TV NotesThis TV Season's New Comedies and Their Midcourse CorrectionsUnlike plot-driven dramas, they need to constantly adjust on the fly
By John Jurgensen, Wall Street Journal
- Nov. 22, 2013
In the first episode of the new sitcom "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," a cocksure detective played by Andy Samberg razzed his uptight superior officer and donned a Speedo at his desk. By episode eight, last week, his character was wearing a necktie and defending the captain of the precinct against a crusty crime reporter.
Det. Jake Peralta's juvenile attitude isn't the only thing that is changing as the show heads into its 10th episode. When two actresses appearing on panels to promote the show displayed a comic chemistry, the writers hatched a subplot for the duo.
Producers are making the precinct setting feel more lived-in. After a joke in episode three about a cop's stinky feet, the actor who played him turned it into a running gag. By episode six, he could be glimpsed in the background, barefoot and darning a sock.
"It's like we're making a gigantic Cobb salad. Every week, we're trying to perfect the same recipe with a slightly different ratio of ingredients," says executive producer Michael Schur. He has been through this before, as a co-creator of another workplace ensemble, NBC's "Parks and Recreation," which didn't jell until its second season.
For new TV shows in a crowded race to build an audience, sitcoms have a unique handicap: Many of them need time to find their stride. For producers, a comedy's first season is a public trial-and-error process of finding rhythm and chemistry in the cast, while adding nuance to the overly broad characters they often deploy to help viewers get their bearings in early episodes.
There is as much pressure as ever to deliver ratings, and quickly. Several comedies already have been canceled this fall. But the growing prevalence of time-shifting (the use of digital recorders and other methods to watch TV on your own schedule) is buying some time for shows with middling starts. Networks are showing reluctance to pull the plug on their investments if data suggest that viewers are discovering their shows in the days or even weeks after they air.
"Outside of obvious bombs, the networks have realized more time is necessary given technology, fragmentation of the audience, and intense competition in the early part of the season," says Rino Scanzoni, a top media buyer for the firm GroupM.
For every instant hit like "The Cosby Show," there's a classic sitcom that was slow to find its legs. "Seinfeld" (which premiered as "The Seinfeld Chronicles") didn't introduce one of its signature devices, the intertwining subplots of characters Elaine, George and Kramer, until late in the second season. The show's ratings didn't take off until season four.
The creators of "Cheers" didn't initially plan for the Sam-and-Diane dynamic to anchor the show. They did have the characters kissing by the end of season one, but not many people were watching. NBC showed patience with "Cheers," and thanks in part to summer reruns, a wider audience eventually turned the sitcom into a ratings monster.
It is hard enough to stand out from the start, since almost all comedies mine the same familiar scenarios of friends, work, family. And while a drama can grab attention with breakneck pacing, a fantastical setting or addictive mysteries, a situation comedy is just that. In a sense, most sitcoms are like "Seinfeld," a "show about nothing"—other than the interplay among its core characters
However, too much tinkering can frustrate an audience. During the first season of Fox's "The Mindy Project," starring Mindy Kaling as a prickly obstetrician, fans complained of sitcom whiplash, as the show ushered in—and out—a parade of supporting cast members, love interests for Mindy and A-list guest stars. Now settling into a more deliberate rhythm in its second season, the show is winning over some former critics, but it recently hit a ratings low.
Some TV truisms will always apply: No comedy can surmount the flaw of being unfunny. And a crummy network time slot can sink even the wittiest effort. But newer challenges spotlight the fact that there hasn't been a breakout broadcast comedy since "Modern Family" premiered in 2008.
The five major networks rolled out 14 new comedies this fall, the biggest number since 2004. That is because most broadcasters had to replenish their stock after taking so many casualties in the format: Only two out of nine new comedies from last season survived for a second round. Still, comedies offer a tantalizing upside, with smaller production costs and potential jackpot money to be made down the road if the show sells into reruns.
