By Chuck Barney
After a long dry spell, the TV sitcom is back.
Even before the nation’s econ- omy went south, the prime-time sitcom was mired in its own miserable slump. Ratings plunged, critics groused, shows fizzled and, throughout Hollywood, pink slips piled up.
“For a while there, we were looking worse than the auto industry,” says Christopher Lloyd, co-executive producer of ABC’s freshman comedy, “Modern Family.” “A lot of my writer friends struggled. A lot of jobs were lost. It got really, really dismal.”
But now something funny is happening in prime time. TV comedy is finally showing signs of life, thanks largely to a crop of new shows brimming with artistic ambition, stellar casts and an ingredient that had become scarce in recent years: heart.
At the forefront of this recovery is “Modern Family,” a hilarious, feel-good series that offers a new take on the family sitcom with a “mockumentary” device and a three-tiered focus on an extended brood. And then there’s “Glee,” Fox’s hourlong musical comedy that dares to blend earnest dance numbers with satirical humor.
Other new shows feeling the love from critics and viewers include NBC’s “Community,” a twisted sitcom about junior-college misfits, and two more ABC comedies: “Cougar Town,” which has Courteney Cox playing a love-starved single mom; and “The Middle,” with Patricia Heaton as the frazzled matriarch of a kooky Indiana family.
Meanwhile, among established shows, “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS has seen its ratings soar since moving to a new time slot behind TV’s most popular comedy, “Two and a Half Men.”
It all adds up to a fresh surge of optimism for a genre that had been pushed to the brink of extinction by dramas and reality shows. Last season, NBC, which scheduled 18 comedies in 1998, was down to four, and ABC entered the fall with just one comedy on its entire schedule.
If there’s a unifying element to the new shows on ABC and elsewhere, it’s a willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves. As USA Today critic Robert Bianco recently pointed out, they have restored warmth to a form that had become “almost fatally chilly.”
Indeed, the prevailing sitcom tone of the past few years has been one of ironic detachment, cynicism and even snideness. Leading practitioners of this style include “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock” and “The Office,” shows that generally attract critics and Emmy voters, but also tend to alienate many viewers.
“I think snarky comedy is a little bit easier to do. Sweet and earnest is not what writers generally associate with sharp comedy,” says Falvey. “But television is a medium where you welcome these people into your home on a weekly basis. You want characters you care about. You want to feel some warmth, not despair.”
On the other hand, viewers didn’t want the same-old tired, predictable sitcom tropes. Collectively, the new shows appear to be succeeding because they maintain a creative edge while also offering relatable, sympathetic characters who resonate with the audience.
“Glee,” for example, has its share of biting humor — mostly represented in the scathing remarks of a smirky cheerleading coach (Jane Lynch). But it also compels viewers to root for its crew of underdog crooners.
Likewise, “Cougar Town” might provoke gasps with some of its midlife sexual shenanigans, but it also features a loving relationship between Cox’s likable character and her teen son (Dan Byrd).
Perhaps no new show has struck the balance as well as “Modern Family.” Created by Lloyd and Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”), it’s the saga of a sprawling, highly diverse collection of siblings, kids and in-laws. There’s the patriarch who is newly married to a young Colombian trophy wife; his daughter and her suburban family; and his son, part of a gay couple who have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. The stellar cast includes Ed O’Neill, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara.
“When we were kicking around ideas, we asked ourselves, ‘What is the typical American family?’” recalls Lloyd. “We finally realized that we’re never going to get just one [representation]. They come in all shapes and sizes these days. That’s when we hit on the idea of connecting the various parts of a large, extended family.”
The setup allows the “Modern Family” writers to dabble in kid-friendly storylines, but also tackle socially relevant adult themes.
“We’ve got our gruff, conservative dad [O’Neill] struggling to deal with the fact he has a gay son [Jesse Tyler Ferguson]. We’ve got his daughter [Bowen] trying to come to terms with the fact that her father got remarried to a hot Latina wife,” Lloyd points out. “The show’s not just about junior having trouble with his homework.”
The result is a series with the kind of sharp wit that recalls “Seinfeld” and “Arrested Development,” while also containing a brand of sweetness reminiscent of old-school family sitcoms such as “Cosby.” It’s no wonder “Modern Family” is averaging 10.6 million viewers a week — more than “The Office” and “30 Rock.”