Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The 2011 Fall Primetime Schedule: Comedy is back!

Thank God the world didn’t end last weekend because sitcoms are really making a comeback this fall. Just a few years ago people were saying the genre was dead. (Hey, maybe they were saved in the Rapture. I’ll have to check the bible to see if Tuesday night comedy blocks are mentioned anywhere.) But the point is, the pendulum is definitely swinging back. Comedy writers can put down that spec NCIS:LOS ANGELES. 

The Fall primetime schedule has been announced and you don’t need the Hubble telescope to find comedies this year. I say this advisedly though – if a show like THE VOICE or DANCING WITH THE STARS hits then expect the lucky network to clear the decks and air it twelve hours a week. But for the moment at least, the strategy is to return to the genre that in success is the biggest cash cow in the entertainment industry. Warner Brothers will make more money from FRIENDS than from the Batman franchise.

For the first time in six years, all four major networks will have two comedy blocks on the fall schedule. And they’re from 8-10. In the past couple of years NBC and ABC sprinkled in a few sitcoms in the 10:00 hour. This was not so much an experiment as content dump. They KNOW comedy doesn’t work at 10:00. It never has. If I was the showrunner of OUTSOURCED and learned I was being moved to 10:30 I’d say, “Have we learned nothing from Terry Schiavo?”

Unofficially, I count eleven new sitcoms on the fall sched (but my counting is as good as my spelling). More have been ordered for midseason. And 30 ROCK returns in January, thus allowing Tina Fey to have two babies, write and star in three movies, and solve the Middle East conflict.

And in addition to new comedies, a couple of the networks have renewed bubble sitcoms. But with a caveat -- shitty time periods. RULES OF ENGAGEMENT has been given a full season but banished to Saturday night at 8:00 to be followed by reruns. That’s like being sent out to Adak, Alaska to replace buoys. CHUCK is back but only for 13 and will play out its run on Friday night. Friday is now God’s Waiting Room.

And these are just the Big Four networks. TV LAND is enjoying great success with its boomer-targeted comedies like HOT IN CLEVELAND, Nickelodeon is premiering some youth-oriented sitcoms, over at the Disney Channel it’s the Golden Age of Tween Yuckfests, and other cable networks like USA, FX, HBO, TBS, and MTV have projects in development.

But before we comedy people all high-five and turn over cars and set things on fire (that’s how we Americans celebrate victory), for this trend to continue there have to be at least a few of these new sitcoms that are actually GOOD. ABC expanded because MODERN FAMILY, COUGAR TOWN, and THE MIDDLE clicked, CBS gets great numbers from BIG BANG THEORY and time-slot-hit numbers from MIKE & MOLLY. NBC? I don’t know. Even their terrific shows like PARKS & RECREATION don’t get the numbers they should. (Like I said, watch out for THE VOICE.)

I haven’t seen any of the pilots nor the trailers (I love that there are trailers for TV shows now. “In a world with no laughter…”) so I can’t comment on any of the new shows individually. Just know I’m rooting for you all. There’s a car across the street that I would just love to flip over and set on fire.

32 comments:

gottacook said...

I've finally figured out why I cannot watch 30 Rock despite all the good things I've heard about its writing: I've reached my lifetime threshold for TV shows about TV shows. And I've long since been repelled by the pseudo-documentary form and have thus resolutely avoided Parks and Rec, Modern Family, et al. (although I did once hear an episode of the latter with my back turned, washing dishes, and enjoyed it!)

So I will give each of the new comedies a chance. Of course, my tastes and rating success don't often match; for instance, I was a Love & Money fan.

Tony said...

I saw some of the trailers at hitfix.com, and a few of them look pretty good. Up All Night is downright Apatow-like, which seems new for a sitcom.

Charles H. Bryan said...

It's all cycles, isn't it? I seem to recall articles in the past declaring the death of the sitcom, only to get a 'rebirth' a season or so later.

I wonder if there's a lagging relationship to economic cycles? (Where are those Freakonomics guys when I need them?)

Allison H said...

I always enjoy following the May upfronts and reading comments from various insiders on which shows seem promising and which to avoid. Now, with the advent of pilot trailers, I can make the same snap judgments. I've seen a lot of these trailers over the last week or so and I agree with you Ken, it seems like the networks really are trying to give comedy a shot again. There are some abysmal-looking shows akin to Two & a Half Men but also some that I'll most certainly be checking out and rooting for. I think this might turn out to be a pretty good fall after all.

Oh, one more thing: Parks and Recreation should be an enormous hit. It's fantastic.

bmfc1 said...

Quoting gottacook: "And I've long since been repelled by the pseudo-documentary form and have thus resolutely avoided Parks and Rec, Modern Family, et al."