Most of the new offerings are limping in the ratings, including one of the biggest star vehicles of the season, "The Michael J. Fox Show" on NBC. Early cancellations included NBC's "Welcome to the Family" (two families forced together by a teen pregnancy) and CBS's "We Are Men" (middle-aged divorcées on the make). ABC is airing final episodes of "Back in the Game" ( James Caan as a crotchety ex-baseball player whose daughter and grandson move in).
CBS, boasting TV's most powerful comedy blocks on Mondays and Thursdays, has fielded the top three new sitcoms, including the fall's other big star turn: "The Crazy Ones," which features Robin Williams as an antic adman. The series has averaged 12 million total viewers (including seven days of DVR viewing).
On CBS's "The Millers," which is averaging the most viewers of any new sitcom, Will Arnett plays a divorced TV reporter who finds himself living with his overbearing mother ( Margo Martindale ) after her split from his father (Beau Bridges). Series creator Greg Garcia landed Mr. Arnett after noticing the struggles of the actor's previous show, NBC's "Up All Night." He sent him a text message that began, "I hate to be a vulture but..."
Mr. Garcia says the actor helped insulate the new show against a potential defect: "It's about a grown man living with his mother, which could make him seem a little wimpish. With Will, you don't run that risk."
As the show evolves, the writers are also taking cues from Ms. Martindale, who wanted to break up her character's domineering streak, and asked them to boost her fun side by, say, giving her a drunk scene. In this week's episode, she pumped herself up for some Internet dating.
"The Millers" is shot in a "multicamera" format in front of a live audience, a familiar—some critics would say old-fashioned—style that seems to work best for CBS, which thrives on time-honored forms. While some viewers find the family frictions and romantic mix-ups of traditional sitcoms too predictable, audiences haven't widely embraced newer formulas.
"For a time it seemed like shows like [mockumentary] "The Office" were the answer, but they proved to be a niche," says TV historian and former network executive Tim Brooks.
For "The Millers," the producers completed a handful of episodes before the show premiered in October, allowing them to shuffle their order on the air based on which worked best.
The third episode shot, titled "Plot Twists," in which the mother rearranges the family burial sites to reflect shifting loyalties, became the second episode viewers saw.
"You want to put your best foot forward, because people are going to decide in the first three or four weeks if this is going to be a show that they're setting their DVRs for," Mr. Garcia says.
Still, his show started with a huge advantage. On Thursday nights, "The Millers" airs right after the biggest comedy on prime time, with about 18 million live viewers. "Get on after 'Big Bang Theory.' says Mr. Garcia. "That's the secret I hold."
Even "Big Bang," about a tightknit crew of nerdy scientists, didn't explode immediately. The pilot episode had to be rewritten and reshot because the lead female character was too abrasive and intimidating to the awkward geniuses living across the hall. The show's creators cast a new actress, Kaley Cuoco, in the role of Penny, who brought the right tone. "An almost maternal quality to her relationship with the guys was critical because they're very childlike," recalls executive producer Chuck Lorre, who created the show with Bill Prady.
The dynamic between the lead geeks—Leonard ( Johnny Galecki ), who pines for Penny, and Sheldon ( Jim Parsons ), who is socially tone deaf—seemed to click right away. But other characters were a little flat in the first season. After a forced hiatus due to a Hollywood writers' strike, producers made it a priority to flesh out characters including Penny and Howard (Simon Helberg ). From a wannabe ladies man and borderline creep, Howard developed into a sympathetic underdog with issues about his absent father.
Mr. Lorre is almost halfway through the first season of another sitcom on CBS, "Mom," starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney as recovering addicts. He says, "I wish I could tell you we had a long-range plans for these characters. Week to week, it's like a blind guy stumbling around a room, feeling parts of the elephant and trying to figure out what it is."
Network executives often participate in course corrections. Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, recalls giving some notes to producers of "The Crazy Ones" that related to the famous rapid-fire delivery of its star, Robin Williams. In the first couple of episodes, executives noticed that his co-stars were revving up their own dialogue to keep up with him. "Robin is literally a force of nature," Ms. Tassler says, "We wanted the other cast members to settle into their own rhythms and tempos."
