What’s Next for Network Sitcoms Now That “The Big Bang Theory” Has Ended?
The Big Bang Theory ended its 12 seasons on May 16 and yet didn’t get nearly the press that the finale of Veep or Game of Thrones did. Perhaps it didn’t receive as much attention because the show is in syndication on so many channels all day long, it doesn’t feel like it’s really gone. More likely is the fact that it was never a critic’s darling, and despite four Emmy wins for Jim Parsons, never a dominant award-winner like the political satire Veep has been from the Emmys to SAG-AFTRA. Still, the show was a ratings bonanza for CBS and its reruns on TBS are amongst cable’s most popular programs. But now that the show’s reign as the number one sitcom is finally over, what state is the genre in these days, and where does it go from here?
In many ways, The Big Bang Theory was both trendily modern, as well as ridiculously old-fashioned. The show created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady played strongly to the Stan Lee crowd, helped underline the burgeoning ‘nerdmania’, dropped a ton of geeky/ not geeky pop culture references, and recognized the changing roles of both men and women, particularly in defining masculinity and women in the workplace in superior positions.
Parson’s Sheldon character ran the gamut from asexual to fey to bullheaded patriarch. Yet, as progressive as the show could be on numerous fronts, its sitcom style was as comfortable as an old shoe.
The characters were broadly defined – the pompous brainiac, the ditzy blonde, the desperate-to-assimilate foreigner – and by and large, they didn’t change a lot from the first season to the last. The stage sets were few, with the main characters’ two-bedroom apartment the ground zero of almost every episode. It was a show that could appeal to kids, since the adult characters acted so childishly, as well as adults, since those same leads were scientists.
Still, as intellectual as the show could have been, it never was. If anything, it painted its smart characters as hopelessly dumb when it comes to common sense and navigating the norms of everyday life. Its broadest appeal may have been in such accessibility to a host of audiences via its exploration of social immaturity and marginalization.
The Big Bang Theory looked like sitcoms from three or four decades ago too, which made it feel familiar and relatable as well. CBS still shoots most of its sitcoms in that same old-fashioned, three-camera way, recorded live in front of a studio audience, whereas almost every other network films its sitcoms with a single camera.
CBS’ programming skews towards an older demographic as well, hence the reason for such old school styling. The Tiffany Network’s sitcoms look and are structured the way classic shows are, such as Cheers, Friends or Happy Days. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the trend started towards shooting sitcoms like movies, such as ABC’s The Wonder Years, but CBS rarely took that path.
When The Big Bang Theory premiered in September of 2007, most of the critical community knocked it as a simplistic, one-joke comedy – nerdy geniuses are dumbstruck around women and the normal world. (There’s the elevator pitch.) Its old-school look enhanced its simplicity. But the simplicity of its themes and look provide a sort of comfort food for viewers, and through the economic problems that started in 2008, let alone the two wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, The Big Bang Theory steadily rose in the ratings. It was like a trusted and true friend. Audiences knew exactly what to expect and it fulfilled their needs, and in doing so, it became the top comedy on TV.
The sitcom also trafficked in a classic style of joke telling too. The pattern is rather obvious: a character makes an observation, another character follows with a comment that’s a set-up for the punch line, and then the first character delivers that punch line. For extra comedic measure, an additional punchline might get delivered as a lucky strike extra after the first one, all the more to keep the laughter building. This 1-2-3-4 comic combination can be found in every CBS sitcom of the last 20 years from Two and a Half Men to How I Met Your Mother. It works, and its old-fashioned origins, harkening back to a comedy style from the ’50s, has been the bread and butter of CBS comedy for decades. And few sitcoms made such tropes play better than The Big Bang Theory.
Friends, which graced our screens for most of the 90s. It defined fashion, hairdos and the vernacular of the youth of the time. Every girl wanted Rachel’s hair. The show also mined a defining period in the lives of young adults too old for acne and too young for adulthood. It was a journey of self-exploration, uncertainty, discovery, triumphs, and disappointments, albeit in a more grounded way than The Big Bang Theory.
Other networks have veered from that style, preferring to stress the situation in situation comedy more than punchlines. Finding the physical comedy in predicaments for sitcom characters to overcome has become more of the modern style. This is particularly true on ABC, a bastion for family-centered comedies, that generally showcase one big obstacle a week for a sitcom character in said clan to defeat.
In hit shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, most of the humor is found in the numerous failed attempts by that character to prevail before finally triumphing in the last act. (On shows like Modern Family, where there are three families, each show generally has a trio of obstacles.) It’s par for the sitcom course, but is there a newer direction in which the sitcom is heading?
One trend that was gaining traction for a while that is now starting to wane is the ‘meta-sitcom,’ one that is self-conscious about its tropes and style. It’s essentially a show within a show kind of presentation, with a self-conscious self-reverence driving the whole shebang. Tina Fey and Rachel Bloom created star vehicles for themselves that did just that, lampooning the conventions of the sitcom more than telling a traditional narrative.