Agreed! Ken, do you think that this is a lazy form of writing? Instead of having the characters talk to each other to advance the plot, they talk to a fictional documentary crew.

And I can't get past why a documentary would be made about any of these people.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

@bmfc1 - I don't think it's lazy, I just think it's a way of dealing with the limitations of TV.

One of the things about the mock-documentary sitcoms is that The Office and Modern Family have been more successful than virtually any other single-camera sitcoms since the days of M*A*S*H. And I think that's partly because the documentary format does what the laugh track used to do in single-camera sitcoms: it creates the feeling of watching in a crowd. And the talking heads help to bring us closer to the characters.

"Pure" single-camera sitcoms are never as popular as mock-documentary sitcoms or multi-camera sitcoms or single-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks. (Community and 30 Rock have never been popular and Cougar Town is a time slot hit at best.) And I think there's an argument that it's because the casual viewer tunes in and doesn't have anything to orient him or her. The laugh track on M*A*S*H, much as the producers hated it, branded it as a comedy. Someone tunes into Up All Night or one of the more serious episodes of Community, what indicates that the show is a comedy rather than a drama?

Whereas with Modern Family, the absurdity of the documentary conceit does brand the show as a comedy - because, not in spite of, the fact that it's so silly that these people would be talking to an unseen documentarian. When you have the fake documentary form, you don't need a laugh track like M*A*S*H did. (In fact, M*A*S*H and WKRP and other sitcoms were able to leave out laugh tracks when they did documentary-style episodes, so it's a long-standing tradition.)

So I'm just surprised that there aren't more mock-doc sitcoms. They are proven winners in a way that regular single-camera sitcoms are not.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Last thing: The documentary format not only makes single-camera sitcoms more popular but may be a way of getting around the very short running times today. You've got about 20 minutes to tell (in many shows) three or even four stories. With mock-doc, they can cut down on the time they need for exposition, and cut in bits of the scenes they didn't have time to show in full.

acheekymonkey said...

@bmfc1 Doesn't talking to the film crew function like a Shakespearean soliloquy, or perhaps the Greek's chorus. Those dudez weren't lazy! :)

@ Jaime J. Weinman You've made a lightbulb go off in my head. I have begun watching comedies again in the last few years (and more TV in general in the "New TV Age"™.) It never occurred to me that having the laugh track removed makes a show instantly funnier. I must be a misanthrope who doesn't like other people laughing near me!?!

Anonymous said...

This season, every new comedy-show sucked, except "Outsourced" which sucked BIG TIME!, so why expect anything good for next season?

gottacook said...

"Pure" single-camera sitcoms are never as popular as mock-documentary sitcoms or multi-camera sitcoms or single-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks.

Really? What about Malcolm in the Middle? Is a run of 6.5 years and 150 episodes not sufficient to give Malcolm "as popular as" status?

gottacook said...

The documentary format not only makes single-camera sitcoms more popular but may be a way of getting around the very short running times today.

This is intriguing: Did shorter running times actually lead to the pseudo-doc form?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if NBC's decline has to do with the advent of HDTV. Before CBS's signal would be weak everywhere while NBC would come through sometimes even without an antenna. Once people had to upgrade their antennas and TV to get the digital broadcasts, NBC lost that edge, and CBS got boosted up while NBC went down.

Mike Schryver said...

Anonymous' antenna theory is interesting, but I'm not sure it makes sense.
Don't most people have cable now? Also, CBS ended up with weaker-signal stations when FOX poached a bunch of their stations in the '90s.

I do like the idea that the pseudo-doc form is a way around short running times. On the other hand, I haven't found any of those that I like outside of Christopher Guest.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

@gottacook - "Malcolm" was never able to "self-start" the way The Office and Modern Family do -- it got very good ratings after The Simpsons but wasn't able to sustain that success leading off its own time slot. Same with Scrubs.

Obviously those shows are successful, but I think it's fair to say that they weren't as successful as the big hits in multi-camera, mock-documentary, animated, or single-camera-with-laugh-track.

As for mock-doc being a way around short running times, I don't think so - its modern form in TV was popularized by BBC shows which don't have to worry about commercial time, after all. But in practice I think that is a benefit.

Jen said...

I've realized that it's really been years since I've been into a sitcom. I think Frasier/Friends were the last comedy shows I was really into. But now I feel like I've hit my one hour procedural drama limit, and I'm really interested in finding a comedy that makes me laugh again. I think I've been reluctant to watch any because I feel like they'll be yanked off the schedule right after I get into it. But then some do relatively well, and I feel like since I missed season 1 waiting to see if it'd be picked up, then there's no point in starting in at season 2 or 3.

