Why Don’t Americans like Sitcoms Anymore?

I’ve disheartened to hear that NBC is substantially cutting back its primetime programming :

The opening hour of prime time has been a tough time slot for NBC. Friday Night Lights has so far proved a costly failure on Tuesday, 30 Rock and Twenty Good Years have struggled on Wednesday in two outings and My Name is Earl on Thursday has hit season lows.

“Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we’re running the best-scripted programming on television, but the audience just isn’t there for it,” Wright says.

Sitcom is my favorite genre, and NBC has always been committed to it. It also has a long tradition behind it.  The deeper question seems to be: why don’t Americans like sitcoms anymore? It’s not the quality of writing; it’s as good as it ever has been. It’s not the formulaic nature of the show; the formula is part of the show. When Norm walks into the Cheers bar and everybody calls his name, we enjoy the repetition.

I think the problem goes deeper–quite apart from the simple problem of numbers.  Sitcoms are about extended families and friends, and that seems less relevant these days. Instead we have Sex and the City, shows about Hollywood (Entourage) and downright crudity (South Park, Two and a Half Men). Ironically, though, sales of TV series DVDs have been doing well; we can still be sentimental about how it used to be. But maybe the decline has simply to do with the variety of entertainment options now available to us.

In other news, one of my fave sitcoms King of Queens will be resuming next spring. (it’s been on a break).

On wikipedia here’s  a good history of Cheers TV show and a profile of Cheers’ creator Glen and Les Charles. They just stumbled into TV writing:

Neither brother was content in his job and both dreamed of something more. So on a Saturday night in 1974, they were watching their favorite night of television and they became inspired–instead of just watching CBS’s Saturday line-up of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they would write episodes for these television comedies.

They started by writing an episode of their favorite, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and sending it to MTM Productions. After receiving no response, they persisted, writing a sample episode of every television comedy they enjoyed and sending it to the producers on spec. Confident in their talents, they both quit their jobs to dedicate more time to their writing; Les Charles and his wife were living out of their van when the Charles brothers received notification of their first sold script. They lived off the money and excitement generated from seeing their episode of M*A*S*H on the air, but no jobs followed immediately. Finally after two years and dozens of unsolicited scripts, they received the phone call they’d been waiting for–the producers at MTM had read their first script at last and offered Glen and Les jobs as staff writers on the spin-off Phyllis.

Here’s how they started Cheers:

All three partners were fans of the British comedy Fawlty Towers and thought that setting the series in a hotel would be a good choice. Like the British series, theirs would feature odd guests passing through and associating with the series regulars. But after sketching out their ideas, they realized that most scenes took place in the hotel bar and they could streamline the show by eliminating the hotel altogether. Unlike the seedy atmosphere commonly associated with bars, they envisioned a classy neighborhood tavern based on a Boston pub. To avoid any implication that they were glorifying drinking they made the owner of the bar a recovering alcoholic. After casting a group of unknowns, many of whom had been guest stars on Taxi, Cheers was born.

With Cheers gave the “long term story arc”:

Unlike most MTM shows, there were no well-known actors on the show, which relyied solely on the comedic talent of the cast and writing to draw in audiences. While Taxi had moved away from the middle-class and optimistic settings of MTM programs and toward a grittier and more pessimistic view of the world, Cheers found a middle-ground–while no characters were truly happy with their jobs or circumstances, there was a contentedness in the bar where “everybody knew your name” that was never present in Taxi. The major adjustment the Charles brothers brought to Cheers was the presence of a long-term narrative arc concerning the tempestuous romance between Sam Malone and Diane Chambers; Glen and Les wrote this aspect of the series in direct reaction to the static relationship between Mary Richards and Lou Grant, which never changed through the course of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

All this excellent background was provided by Jason Mittell, a TV critic/prof. Apparently he feels that Lost is the best show on TV.  All this comes from the excellent TV/media weblog Flow. If I were not going to the Plone conference in Seattle, I would definitely have gone to the Flow conference in Austin next week.  I’ve salivating over their roundtables/agenda.

I’ll look more closely through the Flow site later. Two initial observations. First, they don’t have RSS feeds. Second, I like the fact that the essays by columnists give a nice bibliography at the end to fansites.



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