Last week, the networks revealed their plans to launch 46 new shows next season. After a drab and cautious year for scripted series — when the closest thing to a breakout hit is Mike & Molly, nobody’s throwing any parades — there’s a caffeinated, try-anything-once feel to the new dramas, which feature dinosaurs, witches, time travel, the 1960s, fairy tales, ghosts, parallel realities, revenge, kidnapping, and the making of a Broadway musical. As for the new comedies, they’ll showcase a diverse and wide-ranging group of…attractive 25-to-40-year-old white people having feelings. And relationships. And feelings about relationships. Often while sitting in the kind of apartments — exposed brick, huge living rooms, multiple windows — that art directors define as ”funky” and the rest of us call ”expensive.”
Given the willingness to jettison the rule book when it comes to drama, why are so many sitcoms still worshipping at the altar of Friends, a show that launched 17 years ago and was apparently the last duplicatable new idea (other than a brief flirtation with the mockumentary) that anybody in TV comedy has had? The answer may lie in the different reasons we watch dramas and comedies. We hop aboard dramas because we want to know how everything turns out. When we commit to Game of Thrones or The Killing, we do so with the understanding that we’re embarking on a complicated journey with an eventual end point.
But what we crave in comedy is stasis. The ”sit” in ”sitcom” — the virtually unchanging nature of whatever our favorite characters are experiencing — grants us the security to get what we really want from a TV comedy, which is the chance to hang out with likable people every week until we know them so well that we can anticipate their reactions to almost anything. That’s why most of the successful sitcoms of the past 40 years have had pretty much the same concept: Life can be disappointing (your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA), but what makes it better is your family, friends, or colleagues (you want to go where everybody knows your name). Human connection relieving a vague sense of existential defeat — that’s all that was behind comedy giants like Cheers, Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And the same idea animates their descendants: the rueful/zany workplace comedies The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation; the family ties of Modern Family; and the Friends template, which has been morphed into everything from Cougar Town (Friends with drunks) to Happy Endings (Friends if Joey had been black and Chandler had been allowed to be gay) to How I Met Your Mother (Friends if Friends had starred different people).
I’m not complaining about this. Rather than a brilliant new idea, I’ll happily settle for an expert execution of a premise that can be explained in five words (”Bigoted dad repeatedly gets comeuppance” gave us one of the finest sitcoms of the 1970s, and ”Group of oddballs work together” covers almost everything I like now). The greatness of a TV comedy lives in the casting and the writing, not the concept; in fact, sitcoms with elaborate premises rarely wear well. This fall, ABC has slated Work It, about two guys who have to dress as women to get jobs. Really? That’s still going to be funny in episode 4, let alone season 4? (Even Bosom Buddies fled from that concept after one year, and it had Tom Hanks.) And while Fox’s I Hate My Teenage Daughter stars two appealing actresses, its one-joke setup — two women discover that their daughters have become high school mean girls — sounds like a concept for a movie, not 100 episodes of a series.
That may explain why NBC is placing its biggest bet on a comedy called Whitney. It’s created by a woman named Whitney. It stars Whitney. The premise is, it’s about a woman named Whitney, the people she knows, and the stuff that happens to her. Whitney could be good, or it could be terrible. But at least the idea is built to last.