Mac said...

The pseudo-doc form in TV comedy came out of a trend in late 90's British TV called 'docu-soaps.' These were ordinary or unremarkable people in everyday situations. They were cheap to make, access to workplaces and people was easy, and they got good ratings. There was loads of them - in an airport, a driving school, a pest control firm.
It was a format that UK viewers were very familiar with at the time. As the participants cottoned on that being in one could get you a bit of fame, they started playing up more for the camera.

There was a show called 'People Like Us' which was arguably the first to treat docu-soap as comedy, but Ricky Gervais took it further in having a guy who reckoned the docu-soap could be his break as an entertainer, so he performed relentlessly for the camera. 'People Like Us' was cancelled after two series and 'The Office' went into production.

The popularity of docu-soaps has waned long ago in the UK, but the pseudo-doc as a format for a sitcom seems to have established itself.

Phillip B said...

Just saw a note that "Rules of Engagement" has been renewed for 6th season. A shock since I've never taken the time to watch it and, I suspect, an indication of a shortage of better product in the pipeline.

So a serious question - is there really enough talent out there ready to fuel a sitcom renaissance?

Matt said...

COUGAR TOWN is a show I just cannot watch. I don't know what it is, perhaps too frenetic? It's like eating dinner with someone who is wolfing down their food. And then you notice you've picked up the pace too. I don't know. Whatever the case, I find myself physically... "annoyed"...by C.T. by the halfway mark and turn it off.

Paul Duca said...

Speaking of the issues of Saturdays at 8, I don't know if you remember that BEWITCHED spend the last few months of its network run in that same position--which back then meant being chewed up and spit out by ALL IN THE FAMILY. I found this out myself when I came across a YouTube file of Elizabeth Montgomery doing a promo for the time change.
(you should find it yourself, if only to see how good she looks in her Ecology flag T-shirt)

WV "wivera"....Norm Peterson's plantive cry

Stoic said...

Dear Networks, please bring back Better Off Ted. Thank you.

Mike in SLO said...

Well, I'm an old fart so I miss when they used to program for Friday and Saturday nights. CBS had the most incredible line up ever for Network TV in the 70's and it was on a Saturday night: 8:00 All in the Family, 8:30 Rotating Sitcom that never made it (although I always loved Bridgette loves Bernie), 9:00 Mary Tyler Moore, 9:30 Bob Newhart, 10:00 Carol Burnett. I grew up watching that lineup. And didn't ABC have a bunch of Friday Night powerhouses running during the 80s & 90s? Now there is nothing but reruns on Fridays and Saturdays and they pack anything that gets ratings in to Wednesday or Thursday nights. I'd appreciate a comedy block again on Friday or Saturday anyday!

Oh, and another thing, GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

Chris said...

Here's one for friday questions - do you think Mr.Sunshine and Shit, My Dad Says deserved the axe?

BigTed said...

I don't think they intend to continue "Chuck" past the last 13 episodes.

But Friday night has become a proving ground for genre shows that have relatively small but enthusiastic audience. I think "Fringe" has done okay there -- though other sci-fi shows haven't.

cshel said...

Ken - I hope the Networks paid attention to your post awhile back about the importance of casting.

Stoic - I wish BETTER OFF TED could come back, too!

Right now my faves are probably Parks and Recreation, The Middle, and Modern Family. Two of those use moc-doc and the other uses V.O. Hmm...?

Anonymous said...

"Community" is one of those brilliant-or-miss two season runs that now shows the signs of exhausting itself and needs a serious rethink before next season. It seems they've started that with the inevitable Chevy Chase is leaving (according to the last episode's ending) which may spell end game anyway. Alot of the programs mentioned that add in either tv- referentiality or the pseudo-doc form now always have the danger of upsetting the equilibrium required not to go too far into the "gimmick" or insider-games to prove their geek "cred".

For comedies I don't think that the sole problem is in the tv numbers anymore, it's just that if they are judged strictly by tv viewership numbers then you end up with American Idol and fart-jokes of TAHM / Family Guy ( whose characters then discuss that as well).

But those few-million viewership shows have good value - the problem may be simply the networks don't have any interest how to work the financial models. They rather have one big AmIdol set of numbers than lots of solid numbers coming in. There's also a repeat on web, the program's dedicated websites and so on.

A reality seen in download sites, meaning how the world outside the cable signal-range or first-run package license checks in shows vast numbers going for these comedies. Maybe the problem remains partly in the network model in an age of diversification.

