My TV

19 November 2012

Comedy Block Face Off

By // TV

TV comedy is in a major phase right now. A shocking amount of the primetime network schedule is made up of sitcoms, while a fair number of hourlong comedies and dramedies still pepper the drama blocks. There are a few standalone hours of network sitcoms- like ABC and NBC’s 9pm Tuesday offerings (Happy Endings & Don’t Trust the B- in Apt. 23– both great, Go On & The New Normal– one decent, one ridiculous), NBC 8pm Wednesdays (the sadly DOA Animal Practice, the still kickin’ Guys with Kids), and the power hour of hit comedies CBS threw on Thursdays at 8 to try and put a wrench in TV’s top timeslot (the rightly beloved Big Bang Theory and the baffling, ancient hit Two and a Half Men). There’s also NBC’s two unlikely renewals- Whitney and Community– that keep moving around the schedule, and FOX’s signature animation block on Sunday nights, anchored by steady rivals The Simpsons and Family Guy with American Dad and Bob’s Burgers alongside them. But the principal sitcom output comes from the weeknights each of the main 4 networks has claimed as their own. CBS claimed Mondays a few years back, opting out of one-to-one competition with NBC’s famous Thursday night block. More recently, ABC went for Wednesdays and FOX stepped up their comedy lineup to fill a full Tuesday, resulting in a weird dynamic of comedic compatibility across competing networks… unless you’re a fan of the aforementioned overflow shows that force a three-way Sophie’s choice at 8 on Tuesdays (Raising Hope, Go On, Happy Endings) and an epic critical acclaim (3o Rock) vs. viewer ratings (Big Bang Theory) matchup at 8pm Thursday.

ABC easily wins the overflow with 2 funny and uniquely fresh shows compared to the more blah NBC and CBS hours. FOX’s animation Sundays simply can’t be compared with the live action sitcoms everywhere else in prestige (is there any show still on the air that’s more medium-defining than The Simpsons?) and because the form allows them to pull off comedy that is both more simplistic and more progressive than anything else. So I thought we’d compare what can be compared- the major network comedy blocks, Monday vs. Tuesday vs. Wednesday vs. Thursday, to see who’s done it the best.

CBS Monday: How I Met Your Mother, Partners, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly
This is an odd block of shows because there are 2 very conventional, very traditional sitcoms (Partners and Mike & Molly) and two young-skewing alternative single-camera sitcoms (How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls), but the simple sweetness of tone in How I Met Your Mother and once upon a time cutting-edge cred of the duo behind Partners bridge that gap a bit. How I Met Your Mother is one of those sitcoms, very much like The Office, that will likely be remembered as great even if it’s gone on so long that it has significantly more fine episodes than good ones (by the end of season 2, HIMYM had made maybe two episodes that weren’t wholly wonderful). At its worst, How I Met Your Mother is simple, good-natured fun. At its best it’s fantastically clever and fantastically romantic (something Very few sitcoms are). Even in season 8, I still like How I Met Your Mother an awful lot, even if I don’t quite love it anymore. Sadly, that’s the end of my love for CBS’s Monday lineup. I was really fond of Partners out of the gate and I’d say maybe three quarters of the episodes that followed didn’t disappoint. From the creators of Will & Grace, it was genuinely funny and touching while also sporting characters who managed to be heightened and real at the same time (as well as one of the best leading duos of actors on TV in Michael Urie- who needs to find another great role Stat- and David Krumholtz). But, sadly, CBS just canceled it so I guess that’s that. The other two shows are 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. The latter I reviled so much after its first half season or so (despite my love of Melissa McCarthy that dates back more than a decade before Bridesmaids) that I quit it easily. The former I’m still trying to quit. It’s crass, predictable, lazy and generally hateable but I’ve still seen every episode for some reason. I want to like Kat Dennings as much as I did back when she first showed up in that sitcom with Bob Saget, and I really did like Beth Behrs when 2 Broke Girls premiered (I also liked co-creator Michael Patrick King and erstwhile Paulette Jennifer Coolidge). Alas, I now hate everyone.
In 10 Words or Less: CBS Mondays= 1 good, 1 gone, 2 bad.

FOX Tuesday: Raising Hope, Ben & Kate, New Girl, The Mindy Project
Those who know me know I use the expression “just because it’s Tuesday” a lot. I use it to mean “any old day, a day that’s not particularly special”. Tuesday doesn’t have the unwelcome horror of Monday or the welcome relief of Friday, or even almost-there Thursday, it’s also not hump day; it’s just Tuesday. But I might need to get a new expression, because Tuesday has become my favourite day of the week since FOX took it over. When Raising Hope premiered in 2010 I got the sense that it was smarter than my gut reaction thought. It was. By a lot. In 2 and a bit seasons Raising Hope has become one of the most consistently funny, likable and inventive comedies on the air. It’s also one of the most underrated (yet happily not constantly on the bubble like the wacky-smart Community). It was the first FOX comedy to make it to a second season since ‘Til Death in 2006 and sparked a new era of quality comedy for the network. The following season (2o11) brought New Girl and then this season (2012) Ben & Kate and The Mindy Project came along and did well enough to fill the whole block. New Girl‘s first season was the best first season I’ve seen since 30 Rock– better, even- and it hasn’t lost all that much steam in season two (a little, not a lot). Raising Hope hasn’t lost any steam at all. So that leaves the freshman comedies as the sticking points in a great Tuesday night FOX block. Based on the pilots, I was loving The Mindy Project and let down by Ben & Kate. As the season’s gone on, Mindy‘s been a little less perfect, stumbling a bit when the staff has taken over writing some episodes (“In The Club” was particularly dumb) and seeming unsure of exactly what kind of show it wants to be. It’s still fun, it’s still good but, packaged alongside New Girl, Mindy doesn’t seem as brimmingly fun as consistently as it was in the pilot. Ben & Kate has done the opposite- it’s gotten better, it’s figured out what it is, and it’s all the way to good now. It’s not the best show on the air, but it’s not like everything else without being obnoxiously alternative or hopped up on its own supposed weirdness (here’s looking at you The New Normal– a conventional sitcom that thinks it’s revolutionary) . Ben & Kate has moved beyond its concept and is chugging along story-by-story, week-by-week in a normal, well-executed way. The cast is growing on me, the stories are fun, the writing is goofy in an approachable way and I’m finding myself fully on board with the Fox family (Ben, Kate and Maddi Fox that is).
In 10 Words Or Less: FOX Tuesdays Are Fantastic! I don’t need more words.

