This season’s most surprising success story has been Just Shoot Me (NBC, Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.). After an unspectacular six-week run on Wednesdays last spring, the sitcom has recently shot into the top 20. This can partly be attributed to its new after-Frasier time slot and weak comic competition from ABC’s limping Hiller and Diller. But Shoot’s real achievement may be that it’s the most mean-spirited office sitcom ever to become a major-network hit.
Of course, this surly smash didn’t spring out of nowhere. Workplace sitcoms have been getting progressively nastier over the years. It all began when The Dick Van Dyke Show followed the star to his job as a sketch-comedy writer (we almost never saw TV dads at work in the Father Knows Best era). Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie) formed a second family for Van Dyke’s Rob, but tyrannical star Alan (Carl Reiner) and toadying producer Mel (Richard Deacon) became targets for their barbs. Still, it was pretty mild stuff – usually Buddy just busted on Mel’s bald dome.
DVD costar Mary Tyler Moore must’ve picked up a few ideas, because her self-titled office sitcom later ratcheted up the cranky quotient. Buffoonish anchor Ted (Ted Knight) was subjected to the slings and arrows of newswriter Murray (Gavin MacLeod, whose own bald dome was busted on by Ted) as well as gruff producer Lou (Ed Asner). Plus, slutty Martha Stewart prototype Sue Ann (Betty White) had a love-hate relationship with Lou: She loved him, he hated her. Yet you got the sense these people cared for each other deep down; they ended up in one giant group hug.
Subsequent workplace sitcoms Taxi and Cheers channeled their aggressions into the characters of Louie and Carla (husband and wife Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, respectively). It’s significant, though, that these were supporting players; when Buffalo Bill (1983-84) tried to build a show around Dabney Coleman’s distasteful character, viewers tuned out.
It took The Larry Sanders Show, a cable series that wasn’t trying to appeal to a network-size audience, to become the first sitcom to succeed with an unsympathetic lead. Garry Shandling’s paranoid talk-show host loathes his sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and doesn’t trust his staff. If this office is an extended family, it’s an extremely dysfunctional one.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the two sitcoms that brought this cynical vision to network TV were both created by ex-Sanders writers: Paul Simms’ NewsRadio (NBC, Tuesdays, 8:30-9 p.m.) and Steven Levitan’s Just Shoot Me. If anything, NewsRadio has gotten even meaner this season, with efficiency expert Andrea (Townies’ Lauren Graham) establishing a Darwinian atmosphere by demoting news director Dave (Dave Foley) in favor of his ex-girlfriend Lisa (Maura Tierney). Yet there’s a hint of affection between the coworkers — witness the lengths to which WNYX’s staff (save Phil Hartman’s heartless anchor, Bill) have gone to get their little buddy Matthew (Andy Dick) rehired.