NBC, for example, will never manage to dream up something economically simple and obviously effective like "Storage Wars" - not when there's another blowhard Trump project. And if they did do "SW", they would introduce "synergy" into it, getting idiot actors from their other shows over to be involved, and soon having "celebrity storage war" and such.
It isn't the comedy format, it is the networks, their "notes" and ideas as to how to make sure the network is present in the "best" way.

Brian Phillips said...

To Mac: "'People Like Us' was cancelled after two series and 'The Office' went into production."

Your points are well taken, but I would like to clarify some things about "People Like Us". Thanks for mentioning it, for it was a great show, but it was also a great radio show for three series before it came to TV and in both runs, it won awards. I know you meant no harm, but the way you phrased it made it sound as if it struggled and left the air.

As to which has left the greater impression, "The Office" wins, without question, of course.

To bmfc1:
Regarding the "pseudo-doc" format, yes, there have been quite a few of them and yes, one can easily fall into bad patterns, but one shouldn't knock one form for a dumping ground for bad habits, simply because it is a form that you don't like. Many romantic comedies fall into the pattern of "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again". It's an old formula, used many times, but I wouldn't dismiss Steve Gordon's "Arthur" because of it. "Frasier" broke no ground form-wise, heck, it's even a spin-off, a genre lousy with the poor and ill-remebered, but I am an enormous fan of the show.

Why?

Because good writing is good and bad writing is bad. I laud anyone that wishes to break convention, go against type, but if it ai not writted good, it won't succeed. I will applaud the good script that breaks the mold as well as one that is in a form so old it, well, has mold.

As for the "pseudo-documentary" format, I would put "Scrubs" in the same family, perhaps a distant cousin. John Dorian (Zach Braff) tilts his head and...

As for weak writing, my hackles tend to raise when I hear a character say, "Let me get this straight" or "So what you're saying is..." and the (hopefully) deceased, "Cut to the chase", all of which can be used as poor substitutes to rehash a plot or beat the audience into believing that a JOKE is coming. A J-O-K-E.

As to the death of sitcoms, yes, it is part of a cycle, in part, a bad cycle of reportage. Every so often, when sitcoms are not as plentiful, someone will write a, "Is this the death of TV comedy?" story. If you don't believe me, my buddy Mark alerted me to the plethora of "Is this the end of broadcast TV" stories, when speaking of cable TV. All of you would notice these stories, unless you've been living under a rock (I'm tired of that faux-elitist phrase, too. Nothing like being called an uninformed dolt when I want to read an article.)

To Ken Levine:
"There’s a car across the street that I would just love to flip over and set on fire."

Surely you wish to flip two more cars over and set them alight. I don't make my living writing and even I know the rule of threes. Harrumph.

I believe a certain Mr. Earl Pomerantz has a blog*... :^)


- Brian Phillips



*I'll find two others to recommend.

LouOCNY said...

I came across a YouTube file of Elizabeth Montgomery doing a promo for the time change.
(you should find it yourself, if only to see how good she looks in her Ecology flag T-shirt)


What flag?

gottacook said...

With respect to Brian Phillips' comments above regarding the pseudo-doc format: The counterexamples he gives aren't relevant because I am not reacting to the quality of the writing (or lack thereof) in these cases. As I noted earlier, I enjoyed an episode of Modern Family last fall with my back turned, to my surprise. It was not only funny but well-crafted - it was quite easy to tell, for example, when a character was addressing the camera.

The reason that I "knock the form" is that I find the pseudo-doc conventions VISUALLY annoying. The idea of including Scrubs peripherally in this category doesn't seem right to me, because in each episode you can see that a director with actual ideas is at work (rather than one who is using all the handheld-camera cliches, or cliche equivalents if you will).

Brian Phillips said...

Dear gottacook:

You are quite right. I went off on a tangent not mentioned in your writing. Thanks for clarifying that it was your visual annoyance to the form.

You and I don't have the same reaction to the pseudo-documentary format, however, I do agree that the vein of TV shows about TV has been mined quite a lot. I think that when you have a generation of writers who may have read less literature and watched more TV, this is one possible upshot.

I wouldn't tun your back and listen to the TV again, the makers of "The Voice" might sue.

Brian Phillips said...

Also, I would like to stress that it was bmfc1's comment that it was "lazy writing" that I was posting about.

Paul Duca said...

Lou...it's a regular T-shirt with the Ecology logo (which was also a flag).

Yikees said...

Sigh, here's another fond recollection for Better of Ted.

In fact, I was just thinking of that show last night when I caught up on an episode of Raising Hope, in which Dr. Lem from Ted (the very funny black scientist) guest-starred in. Yes, Hope does have lots of white-trash humor (ala Greg Garcia's previous show, My Name is Earl), but I find it suprisingly smart and sweet as well.