – I tried to choose my favorite moment from each listed show.
A few years ago I’d have put things like Community, The Office, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, and Family Guy on the list, but all have peaked and don’t show signs of rebounding to their earlier hilarity. And despite winning awards and having massive ratings, I’m not in good conscience making a best-of list about sharp humor and including Modern Family. Also, much as I may like Big Bang Theory, its inclusion in a list like this would feel out of place. (Sorry, Sheldon.) And if you’re wondering why I wouldn’t include Mike & Molly or 2 Broke Girls? Maybe this blog isn’t for you.
So, what do the best sitcoms on right now have in common? And what can we glean when they’re taken as a whole?
For starters, most of them are pretty early in their runs. Happy Endings is in its third season, New Girl its second, and while Parks and Rec is in its fifth, its first season was only six episodes and its third season was abbreviated at sixteen episodes.
What does this mean? Well, it means that shows in their first season right now, like The Mindy Project or Go On or The New Normal
or Ben and Kate or 1600 Penn might have a chance to stabilize, find their footing, and become better shows in season 2. (This formula worked well for The Office, Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings.)
The best sitcoms also aren’t mean-spirited. Sure, the characters on Archer mock each other, but you also can tell that there is a sense of admiration that’s built up between Sterling and company. Cougar Town basically became the show that it is when it realized that its strengths were in having the cul-de-sac crew hang out together and see what funny things would happen. And while Parks and Rec has had various dramatic stumbling blocks for its characters (Leslie fighting to win the election, Leslie and Ben being forced not to date due to bureaucratic rules, Councilman Jamm), it’s really at its core the sweetest show on TV (no doubt thanks to Sweetums). These people, episode in and episode out, care for each other as a surrogate family. (Well, except for Jerry.) The wedding episode, which I can’t recommend highly enough, reinforces this: Leslie and Ben marry without their parents present, because all the family they need is the Parks department (and Ann, and Chris, and Champion).
The best shows also have showrunners and writers bold enough to have their characters change and evolve over time. Jules went from chasing young boys on Cougar Town to falling into a socially-inconvenient relationship with Grayson, to marrying him. Jess and Nick clearly had chemistry on New Girl, and rather than pretending it wasn’t there, shared a kiss after a rousing game of True American. (And, even better, the past few episodes have dealt with the fall-out of the kiss, rather than just brushing it aside).
You can see Mindy Kaling et. al beginning to get a handle on the tone of The Mindy Project. Ever since B.J. Novak guest-starred, the show has found the voice of the (strong) pilot, and remembered what it is that made people want to watch the show in the first place. Although they’ve shuffled in plenty of guest stars, and de-emphasized Dr. Reed immensely in favor of Morgan the nurse, you can see signs that the show is starting to click.
So, sitcoms, where are we going? On the one hand, I think it’s a frustrating time. I remember seasons 2-3 of The Office, seasons 1 -3 of How I Met Your Mother, and seasons 1 – 3 of Community (yup, I’ve written it off post-Harmon) all consistently bringing the funny, and I don’t think anything has stepped up to fill those voids. On the other hand, there are exciting pilots from Mike Schur (featuring Andy Samberg) and John Mulaney that will hopefully make it to air next year.
I think the other hope for comedies is the same thing that saved the TV drama: cable. It’s a golden-age of television right now, but how many of the shows responsible for that are broadcast shows? Not many. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead – that’s just AMC’s contribution. So maybe HBO and Showtime and other channels can follow what FX has started and be the go-to place for comedy the way they’ve become the destination for drama*.
*Not that HBO and Showtime haven’t tried: Entourage and Sex and the City were both “comedies,” as are Nurse Jackie and The Big C. They’re just not sitcoms. Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm are probably the closest the pay cable channels have come**.
It will be interesting to see where we are in, say, 5 years. Will any of these shows still be on the air? Will New Girl still be the top sitcom (at least in Vulture’s eyes?) Will the cable channels have gone all-in on sitcoms?
As long as there are comedy writers that can come up with material like this, I think the sitcom will be just fine:
(OK, fine, one more clip, because this one cracks me up, too)