Fey’s 30 Rock was a show about putting on a show, but even more meta than that was its propensity for skewering the clichés of the genre. If Bob Newhart played a psychologist trying to manage all the crazies in his work world and home life on his namesake show in the ’70s, Fey took the whole ‘lunatics running the asylum’ one step further. Her show made the case that TV was such an inane industry that in order to survive in it, everyone had to be crazy, including Fey’s producer character Liz Lemon. And it all but scolded audiences who watch TV to feel a kinship with lovable characters. Fey wanted us to laugh at them, not with them.
Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna took the meta conceit even farther in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend by making a show so self-conscious that it played more like a spoof than something aiming for relatability. The show’s constant breaking of the fourth wall, its meandering riffs, the parody songs – everything was in quotations essentially, a constant reminder to the audience that they were watching “a show,” not really a narrative for an audience to get lost in.
These shows felt a million miles away from the earnest comedies of the 60s and 70s that often strove to mix pathos in with their comedy. Sitcoms like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father or Room 222 wanted you to cry too, as did many of their ilk all the way up to The Wonder Years. Today, that kind of manipulation would likely be considered crass or cornball. Even a show like Modern Family, which does show amazing sensitivity towards its LGBTQ and senior characters, pulls back from pushing its progressiveness too hard.
The only rule that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David set out when they created Seinfeld was to ensure there were no teachable moments and no hugging, and that template seems to have had a big influence on most of today’s sitcoms. They’re going for the laughs more than the ‘feels.’
Sitcoms showcased on new platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime haven’t presented a brave new world of the genre, one that points to a particular or definitive new direction. If anything, these new ‘networks’ play like a catch-all for a variety of approaches. Some of their fare pushes, while a lot of it treads the exact same territory as the networks. The fact that showcase so many older shows is indicative that they’re not rewriting all the rules.
Some shows pushed the boundaries, such as Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It was such an over-the-top, mile-a-minute jokey show that it barely resembled anything from the real world. Of course, it took place in New York, arguably the most bizarre of cities and that worked well as a backdrop for its absurdist leanings. Still, being so out there might have prevented the show from fully connecting with a larger audience, and the series certainly has missed opportunities to dig deeper for more emotional resonance. Kimmy’s growth as a female character was terrific, but the show repeatedly pulled its punches when it came to fully reckon with the sexual abuse she suffered in her past. Granted, the show never had aspirations to be as socially conscious as something like All in the Family or Good Times were in their time, but the show’s fizziness kept it from carrying any real weight.
On Amazon Prime, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a sophisticated comedy at its very best, almost a Mad Men-version of a sitcom with its period themes, lush production values, and superb cast serving the purposes of its social commentary. Still, as clever and elegant as the show is, it feels more like a one-off rather than a trend. If it has had any genuine influence on the genre in total, it’s likely in its ability to continually blur the lines between comedy and drama, as well as look as good as most feature films. They’ve raised the bar exponentially for sure.
So, is there any trend that suggests where the sitcom may be headed? Anything that feels different than what we’ve come to expect with CBS’ style of old school comedies or family-oriented fare such as those shows found on ABC? Indeed, a likely tell is there in the networks’ current propensity towards pure escapist fare. It’s happened before, notably in the 60s, when American society was exploding with war, civic unrest, and assassinations. Television offered a respite from such harsh realities, and frivolous shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, and Batman captured huge audiences. Today, more and more shows that are little more than cotton candy, like all the rebooted game shows on ABC primetime, are really striking a chord. It would seem to follow that sitcoms may soon go the way of sillier and fluffier offerings as well.
If there’s a supplemental trend, it could very well be sitcoms with a nostalgic bent. After all, most of ABC’s game show programming has consisted of reviving old chestnuts like The $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game. Need further proof? Look at the huge ratings and talk value that came out of Jimmy Kimmel’s resurrection of Norman Lear’s classic sitcoms All in the Family and The Jeffersons last week. The redo’s may have been filled with contemporary stars, but the scripts were kept intact from the ’70s. Old enough to know them or not, critics and audiences ate them up with a spoon.
Movies based on intellectual properties have been getting enthusiastic green lights from studios for years, so why shouldn’t TV continue the trend? Does that mean that everything old is new again, and the big new sitcom trend will be reboots and revivals? Not necessarily, but don’t be surprised if more and more sitcoms with built-in name recognition start filling up the various entertainment platforms. Netflix already rebooted Lear’s One Day at a Time two years ago, not to mention a new take on Full House, so watch for others oldies but goodies to get new spins across the networks. Can a rebooted Maude starring someone like Amy Poehler or Maya Rudolph be on the horizon? I wouldn’t be surprised one iota.
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