Looking ahead to the upcoming TV season, the general consensus seems to be that it wasnt a great year for comedy development. It appeared to be a priority for all the nets to expand in comedy this year but judging from the overall insta reactions to the new crop it doesn’t seem like anyone is bowled over in the way they were almost three years ago when Modern Family debuted.
It’s not exactly surprising because even before the pilots were shot there weren’t many loglines describing the projects ordered to pilot that screamed, “that’s unique” or “that sounds interesting”. The truth is, loglines convey little anyway. Modern Family’s logline didn’t sound as fresh as the finished pilot did. One thing that was pretty clear this development season again was the sameness and blandness regarding many comedies and quite frankly, the whiteness of most of them.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s some of my favorite TV families were the Evans family of Good Times and The Jeffersons of the Upper East Side. Even Lucy and Ricky made a multi cultural marriage, relatable, in addition to funny, in the 50s. It just strikes me as odd that we finally have an African-American family in the White House and there are less representation of non white families on TV than there were 40 years ago.
A great family comedy usually accomplishes a few things. First and foremost it makes us laugh. Secondly, it helps us relate to our own or see ourselves in others. Finally, with a great comedy the characters sort of become an extended group of friends we choose to hang out with or let in to our homes on a weekly basis. If through that, we can be exposed to people we wouldn’t come across in our everyday life and be more accepting, all the better.
Using Modern Family as an example again, what’s so special about it, I think, is that it perfectly reflects the reality that in many of our own immediate families today, there are all different subsets of families. Siblings marry same sex partners. Fathers remarry younger women from different cultures and adopt their children, many of whom are much younger than their own grown children. Most kids from heterosexual parents going to school today are friends with kids that have two mommys or daddys or come from homes with dual religions and/or multi cultures. We all have more in common than we don’t and seeing that on display in a favorite TV comedy makes that aspect of it all secondary. It’s why it surprises me that many of the family comedies we see today don’t reflect what is real life.
Most family comedies aren’t telling any overall new story. The stories don’t change, there are only so many new stories to tell. It’s how they are told that add a uniqueness or freshness. It’s kind of surprising to me that networks aren’t attempting to find different ways of telling family stories with people of different cultures or faiths or sexual orientations. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one sitcom pilot greenlit this season that focused on an African-American family and that was the CBS Martin Lawrence project which wasn’t ultimately ordered to series. Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal on NBC was the only comedy pilot ordered that focused on same sex parenting. It just seems awfully bizarre that as we as a people become more evolved in levels of acceptance, our depictions of family on TV seem more or less straight out of the 50s (with few exceptions mentioned). If Norman Lear was still telling stories on a weekly basis, I’m sure he’d be on top of this as he was always ahead of the curve and made it a priority to be. What usually resulted from that was amidst all the great comedy, he was able to talk about issues like racism, rape and abortion from authentic and flawed characters (even leads like Archie Bunker) and this was the 70s!
ABC has a wonderful night of family comedy on Wednesday. A new entry this fall, The Neighbors mines its comedy from a New Jersey suburban couple who discover their neighbors are in fact aliens. Surrounding all the jokes and situations about their varying differences, (like how the aliens cry from their ears,) by the end of the pilot the male spouses are commiserating with each other about their female spouses and vice versa. Essentially the “we have more in common than we don’t” idea is being told through a fresh coat of paint, in this case with Aliens. I guess I feel we don’t need to go to other galaxies to make the same point. Earlier this season NBC bought a pitch that sounded fantastic, unique and would present fresh situations. It starred standup comic Omid Djalili. I assume it never got out of the script stage and that seems a shame . http://www.vulture.com/2011/10/nbc_will_try_to_bridge_the_dif.html
The Middle is a terrific family comedy, one of the few that actually resembles many real life families that are currently struggling financially. Why isn’t there a show like that with 3 teenage kids who happen to have two same sex parents. I don’t think I have ever seen that attempted on TV (just in films like “The Kids Are Alright”). That’s reality for many and seems a family comedy we have yet to see on TV.
ABCs most successful multi cams this young century were My Wife & Kids and George Lopez, two shows that in reruns on Nick at Nite are beating some of the broadcast nets current offerings. If I were ABC, I’d make it a priority to develop a single cam family comedy revolving on an African-American family to add to the Wednesday block. Why not even go back to Damon Wayans and ask him to write a new family comedy in the single camera form. A few years ago the great Larry Wilmore was set to write and star in a single cam NBC family comedy. It seemed to never make it out the script stage.
What about a family comedy revolving around a mixed race couple and their respective families. This was done on a weekly basis 40 years ago on The Jeffersons. The Golden Girls did an episode about this 25 years ago when Dorothy’s son was engaged to an African American woman who was considerably older. Dorothy was upset her son was marrying a much older woman. The woman’s mother was upset she was marrying a white man. In the denouement it was revealed she was pregnant and both grandmas put their differences aside and gave their blessing as they were about to be grandparents. The episode was funny, but felt very authentic which is something the Golden Girls did on a regular basis. But this plot could be the pilot for a new series. Just think of all the stories writers could mine from this situation.
For a time in the 90s, networks, specifically ABC, would sign successful standup comics to create a series based on their standup (and realistically their lives) and in most cases they were successful because there was a distinct point of view. It doesn’t have to be your point of view to be successful but it has to be authentic. Recently, standup comic Judy Gold told a story how she tried to sell a sitcom based on her unorthodox family situation which when you hear, you can imagine 100 episodes of a TV show, and no one, not one network was interested. Here is a taste of her talking about it on The View http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jC23wggKHfE That seems really strange to me and appears to be a giant missed opportunity.
It seems Tyler Perry on TBS or Byron Allen’s production company (which has two African American family sitcoms, one interestingly enough set in the White House, going into production this fall) are the only people telling non white family stories on a weekly basis. That just seems wrong.
About a year ago, I asked “Were Is This Generation’s Norman Lear and Why Aren’t The Network’s courting Him”. https://bigtvfan.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/where-is-this-generations-norman-lear-and-why-arent-the-networks-courting-him/ I actually think there might be many Norman Lear’s out there but for whatever reason the networks seem stuck to the same old/same old for the most part. That seems crazy, especially since the world seems more than ready for it and yet somehow, with a few major exceptions, you couldn’t really tell what decade this is by the comedies on the air. More importantly, for the networks bottom line, same old/same old usually gets you cancelled/cancelled, whereas the bigger risks and most distinctive ideas usually lead to many years of a hit and rich syndication packages.