Over at ABC, producers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins spent the first month of the season trying to ignore the drumbeat of speculation that cancellation was inevitable for their first network comedy, "Trophy Wife." Starring Malin Akerman as a former party chick who marries a father of three kids ( Bradley Whitford ) with two ex-wives ( Michaela Watkins, Marcia Gay Harden), the show has an average 3.7 million viewers, the lowest of the network's four new comedies. It probably didn't help the producers' confidence that they both followed the Twitter account of Cancellation Bear, which is dedicated to predictions about which ratings-challenged shows will become "bear chow." Ms. Halpern says, "Cancellation Bear was not our biggest fan."
But critics seemed to be pulling for the show, even as the creators tried to find the best ways to make use of their sprawling ensemble cast. It wasn't until episode eight that they had a chance to write a primary story featuring all the wives, current and former.
By quarantining them together with a lice outbreak, the writers could play with the women's shifting rivalries and alliances.
ABC picked up a full first season of "Trophy Wife." That gives the show a total of 22 episode to further refine its chemistry (and, if it is to survive for a second season, win over more viewers).
Recently verdicts came down from ABC. The network ordered four more episodes of "Super Fun Night," putting into limbo the first comedy from Australian actress Rebel Wilson. A warmer endorsement came for "The Goldbergs," a 1980s sitcom starring Jeff Garlin : It was extended to a full season.
Live ratings for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" aren't great, but it is popular among time shifters: Within the week after an episode airs, its rating grows by an average 53% among viewers 18-49, the highest gain of any new comedy, according to Nielsen data provided by Fox. Last month the network asked for full season and lined it up for more exposure with a slot after the Super Bowl (following an episode of third-year comedy "New Girl").
Fox's head of comedy development, Suzanna Makkos, says the network has confidence in the expanding charms of the ensemble cast: "That kind of character development is easy to talk about but very difficult to execute." On a more strategic note, she adds that the diversity of the "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" cast (ethnicity, gender, age) offers multiple "access points" for additional viewers.
But with the show still finding its footing, producers have to be careful to keep focus on the precinct and its tight web of relationships. That means holding back on Floorgasm—a dance troupe occasionally mentioned by Gina, a subversive administrative assistant played by Chelsea Peretti.
"Somewhere lurking in the shadows are 3,000 ideas about Floorgasm," says Mr. Schur, who executive-produces the show with Dan Goor and David Miner. "If we have the opportunity to stick around for a while, we'll definitely be exploring that."All in the Family CBS, 1971-79
Viewers didn't immediately embrace the crabby, bigoted Archie Bunker. But he caught on after the show went into repeats the summer following its short first season. Starting in the pilot episode, Archie's caustic attitudes were in full force. Creator " Norman Lear felt America had to see Archie at his worst, and then it was possible to dial back," says Saul Austerlitz, author of the forthcoming book "Sitcom."Happy Days, ABC 1974-84
In the first season, Richie Cunningham and the gang were occasionally threatened by a high-school dropout in a windbreaker, a secondary character played by Henry Winkler. Full-time cast status (with ubiquitous leather jacket) came later for Fonzie, who anchored the series until it ended in 1984—nearly seven years after he jumped a shark on water skis in season five.'A Different World,' NBC 1987-93
The "Cosby Show" spinoff built around Denise Huxtable required a surprise overhaul when star Lisa Bonet got pregnant and left the show after one season. Co-stars Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison stepped up, and new producer Debbie Allen dug into student life at the fictional black college Hillman, exploring thorny issues ranging from racism to AIDS.'Cougar Town' ABC, 2009-12 (now on TBS)
"Friends" star Courteney Cox gamely dove into the show's crude premise, about a divorcée in her 40s pursuing men barely older than her son. The unfortunate title lingered even after the show changed its focus, often by putting the core characters in the same scene and letting banter and inside jokes fly. The show kept a devoted following through later seasons and a move to TBS.http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB20001424052702303531204579206182528953934