Will Parks and Recreation Be the Last Great NBC Comedy?
For 30 years the network had the most powerful brand in TV humor, but it no longer seems interested in original, intelligent programming.
The departure of Parks and Recreation Tuesday night marked an even greater loss for TV than one might think. The show had an undeniably good run—seven seasons, with perhaps a slight quality dip in the middle before it rebounded for a grand sendoff. But its finale means there are now only three comedy programs currently broadcast by NBC: About a Boy, Marry Me and Undateable, not one of which is a crown jewel in the network's roster. The signal was clear as early as 2013, when 30 Rock went off the air, but now it’s official: NBC is out of the comedy business.
In a way, this has been coming for 10 years or more, ever since NBC stopped branding its Thursday night broadcast slate as “Must See TV.” Indisputably the most successful bit of programming packaging in the history of the medium, “Must See TV” was the cornerstone of the network’s success in the ‘80s and ‘90s—two hours of sitcoms, followed by a hit drama. The sitcoms included Family Ties, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Night Court, A Different World, Seinfeld, Friends, and Will & Grace, while the dramas counted Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and ER among them. Things tapered off gradually, but it wasn’t until Friends went off the air in 2004 (its replacement in the timeslot was the spinoff Joey) that the 25-year-old brand seemed to have finally lost its sheen.
After that, NBC started sliding in the ratings, and it never managed to establish another sitcom hit on the level of Friends or even Will & Grace. The latter’s 2006 finale marked the official end of "Must See TV," which was rebranded as "Comedy Night Done Right." An equally boastful piece of branding, yes, but similarly on-point: Even with the boom of original cable programming, NBC remained the most powerful producer of challenging, intelligent comedy. The Office premiered in 2006; though a remake of a UK hit, it had a sharp originality lacking in most TV comedy. Other networks had clever standouts, most notably Arrested Development on Fox, but that show could never even settle into a timeslot and was cancelled before its time. NBC’s Thursday programming was no longer a ratings juggernaut, but it was the most fertile creative environment in mainstream television.
The Office was an actual hit, and by far the best NBC could do in terms of viewers. But built around it was a relatively stable assortment of critically acclaimed “cult hits,” almost all of them single-camera comedies, which marked a sudden reversal from the mainstream multi-camera laugh-track sitcoms that had dominated the previous two decades. Emmy-guzzling juggernaut 30 Rock debuted in 2006 and ran for seven seasons. The underrated and basically forgotten My Name is Earl, a white-trash sitcom with a heart of gold, lasted for four years. Parks and Recreation debuted in 2008, as did the whip-smart Community, which is the only survivor of the era. But Community will air its sixth season online at Yahoo, and Parks closed out its run in a fairly ignominious timeslot: 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, having burned its final season off in barely advertised, back-to-back airings.
If it wasn’t clear that NBC was out of the quirky comedy game, one indication was its decision to pass on the sitcom Mulaney in 2013. Produced by a network titan (Lorne Michaels) and starring one of its brightest young prospects (comedian John Mulaney, who had become a top writer at Saturday Night Live), NBC reportedly didn't pick the show up for fears that it would be too niche, even though it was a multi-camera project about the life of a stand-up comedian, echoing the glory days of Seinfeld. Mulaney’s relative youth and popularity on the Internet seemed to count against him, and the show was eventually picked up by Fox and significantly retooled.
In 2013, instead of Mulaney or the fifth season of Community, NBC rolled out a lineup that practically screamed “we wish it were 1984 again.” Parks led the night, but it was followed by culture-clash comedy Welcome to the Family (premise: What if a white lady married a Latino and their parents had to hang out?), divorced-dad multi-cam Sean Saves the World (starring Sean Hayes, softening but recycling his Will & Grace shtick) and seemingly the safest bet of all, The Michael J. Fox Show. The triumphant return of the Must-See TV wunderkind himself, with a new family sitcom to call his own. What could go wrong? Well, everything—the “NBC Family of Comedies,” as the new branding put it, didn’t last three episodes, and none save Parks made it through a full season.
NBC still excels at late-night comedy, from Saturday Night Live to The Tonight Show, but little of the talent it fosters at SNL makes it to the primetime schedule. Fox has also attempted to step into NBC’s shoes, more than once poaching its stars. Mindy Kaling’s self-titled comedy was in development at NBC, where she worked on The Office for many years, but when they passed, she took The Mindy Project to Fox. The network was also the highest bidder for Andy Samberg’s services after he left SNL, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has proven a solid competitor for the network on Sunday night amid its animated shows. Mulaney was the least successful transfer, but even there former Fox head Kevin Reilly said he saw such talent in the lead that he hoped he could figure the rest out; the result was a tonal mess with an interesting edge to it, still far and away more interesting than any new member of the “Family of Comedies.”
At least with its strange low-rated cult classics, NBC had an identity. Now it’s a network vainly trying to cling to past glories (Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise and Chicago-set facsimiles) or remake watered-down versions of cable hits (the anti-heroic antics of The Blacklist or Allegiance, for example). It makes little effort to promote its comedies—One Big Happy, premiering in March, is practically dead on arrival—and it seems to have little interest in fostering the talent that sustained the network’s appeal to critics in the mid-aughts. The biggest indication came last November, when Tina Fey’s follow-up to 30 Rock, a dark comedy about an escaped cultist called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was picked up for 13 episodes, then sold to Netflix. The streaming network offered two seasons of support, while likely all NBC could offer was the likelihood that the show would be pulled off the schedule early because of depressed viewer figures. Still, it had the first right of refusal—and it refused. Parks and Recreation, for its flaws, was TV comedy “done right.” Tuesday night’s final glimpse of Leslie Knope may have been the end of that.