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Promising Sitcoms to Watch

| Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sitcoms WEBMary McGraw | The Observer
It is a particularly dire time for the network sitcom. The broadcast networks boast just two ultra-popular comedies — “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” — and neither are particularly fulfilling on a creative level. This season, NBC pulled its two-hour comedy block from Thursday nights, ending its iconic “Must See TV” lineup after 32 years. Of the nine comedies that have debuted this fall, three have already been cancelled and the truly unfunny “Mulaney” seems headed toward the same fate. Is the network sitcom still viable in an age dominated by football, CBS procedurals and four hours a week of “The Voice?”

The network sitcom faces two major roadblocks. The first is the inclination for every comedy to feature an overly contrived concept. “Broadcasters have begun vetting sitcoms like blockbusters,” TV critic Andy Greenwald wrote in a recent Grantland article. “Meaning: Premise is valued over character, hooks matter more than tone and if the entire show can’t be sold on a poster, it’s not getting on the air.” The deluge of rom-com sitcoms, which have their hook built into the premise, like “A to Z” and “Manhattan Love Story” (both of which have been cancelled) suggests as much. But ultimately, sitcoms hinge on well-written characters and chemistry between the actors. “A group of regulars hang out at a bar” is not a great tagline, but “Cheers” stayed on the air 11 seasons because of its great writing and charming cast.

Secondly, sitcoms need to be given time to find their footing. So much of the humor results from the dynamic between familiar characters, which takes time to develop. As The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum put it, “Panning a comedy’s first six episodes is like complaining that a newborn has insufficient neck strength.” Go back and watch the first few episodes of “Seinfeld” or “The Office” as proof that even the best comedies often have rocky beginnings. Judging a sitcom’s potential from a 22-minute pilot is next-to-impossible, and in today’s Twitter-driven conversation, shows are dismissed instantly before they have the opportunity to find their voice.

Luckily, two of this fall’s new sitcoms, while not perfect by any means, have shown potential to emerge as truly enjoyable series. The first is ABC’s “Black-ish,” which is also the highest-rated of the new crop of comedies. The show follows an upper middle-class black family, whose patriarch Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) feels his four children are out of touch with black culture. Tracee Ellis Ross holds the show together as Andrew’s anesthesiologist wife Rainbow, while their four children are the best TV kids this side of Sally Draper.

With “Black-ish,” showrunners Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore have created a series that balances the reliable humor of family comedy with intelligent racial discourse. The show offers a relatively nuanced portrayal of race and what it means to be black in America in 2014. As their teenage son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) tells his father at the end of the pilot, “You feel like I’m turning into a white boy. But I’m not. I’m just being me. But I don’t know what that is yet.”

The other is NBC’s “Marry Me,” the new show from “Happy Endings” creator David Caspe. Like the many other rom-com sitcoms that debuted this fall, its pilot focuses on a hokey premise. Jake (Ken Marino) and Annie (Casey Wilson) have been dating for six years, but everything goes wrong every time one tries to propose to the other. Luckily, the following episodes largely dispense with that high-concept narrative. Instead, it is slowly becoming a show about a group of friends hanging out in Chicago. Caspe pulled the same trick with the dearly-missed “Happy Endings” — whose pilot was equally uninspiring — and “Marry Me” is already adopting that show’s zany, joke-a-second energy.

Both Marino and Wilson are hilarious and charming, and the couple has great chemistry, even if their characters are still caricatures. The supporting cast is equally strong, if not as fully developed yet. Especially great is Tymberlee Hill, who was also the standout in Hulu’s hilarious “The Real Hotwives of Orlando,” as Kay, Annie’s next door neighbor. Cameos from Upright Citizens Brigade alumni like Rob Huebel and Jessica Schneider round out the show, and I found myself laughing so hard I had to rewind several times an episode.

Neither show is perfect — each rely heavily on sitcom plot tropes and need to take the time to develop their supporting characters. But they are a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for sitcoms, and hopefully both are given the time to become confident, hilarious sitcoms worthy of their talented casts.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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