New NBC sitcoms: Pitting 'broad' comedy against 'sophisticated' comedy is the wrong approach

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Image Credit: Chris Haston/NBC

Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said to the country’s critics at the Television Critics Association’s press tour In Los Angeles that while he respects sitcoms on his network such as Community, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation — shows that are, as he said, “sophisticated” ones that “critics love,” his plan for the fall involves “broadening the audience.” The idea that the way to reach a broad audience is by going less sophisticated is an odd one, and one that suggests a problem NBC might have for its sitcom development in the near future.

Look at some of the most broadly popular sitcoms of all time. Would you say that Friends or Cheers or All in the Family were not sophisticated? Of course not. What Greenblatt seems to mean in his formulation is that “broadening” is actually a process of programming shows that are less personal visions of the world by their creators, and more big, easily grasped concepts packaged as big-laff heart-warmers. At least, that’s the impression I get from seeing the pilots of the shows on NBC’s fall schedule, including Animal Practice, Men With Babies, Go On, and The New Normal.

I’m not saying these are bad shows — I want to write more nuanced reviews of them when they premiere, pointing out their good as well as their poor elements — but they do represent a shift away from NBC’s admirable support over the past few years for its non-blockbuster, award-winning Thursday-night sitcoms. The new shows can be easily tagged — Men With Babies (the title tells you all you need to know about a half-hour devoted to dads wrestling with little kids); Animal Practice is already lodged in your brain as “the one co-starring a monkey in a lab coat” — in a way that you can’t so easily summarize, say, Parks and Recreation or Community.

But the commercial strategy of a broadcast network to reach the biggest, most demographically diverse audience possible shouldn’t extend to having that business strategy become a mandated aesthetic for creativity. NBC’s new shows are going to succeed only to the extent that they transcend the stuff that grabs people in the commercials. It’s (relatively) easy to get people to tune in once to see how a monkey can be wrangled into a TV show; to keep people coming back, you have to use the great talents of performers such as Justin Kirk and JoAnna Garcia Swisher to become characters we can both laugh with and become invested in as fully-formed personalities.

The obvious example Greenblatt and other executives should keep in mind is Modern Family: Sophisticated in its layered punchlines, its artful use of broad slapstick, and its glop-free approach to honest sentiment, that ABC show is one model for how to make a hit out of some of the same elements that made Friends or Cheers a hit. Which is to have a sitcom with vivid characters, scant reliance upon gimmicks. And, of yes: Jokes, sharp verbal humor, real set-up/punchline construction. (Believe it or not, network executives, there was a lot of broad comedy in Cheers and All in the Family. And Community can go, to use a term an Animal Practice producer used at TCA, “off into Broadsville,” without losing its unique, coherent world-view, something too many of the new fall sitcom pilots lack thus far.)

If you’ve got all those elements, you won’t have to pin most of your network’s sitcom hopes on a monkey in a lab coat.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: NBC defends ‘Community’ changes

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