ABC Wednesday: The Middle, The Neighbors, Modern Family, Suburgatory
This is a weird and unexpected lineup. Modern Family is a huge hit and it’s consistent in its decency and likability. What it’s not, however, is brilliant. For a show with a reputation as stellar as Modern Family‘s, Modern Family should be much better than it is. The cast is strong across the board with a few standouts (namely Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) but the cleverness that made the early seasons stand out as better than just fun is mostly gone now. Modern Family has always been overrated (I generally think anytime anything sweeps the Emmys or clogs entire categories, it is intrinsically overrated. Nothing’s ever as clearly the be-all and end-all as Emmy voters think), but it’s simply average now. It’s joined by the hit-or-miss condescending comedy Suburgatory, a show with a few amazing cast members who are majorly slumming it and a few good ideas that go massively wasted. It has its moments, and I genuinely do think Carly Chaikin’s Dalia should be a breakout star among young supporting sitcom characters, but Suburgatory‘s nothing special. Neither is The Neighbors, though it is growing on me with its genuine emotion and amusing continuing storylines (I’m growing fonder of Reggie Jackson every week). The best show on ABC Wednesdays is, by far, The Middle (keep in mind that the network has plunked their 2 more cutting edge shows in a standalone hour on Tuesdays, so Wednesdays are their “family entertainment” day it seems). This was a show I assumed I wouldn’t like then jumped into just last season, and I’m still loving it (having caught up on DVD since). It’s the first time I’ve liked Patricia Heaton and great Scrubs alum Neil Flynn foils her fantastically as her husband Mike, a character so casually hilarious that he could teach classes on deadpan comedy. The show also sports an ensemble of kids good enough to dethrone the Modern Family scene stealers easily, the best being Charlie McDermott’s Axl- last seen making out with his hot nerd tutor after realizing that he cared more about her than about football (gasp!). The Middle is a show designed to be about average people with average lives living on average incomes in the middle of The US where everything is average. But, especially on ABC Wednesdays, The Middle is well above average.
In 10 Words Or Less: ABC Wednesdays are weird and underwhelming, except for THE MIDDLE!

NBC Thursday: 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office, Parks & Recreation
Here it is, the granddaddy of comedy blocks, the gold standard of primetime sitcom programming- The NBC Thursday. But this isn’t about legacy; NBC doesn’t get any extra points here for programming Friends, Mad About You, Will & Grace, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Scrubs and so many more into these slots. This is about what they’ve got now. The last few years, Community has held a firm subversive spot in this lineup, lending the generally more traditional network some seriously hip cred. Alas, the network’s been shoving Community around the schedule and playing with its premiere date, leaving 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office and Parks & Recreation in the coveted spots. Now, both 30 Rock and The Office were, at some point in their existence, important shows that pushed the boundaries of their form and were damn funny while doing it. But both have lost a ton of speed in recent years. They’re still thoroughly enjoyable (The Office, especially, has done a good job year after year of bouncing back when it’s declared dead, at least for a little while), but neither has the sense of freshness it used to. Up All Night is a mediocre offering that is about as good as the current Office, without the former glory glowing in the background (The Office season 2 really was something special). I love Christina Applegate, she’s one of my favourite people on TV, but Up All Night isn’t nearly as much fun as Samantha Who? was and the raising-a-baby hijinks aren’t nearly as compelling here as they are on Raising Hope. So Up All Night is kind of a bust, awesomeness-wise. But, luckily, NBC’s panel of fading stars and awkward attempts is anchored by the best comedy currently on the air anywhere: Parks & Recreation. It seemed at first like an Office ripoff but by the end of season two change was in the air, Ben Wyatt was in Pawnee and Parks & Rec was gearing up to become a comedy that reaches new heights of hilarity on a regular basis while also being one of the most touching and beautifully romantic things around. Ben and Leslie are a TV couple for the ages and their slow-burn, organic road to romance was crafted so brilliantly that Sam and Diane fears are foreign to their fans. With the most compelling and independently hilarious ensemble cast of supporting players on TV standing behind a uniquely inspiring comedic leading lady (Leslie Knope is flawed, hilarious And magnificently capable all at the same time), Parks & Recreation is as close to perfect as sitcoms come.
In 10 Words Or Less: Parks & Recreation > The Office season 2 (BAM!).

To Sum Up: FOX Tuesdays are the best block, but NBC Thursdays have the best show. The rest is silence.

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