The Sitcom is Dead – Long Live the Sitcom

Over the course of the last 25 or so years, NBC was the place to go for sitcoms. They were the ones willing to let a talented cast gel together while a team of writers and show runners found their footing to create a classic. It happened every few years, creating a long string of comedies that just passed the torch on to the next generation. The Cosby Show and Cheers to Seinfeld and Frasier to Friends to The Office to Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock to Community. It was quite a run for “Must See TV”. Now, it seems, NBC has turned its back on sitcoms. Parks and Rec may have been the last in a long line of comedy royalty for the network which is now focused on talent shows and action spy shows.

The defining comedies of this current era are housed at other broadcast networks. ABC has Modern Family which is probably the current gold standard even though it’s wearing its premise a bit thin these days and relying more and more on gimmicks. CBS has some of the top-rated comedies, but they are all critically hated and simplistic romps full of out-dated laugh tracks and broad, easy jokes. FOX has had some good success lately with shows like New Girl and Brooklyn Nine Nine, ensemble comedies that leverage their talented casts to create very good “situational comedy”.

Even so, it seems that the sitcom landscape is more barren these days than it has been in a long time. NBC, for sure, has opted to minimize their comedy lineup. If the historical kings of the medium are jettisoning it, what does it say for the future of the medium itself?

It seems like the future of comedy is about talented casts, creative writing teams and interesting concepts. Seinfeld was revolutionary for being a “show about nothing”, but it seems like today’s audiences aren’t wired that way anymore. Shows about 6 young people living silly lives together feels boring now. Plus the fact that Modern Family showed us that having a soft heart beneath the cutting jibes felt really good. For all the bumbling goofiness of Phil Dunphy, when he earnestly expresses his love of his family at the end of it all it’s endearing without being too cheesy like Full House. So the question becomes “how do you best combine these elements into new, interesting and funny sitcoms?”

This year, we got two amazingly good examples that have already become my two favorites comedies on TV right now.

Fox has given us Will Forte’s insane show The Last Man on Earth.  You talk about high concept, this show riffs on the current trend of post-apocalyptic settings by making Forte the (apparently) last surviving human on Earth after a virus destroys the rest of mankind. The pilot episode finds him wandering around Tuscan and basically treating the world like a college dropout treats his cheap apartment. He drinks, he goofs around, he gets creative with his hygiene needs and he grabs rare artifacts and scatters them around his home. Forte plays this role perfectly and we find the slob to be charming in spite of himself.

Of course, the concept would run itself ragged in about two episodes, so the show pivots and reveals its true conceit to a mostly unsurprised audience: he’s the last MAN on Earth, but not the last human. Forte’s character has been putting up signs that say “Alive in Tucson” all over the place and a female survivor finds him. Kristin Schaal’s character, Carol, is as quirky as they come and Forte, who has been absolutely yearning for companionship, finds her incredibly annoying immediately. Still, they are stuck together and watching them navigate their forced relationship is amazingly funny. Carol insists they get “married” before getting started on re-population, so they do. Just as they are settling in with each other, another twist is revealed. Another female survivor arrives – a beautiful blonde woman played by Mad Men’s January Jones. Forte’s character, Phil, is drawn to her immediately, but now he’s “married” to Carol. Watching his incredibly awkward attempts to seduce Jones while on the hook with Carol is so very funny.

And the whole thing is a brand new spin on old “relationship sitcom” tropes that breathes fresh life into those tired story lines. A fantastic cast, very talented writers and an interesting concept set this show apart. It might be the best comedy on broadcast TV right now.

Then you have Netflix’s new show produced by Tina Fey – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This show was originally intended for NBC, but the peacock passed on it after seeing the pilot. In stepped Netflix, jumping at the chance to work with Tina Fey. The result is amazing.  The charming and talented Ellie Kemper stars as a girl who was kidnapped by a cult leader and held in a bunker for years before being rescued and set free. Now she’s in New York City trying to catch up on her stolen life and become her own person. Again, a pretty unique concept for a sitcom.

What sets this show apart is the supernatural optimism that Kemper’s character has in the face of a difficult transition. As the title suggests, Kimmy is unbreakable – unwilling to live her life in the shadow of the horror she endured as a prisoner. Instead she’s trying to find her place and move forward. Early in the show she tells her NYC friends that you can withstand anything for 10 seconds, so when things are hard she counts to 10 and then starts on another 10 seconds after that. This infectious spunk and determination spreads to her acquaintances and everyone finds themselves stepping out a bit more and being less passive.

The show has many other threads running below the surface as well – racial stereotypes, gender issues, class warfare and politics, but these are all handled well and not turned into the focus. The focus is Kimmy and her journey and how she will interact with this new world she’s found herself in. Again, a riff on the “fish out of water” trope that puts a completely new spin on it. It’s not just “country mouse in the city”, it’s bigger than that. And there’s heart behind it too. We feel for Kimmy, we wonder what exactly the circumstances were behind her abduction and cult brainwashing. Yes, we get a flamboyantly gay black character, but there’s more depth to him than you may typically find in many such characters. And of course, with Tina Fey in the writer’s room you’ll get more great jokes per minute (jpm?) than almost any other sitcom.

So the sitcom is not dead, but it’s changing. As long as networks are willing to get creative writers with unique concepts and talented casts a chance, we’ll keep laughing.

The Last Man on Earth airs Sunday nights on FOX.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available for streaming on Netflix.