How Must See TV Lost Its Way

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NBC's Thursday night lineup—Community, 30 Rock, The Office, Up All Night, and Parks and Recreation—is hilarious. Why is no one watching?

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Community returns to NBC's Thursday night lineup this week, and all is right again with the (TV) world. When the network unceremoniously pulled the quirky little gem from its hallowed Thursday night schedule late last year, fans were not pleased. Judging by the backlash from frustrated critics, incensed bloggers, and—the wrath to end them all—angered tweeters, you'd think Rush Limbaugh himself suspended the sitcom, calling its fans sluts in the process. But the passionate response was bafflingly disproportionate when one glaring fact is taken into account: Barely anyone watches Community.

Before being yanked from the mid-season schedule, Community hovered around 3.5 million viewers each week. TV shows that receive higher ratings than that: Spongebob Squarepants, a History Channel series called Swamp People, and a syndicated repeat of The Big Bang Theory that aired on Saturday night at 9:30 pm on CBS. But Community isn't alone in the ratings doldrums. The four other NBC shows that have been airing on Thursday nights—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Up All Night—struggle to muster up a respectable number of viewers, with The Office as the only one not to dip below 4 million.

The sad, surprising part of all this is that those five shows, in any of the combinations that NBC has tinkered with this season, make up the strongest comedy slate on television today. Furthermore, the current Thursday night lineup may comprise the NBC's best set of Thursday comedies in 30 years, when The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court first appeared under the "Must See TV" branding. That's no small praise considering Thursday nights have been home to some stellar combinations that included the likes of Seinfeld, Mad About You, Frasier, Friends, Will and Grace, and Scrubs.

Not only were all of those NBC comedies critical favorites, they were huge hits, ranking among the top-rated sitcoms on TV when they aired. The perplexing thing about NBC's current Thursday lineup is that—even though TV ratings are down across the board due to audience fragmenting, TiVo, the rise of cable, and a laundry list of other reasons—they are also poorly rated when compared to other shows currently on rival networks. Hit shows like 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory that are not as well-reviewed as the NBC comedies earn 16 million and 10 million viewers each week, respectively. Why can't NBC turn its critically beloved comedies into the outsized hits that their Thursday night predecessors once were, and less-than-stellar present competition currently are?

Perhaps the biggest barrier is their uniqueness. Community, with its meta recasting of B-movie genres, tangled web of self-referential dialogue, and litany of nuanced pop culture references, does not have the same broad appeal of Charlie-Sheen-cum-Ashton-Kutcher telling sex jokes while a boarish teen actor farts in response. The telegraphed punch lines, laugh tracks, and self-contained plots of a show like The Big Bang Theory carry a comfort-food allure that 30 Rock, with its inside-baseball humor about Comcast's corporate woes, doesn't offer. Anyone who regularly watches Parks and Recreation can attest to the smart, creative, and progressive humor the show offers, but a series like How I Met Your Mother is more popular because it's easier to watch, and easier to laugh at.

A look back at the NBC classics—Friends, Will and Grace, Frasier—reveals more in common not in content, but in format execution with series like Two and a Half Men than with single-camera mockumentaries like The Office or Parks and Rec. They were colorful, multi-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks, that, though more smartly written, relied just as much on ba-da-DUM joke set-ups as Men or Broke Girls do.

With all the red roses currently being enthusiastically tossed at NBC's Thursday comedies by critics, it's also easy to forget that these shows weren't always so good. In some cases, they even started out terribly. In Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that she's so openly embarrassed by the pilot for 30 Rock that the show's writers had to ask her to stop dissing it so brutally. But Fey is correct; the show 30 Rock started as is lightyears away from the one it grew to be. It wasn't until about the seventh or eighth episode of season one, when the show's running jokes (The Beeper King, The Rural Juror) started to take off, supporting characters like Tracy and Kenneth settled into their quirky personalities, and Alec Baldwin's one-liners grew more and more outlandish that the show turned around. Similarly, Community debuted to mixed reviews, before finding its one-of-a-kind, almost indescribable comedic voice roughly midway through its first season. It took longer than that for Parks and Recreation to gather its footing. Its entire first season was widely panned as an egregiously unfunny Office copycat, until Amy Poehler developed Leslie Knope into tempered a loopy lead character with a warm groundedness that starkly differed from The Office's Michael Scott. Parks's rapturously reviewed second season is considered to be one of the greatest sitcom turnarounds in recent years.

And just like its Thursday night cohorts, it took Up All Night roughly half of a season to settle into the charming slice-of-life series it is now, with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett finally honing a comedic chemistry winning enough that Maya Rudolph doesn't so much run away with the show each week as she now politely tiptoes away with it. TV viewers aren't much for second chances, which explains why the ratings on these shows have remained low even though their quality improved, while recent series that debuted with stellar pilots and brilliant first seasons—Modern Family, Glee—have maintained strong ratings throughout their runs.

Another thing that Modern Family and Glee boasted, and which this season's breakout hits New Girl and Two Broke Girls had as well, was ever-important buzz. Fox was so justifiably confident in the quality of the Glee and New Girl pilots that it released them to the public—in Glee's case, a one-episode preview after American Idol, in New Girl's online—way ahead of their later, smash televised debuts. The time in between benefited from breathless positive word-of-mouth that helped turn the shows into hits. Although the Modern Family pilot didn't get a special pre-release, the series got plenty of buzz the old-fashioned way: Critics who saw the screener in advance strongly advised viewers that it was the funniest, most unique comedy to air in years, while Two Broke Girls rode a tidal wave of "women are funny!" goodwill, plus advanced accolades for Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs' performances, to a monster series premiere.

The word on the street ahead of Community's debut: "That's a show?" Ahead of 30 Rock's: Studio 60 looks so much better. It's incredibly rare these days for a show to pick up momentum and grow into a hit when it didn't start as one. The Big Bang Theory was the last show to do it, and before that, The Office's ascent to the highest-rated comedy on NBC managed to slowly grow in popularity on the back of Steve Carell's breakout movie career. Now more than ever, as there are so many TV viewing options, a series needs to capture audience interest from the start in order to be successful. NBC's brilliant Thursday night line-up may now be unrivaled in quality, but the slow-burn route they took to reach that point may have forever doomed them to low ratings—even if they should embody the very definition of Must See TV.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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