A Not-So-Funny Thing About Network Sitcoms

Illustration by Mario WagnerPhoto: Ali Goldstein/Courtesy of NBC (30 Rock); Michael Desmond/Courtesy of ABC (Better With You); Harper Smith/Courtesy of NBC (Community); Randy Holmes/Courtesy of ABC (Cougar Town); Eric Leibowitz/Courtesy of Fox (Louie); Art Streiber/Courtrsy of CBS (Mike & Molly); Brian Bowen Smith/Courtesy of FOX (Running Wilde); Matthias Clamer/ Courtesy of FOX (Raising Hope); Ron P. Jaffe/Courtesy of CBS ($#*! My Dad Says); Mitchell Haaseth/Courtesy of NBC (Outsourced)

Generally, I like to ease into a judgment, build an argument, but let’s just cut to the chase: Please stop watching Mike & Molly, $#*! My Dad Says, and Outsourced. Maybe it’s leftover fury at Fox for canceling their classy drama Lone Star after two episodes, but if we could just get the networks to throw a few real stinkers onto the pyre of this sad fall season, it would sure help my mood.

Or maybe this grim crop of comedies is disappointing because it’s so surprising: For years, sitcoms have been the one thing network television got right. Sure, cable had the complex, risky, quality dramas, but its sitcoms (with a few exceptions, like Curb Your Enthusiasm) were lumpy dramedies suspiciously dependent on hooker plots. In contrast, it was network TV that was pushing the edgy fare: Fox’s Arrested Development (which the network stuck with despite basement-level ratings); NBC’s 30 Rock (still bringing it in its fifth season), The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community; and ABC’s Modern Family and Cougar Town—which after a terrible start has transformed into a sparkling ensemble of goofy drunks. Even second-tier offerings like ABC’s The Middle and CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory were smartly funny. Yes, there is the inexplicably popular Two and a Half Men, but until this season it felt like an aberration, even as it dominated the ratings.

Among the six network sitcoms debuting this fall, one offering is worth a season pass: Fox’s Raising Hope, Greg Garcia’s follow-up to My Name Is Earl. It’s another high-concept comedy, with Lucas Neff as a slacker who gets a murderess pregnant; it’s an indication of the show’s breezy-shock style that he watches his ex’s execution with the kid in his lap. Martha Plimpton plays his trailer-park mom, there are sweet-and-sour jokes about child neglect, and, somehow, it works. The jokes connect. Like Earl, it might not be to everybody’s taste, but it has a confident comic voice.

One other sitcom, ABC’s Better With You, might have buried potential. And you could argue that it’s unfair to pan it since 90 percent of sitcoms need a full season to reach their potential (maybe comedies should be brewed in a bunker, then released at episode 12?). But the rest are pretty appalling, including the one Arrested Development fans had high hopes for: Fox’s Running Wilde. Created by Arrested’s Mitch Hurwitz, and starring Will Arnett as another rich boy raised like a veal, the series feels like a mangled Xerox of Hurwitz’s masterpiece.

Still, at least Running Wilde is a noble, even fascinating disaster that reaches for novelty. There’s something enraging, even shameful, about the abject stupidity of a pilot like CBS’s Mike & Molly—a toxic mulch of fat jokes, fake-edgy ethnic humor, slut moms, stoner sisters, the whole mess syruped over with condescension. (Sample gag, in both senses: “Why don’t you take her to one of those lesbo clubs? They seem to like the beefy gals.”) The show is about a couple who bond at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, but the dialogue is pure contempt, all retro zingers and the rat-a-tat of cliché. Even CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says, which is based on a Twitter feed, feels like a Borscht Belt throwback: It’s about a crusty dad (William Shatner) living with his needy son—Frasier, but with sadism instead of wit.

NBC’s Outsourced has the same ugly feel, but a more original premise: an American manager at an overseas call center. So far, it wastes that setting, a particularly ironic failing given that we’re living through an explosion of South Asian comic talent on TV right now, including Community’s Danny Pudi, The Office’s Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation. The timing is ideal for an international sitcom that messes with intra-ethnic tension, but Outsourced feels more like a xenophobic sketch from 1979, one that assumes that viewers find Indian food scary and Indian names yucky.

It’s enough to make a person rethink her bias against the cable comedy. I gave Louis C.K.’s Louie, on FX, a mixed review a few months back, a write-up I regret—after a few more episodes, I realized how pungent (in the best way) the series is about parenthood. (In my favorite scene, two bored parents trade off filthy fantasies about strangers at the playground.) There’s also the sordid wackiness of FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; the less successful but nicely daffy The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret on IFC; and Showtime’s United States of Tara, which isn’t exactly a sitcom, but gets laughs in off-kilter, affecting ways. Even HBO is back in the game with Bored to Death, which skewers the literary narcissist in his native habitat (Brooklyn) and stars Ted Danson as a more likable Graydon Carter. And it makes sense that sitcom producers, like their drama peers, are now bringing the best new ideas to cable: At the networks, they’d just get Lone Star-ed.

A Not-So-Funny Thing About Network Sitcoms