Year of the Comedy: Why Sitcoms Are Dominating TV



TV lineups have long been indicative of public concerns, fears, hopes, and morale. We spend time with TV—the shows are home bases to return to, as characters become friends and the viewer endures the emotional ups and downs of weekly plot twists and turns. So when TV networks revealed their 2010 fall lineups last week and gave the focus, hype, and competitive time slots to comedies rather than dramas, one thing was clear: nearly a decade after September 11th America is ready to laugh again.

The 2009-2010 season brought about huge change in the TV industry; it was the first full season with our new, young president in office, and the public sentiment of "out with old, in with the new" meant many beloved shows come to an end. Lost, 24, Law & Order, Heroes, Mercy, Trauma, Miami Medical, Numb3rs, and Cold Case have all been laid to rest. In contrast, the year's most acclaimed series—Modern Family, Community, and Glee—were the polar opposite of the dramas that they were replacing: light-hearted but smart, appealing to our emotions but never exploiting them outright.

The 2010-2011 season will feature the same number of new comedies as last year (20), but the networks are making funny shows the focus of their lineups in ways they haven't in years. The Big Bang Theory—a comedy about science geeks in California—will bump Survivor out of its time slot next season, and the comedy breakout hits of this year like Modern Family, Glee, and Community, along with How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men are all taking over the spots where dramas once reigned.

"This year is all about one word, comedy," Kevin Reilly, Fox president of entertainment told The Hollywood Reporter. "I believe we're about to go into a bull market in comedy and we have some excellent stuff, certainly the best I've seen since I've been here at Fox."

Indeed, looking ahead to the new additions to Fox's fall lineup, it's obvious the network's energy and money is being directed toward laughs—with shows like Running Wilde reuniting Arrested Development's Will Arnett with writers Mitch Hurwtiz and Jim Vallely, and a buddy-cop show called The Good Guys, starring a mustache-donning Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks. NBC adds to its already stellar roster of comedies with Outsourced, a show about a call center moved to India, and Love Bites, following the lives of two girls who are the last remaining single people in their circle of friends. CBS' Mike & Molly, created by Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men), features two overweight people who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. And ABC has Mr. Sunshine, starring Matthew Perry, who plays a sports arena manager alongside Allison Janney.

The emphasis on comedies marks a big shift after a decade of drama-dominated television. After September 11th, shows became aggressive in tone as producers and writers harnessed the American anger and frustration into high energy, suspenseful shows that dominated the top 30 market. 24, Lost, Alias, CSI, Heroes, Without a Trace, NCIS, Cold Case, ER, and Criminal Minds all took the top spots in ratings. In the reality market, save for American Idol (a mainstay since its debut), action-oriented series like Survivor and The Amazing Race succeeded in gripping audiences. These shows were outward-looking, goal-oriented, and provided an explicitly clear agenda and villain to blame, and a hero to save the situation.

Medical dramas also had a strong following the last decade, and the cancellations of ER last season and Mercy, Trauma, and Nip/Tuck this year indicate a shift in audience's needs. Medical dramas did well because they help viewers deal with death, sickness, and instability by framing it in a context that normalizes the experience. There's a diagnosis, a treatment, and usually a support group in place within the story. Should a patient die, it's just another day in the office, presented as a routine part of life. As a collective audience, we were drawn to the neat and conveniently packaged doses of reality.

But after nine years of drama overload, national morale is turning. Viewers are looking for relief, compassion, and healing from television; they're battered from the rough last nine years, both in the real world and in the overwhelming entertainment world to which they've been subjected. Looking at a recent Gallup poll of American satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. , it's not surprising to see the steady decline in morale after 2001, hitting a low of 7 percent in October 2008. The sharp increase to 36 percent in 2009, however, indicates a change in perspective about the state of life in the U.S. amid the rough recession. Just as we see the national agenda focusing on restoring jobs and boosting confidence and morale, we see our television programming mirroring these anxieties and the temperament of its viewers.

Shows like The Office are bringing humor to recession-based plotlines, appealing to the emotions of their viewers in a way that doesn't just leave them feeling victimized, but indulges their frustrations through increasingly-familiar situations. There's been a shift in focus from chasing villains and saving the world to focusing on the eccentricities in daily life on our home turf. From the group dynamics of an unlikely crew at a community college, to the big dreams of a small-town high school glee club, to the mundane but endlessly entertaining lives of a group of nerd physicists living in Pasadena, reveling in comic boy fandom—comedies are appealing to the nuances of our everyday life with characters that are more relatable than ever.

The dial back to sentimentality and feel-good television that appeals to a nation looking to heal from the brunt of the recession makes sense, but what's next? Glee has already been renewed for a third season—but will fans still embrace the cheesy, heartwarming show three years down the line? If entertainment mirrors American morale, what happens when we begin to strengthen and emerge out of the recession? What is the fate of these sitcoms as America gets cockier, and slowly but surely comfortable with itself again? The flashy, action-driven shows will eventually make their way back to our screens, but for now, more grounded comedies are giving people what they need. Enjoy it while it lasts.