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Top TV Stories of 2009: The return of the sitcom

by Joel Keller, posted Dec 18th 2009 2:09PM
I'm always amazed at how people haven't learned from TV history. Back in the early eighties, everyone and his mother was saying that comedy was dead, mainly because of then-cutting-edge dramas like Hill Street Blues were dominating the air, while the best in comedy that the networks could come up was crap like Pink Lady and Jeff. Then The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, and Night Court came around, and all of a sudden comedy was back.

So it's not a big surprise that comedy is making a big comeback a quarter-century later. Times are tough, and people want to laugh. It also helps that on a few networks (NBC, of course), low ratings and little inventory have given shows like The Office and 30 Rock a chance to find and grow an audience. The seeds sewn by those shows have grown in a major way, as three of the four networks now have successful comedy lineups.

Modern Family: Fizbo
ABC Wednesday night
- ABC took a huge chance leading off the night with four brand-new comedies. It didn't matter if the star power in those comedies was so high that Ed O'Neill was the fourth-biggest returning sitcom star in the line-up. But ABC had two things going for it: They had nothing to lose on Wednesday nights, and the comedies they chose (at least three of them) were pretty damned good.

The Middle showed that good-hearted family comedy could fit in a single-camera format (and that you can be similar to a previous show -- Malcolm in the Middle -- and still be funny). It also proved that a) Neil Flynn is a funny dude with or without a mop in his hand, and b) Patricia Heaton can actually play a sympathetic character for a change. Cougar Town is starting to find its way after realizing that concentrating on its mega-star, Courteney Cox, was a big mistake. And Modern Family is just plain funny, giving me the biggest laughs of any show this season (I still laugh at the mayhem at the end of "Fizbo").

The only show that didn't work was Hank. Sometimes that happens, despite the talent involved. At least Kelsey Grammer and ABC put it out of its misery early.

The Big Bang Theory
CBS Monday night
- CBS already had a hit comedy with Two and a Half Men, and while it's not everyone's idea of "edgy" comedy, it's at least been consistent over the last six years. And it stuck with How I Met Your Mother long enough for it to go beyond it's loyal following to become a modest hit of its own.

But it was when the network added The Big Bang Theory to the mix two years ago that the lineup solidified. The show has proven what many people already thought, which is that "old-fashioned" multi-camera comedies can be hits if written and acted well. Incredibly, it's become a critical fave and a ratings hit, something that hasn't been seen in the world of comedy since Everybody Loves Raymond hit it big.

Big Bang has only made a star of Jim Parsons, but the show itself continues to get higher and higher ratings, to the point where if and when Men goes away, Big Bang could effortlessly slip into its 9 PM slot just like Men did after Raymond ended.

Now, if they could just figure out what to do with the awful Accidentally on Purpose, we'd be set.

Parks and Recreation
NBC Thursday night
- Luckily, NBC's misguided decision to go away from comedy on Thursdays didn't last long, as this new version of it's classic Must See TV night has been clicking for more than three years. And with Parks and Recreation and Community, the Peacock net has found worthy companions to The Office and 30 Rock.

Neither show in the 8 PM hour is getting great ratings, but they'll have a chance to grow because, really, what else is NBC going to do there? Community has had a bit of a shaky start, but seems to be ready to hit its stride, especially after the extremely funny Christmas episode from last week.

And Parks and Rec might just be the best of the four shows right now. Once Greg Daniels, Mike Schur and the writers figured out that Amy Poehler's character of Leslie Knope was not a Michael Scott clone, and they discovered the comic gold they had in Nick Offerman as Ron Bleepin' Swanson, the rest fell into place.

FOX ??? - Fox seems to be the only network without a big comedy night... well, aside from Sundays, which has become a Seth-a-palooza with some Simpsons mixed in. Their live-action comedy development has been miserable, with Brothers being the latest example. This is the network that gave us Married with Children and Herman's Head, for crissakes. Let's hope they develop something soon.

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Shane Harrison

Why do we have to choose? I love HIMYM and "Big Bang Theory." That being said, NBC's Thursday is more consistently entertaining. I only watch "Two and a Half Men" if it looks like Holland Taylor is a major presence. It's become tiresome and repetitive. And that Jenna Elfman travesty is always a miss. On the other hand,"Parks and Rec" has really stepped it up this season after a slow start.

December 18 2009 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I say we have a war of words between CBS's Monday night and NBC's Thursday night.
I'll start things out without any blood.
I vote for NBC, I don't need laugh tracks to tell me when to laugh, I also like seeing that fourth wall.

December 18 2009 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Better Off Ted should also be mentioned somewhere in this article. It's one of the best written sitcoms on the air right now and it's unfortunate that it's been saddled with the should have been canceled long ago Scrubs instead of on the new ABC Wednesday comedy line up.

December 18 2009 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

NBC owns the situation comedy at present.

December 18 2009 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Community is awful. The characters are so one-dimensional it's tough to watch. Not to mention the fact that it's unfunny.

December 18 2009 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim Sparks

I used to love sitcoms. I mean from the earliest "I Love Lucy" episodes I was a fan. And lets face it, there were a LOT of great half hour comedies to watch.

About ten years ago the form dried up. It was like "Saturday Night Live" I thought. I have outgrown the form.

I really think "Dharma and Greg" killed that little place in my soul where sitcom love lived. And that my friends is where the irony comes into my story.

I now watch TWO sitcoms on a regular basis. The first is "How I Met Your Mother". Great cast, very funny running bits, and very smart. The second is funny to the point of GENIUS. "The Big Bang Theory" is a truly amazing piece of work. Well built characters, a completely grounded writing staff, great actors and IRONICALLY PRODUCED BY THE SAME MAN WHO KILLED THAT PLACE IN MY SOUL WHERE SITCOM LOVE LIVED.

Yes, Chuck Lorre.

He has restored my faith in the sitcom. Now granted, he still must be made to pay for "Two and A Half Men" but everybody has to have a job, right?


December 18 2009 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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