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Why TV Audiences Like Their Dramas Dark and Their Sitcoms Familiar

Why TV Audiences Like Their Dramas Dark and Their Sitcoms Familiar

In a piece summing up his takeaways from the Television Critics Association tour, NPR critic Eric Deggans listed “No one knows how to make lots of people watch smart, critically adored comedy” in his Top 5. 

It’s a frustrating paradox for critics; some of TV’s smartest comedies don’t draw big audiences, including NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and “Community” — both shows shot with a single camera, like a movie. Instead, comedies filmed live with several cameras and staged like plays — such as CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Millers” — seem to draw the big numbers.

The simplest explanation is that critics are out of touch: They’re looking for half-hour comedies that reinvent the wheel, while the bulk of the audience is quite happy with the wheels they’ve always had. But Robert O’Connell’s “‘Just Shoot Me’ and the Deep Comfort of Mediocre Sitcoms” suggests another: Audiences love shows like “The Big Bang Theory” because they’re just good enough. 

“In the past few decades,” O’Connell writes, “sitcoms’ sitcom-ness and critical reputation have been, almost always, inversely proportional.” “Seinfeld,” which held firm to a policy of “No hugging, no learning,” and “The Simpsons,” which disassembled the family sitcom from the inside, paved the way for shows like the American “Office” and “Community,” where “every show with a shred of artistic purpose works to demonstrate how it is different.” 

It is tempting, then, to think of those less adventurous shows — especially ones that showed up, as “Just Shoot Me!” did, after “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” had revolutionized things — as populist to a fault, stock pseudo-art out of step with the zeitgeist. But the very attributes keeping it from critical glory made the show wonderful to me. Here was a world void of dread, danger, and anxiety, a place in which work and play were indistinguishable, in which jobs just meant different aesthetics attached to the same basic glee. The easy tropes and practiced banter, the reliable fulfilling of a sitcom’s tasks, contributed to a sense of permanence.

“The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” were massive hits, and “The Office” ran for eight seasons — longer than “Just Shoot Me!” — so the notion that difference is an automatic turn-off for a mass audience doesn’t entirely scan. But for devotees of, say, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Veep,” tuning in to the likes of “Two and a Half Men” can cause a bout of culture shock: They still make shows like this? And people still watch them? (The answers, of course, are “Yes,” and “A lot of them.”)

In the history of television, it was often sitcoms that broke new ground: Think of Lucille Ball’s pregnancy on “I Love Lucy,” so transgressive the show wasn’t even allowed to use the word “pregnant” in the episode title, or the cultural Trojan horse of “Will & Grace’s” matter-of-fact approach to homosexuality. But with the TV world turned upside-down, half-hours have become where audiences go to see the things the way they used to be — less in terms of culture, than in terms of form. There’s a comforting familiarity to the setup-punchline-laughter rhythms of a traditional multi-camera sitcom, and if the humor’s less sharp than on a more critically favored show, that’s a feature, not a bug. You don’t put hot sauce on a Twinkie.

There are plenty of mediocre shows that don’t succeed, so it’s not as if viewers will accept any vaguely familiar garbage that comes their way. But with TV’s biggest dramas stuck in a collective gloom spiral, perhaps it’s not surprising that what audiences want most from a half-hour sitcom is something they’ve seen, and enjoyed, before.

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