Whether you're male or female, young or old, chances are your longest-running romantic relationship has been with television, and it's time to accept a harsh reality: You're getting fat and your date is getting ugly.
A handful of shows are as good as television has ever been, but with more networks and more total airtime than ever, the pool of writing and production talent has been drained. And nowhere are the waters shallower or the bottom feeders more plentiful than in the programming genre that has most shaped American popular culture over the last half century.
With the exception of a scant few comedies Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond chief among them the current generation of sitcoms has two fundamental problems. The situation, which is mind-numbingly familiar from one show to the next. And the comedy, which not only is a threat to national intelligence but often carries the unfortunate burden of not being funny. Network bosses don't like admitting any of this, but when they start pushing interchangeable sitcoms across the TV grid like checkers, schedule two Drew Carey Shows in a week, and renew the likes of Veronica's Closet and Suddenly Susan, it's clear that not only have the wheels come off the wagon, but they're traveling without a map.
''There's no question there's frustration on everyone's part, because there are too many sitcoms that look and feel alike,'' says Garth Ancier, who will jump from The WB to NBC in May to take over programming. That narcotic sameness is one reason why the comedy that snaps you awake is on shows that are technically dramas Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Sopranos, for example and animated shows like The Simpsons, The PJs, and King of the Hill. The irony, says Simpsons coexecutive producer Ron Hauge, is that ''on a prime-time animated show, you go out of your way to make characters real, because they're cartoons. But if you're doing comedy with live people, nobody ever says, 'That's too cartoony, don't do it.' ''
You'd think that with 50 years of practice and obscene piles of money to play with, TV could knock one out of the park at least as often as zoo pandas mate. Think about the development of air travel during that time, or the advances in medicine. Over the same span, television has taken us from I Love Lucy to Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, and you begin wondering if they're bringing people in at gunpoint for the laugh tracks.
We are going to explain why it has come to this. We are going to hear from the brightest minds in sitcom history and look for a silver lining in the mediocrity that has become the industry standard. We are even going to ask a question that makes television execs hyperventilate:
Is the sitcom dead?
It's an easy, loaded question, sure. But when you ask it of the genius responsible for arguably the most intelligent sitcom in TV history, and he says ''Yes,'' you shut up and give the man his own paragraph.