The big story from the Television Critics Association press tour yesterday was the controversy surrounding Fox's new sitcom Dads, a Seth MacFarlane-produced comedy whose pilot traffics in some pretty ugly racial stereotypes. But as singularly unpleasant and offensive as Dads may be, it's just one indicator of a larger problem facing network television this coming season: The fate of the sitcom is, once again, uncertain.
This upcoming season's new class of sitcoms has a big job to do. Last year, only two sitcoms out of 16 survived their first year on the air: Fox's The Mindy Project and, inexplicably, ABC's suburban aliens laffer The Neighbors. So there are many schedule holes to fill, comedy blocs must be built to support, and draft off of, established hits. But is the material out there? Not from the looks of it. Few new shows have the nastiness of Dads (the pilot episode ends with the cast thinking up metaphors to describe just how small a Chinese man's penis is), but there is plenty else to complain about.
CBS's The Millers, starring poor Will Arnett and poor Margo Martindale, relies on a recurring fart joke throughout the pilot. The Crazy Ones, also on that network, comes off as an ad for McDonald's (even though the show didn't pay the company) with Robin Williams doing funny voices. We haven't subjected ourselves to that network's We Are Men, yet, but The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman wrote on Twitter: "Not sure you could make the pilot for 'We Are Men' any worse unless someone from 'The Millers' farted on it." And it's not just CBS—which will undoubtedly have some hits—that has problems. ABC, for instance, makes the fatal flaw of having the hilarious character actress Rebel Wilson play the straight-woman in Super Fun Night, and NBC looks to be relying too heavily on the family comedy model when its best shows in recent years have been the weirdest ones. We are at least tentatively hopeful about Michael J. Fox's return to television, family comedy though it may be.
To be fair to the networks, there are a few other potentially bright spots. ABC's Trophy Wife is promising, with a charming Malin Akerman in the lead. And oddly enough, despite the gnarliness of Dads, Fox's new comedy lineup may have the best prospects. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, from Parks and Rec's Mike Schur, brings some of that kooky workplace energy to the police force. Us & Them has moments of sweetness as Jason Ritter woos Alexis Bledel in a long-distance relationship, while army comedy Enlisted surprised us with its unexpected charm and idiosyncrasy. And of course their established lineup is one of the best around, with New Girl, Raising Hope, and The Mindy Project — which we expect to really gain its stride in its second season — all consistently delivering. Dads, though, is a certified stinker.
At the beginning of the Dads presentation yesterday, Fox entertainment chair Kevin Reilly read aloud some early, negative Big Bang Theory reviews to show the audience how wrong critics can be about the potential of a series. And the fact is, he's not entirely wrong about the often distant relationship between a show's critical reception and its success. Reviews rarely determine what stays on the air. If that was the case, we might still have Happy Endings or any number of critically beloved but popularly ignored shows. So for all we know, the Dads controversy might be great news for Fox. That's the scenario Lisa de Moraes posed at Deadline. De Moraes points out that another controversial show at TCA was 2 Broke Girls, which also answered awkwardly for its racism but went on to be a big hit anyway. As much as we hate to imagine this future, Dads could become the sitcom savior. But what exactly would it be saving?