The Future of the Sitcom Is in the Past
Traditional networks are increasingly looking at rebooting old shows and that might actually be a win for progressives.
Will & Grace, 2006 | Source. NBC Handout
Every year, people in the TV business predict that the multi-camera sitcom—the traditional kind with artificial-looking sets and audible audience laughter—is due for a comeback. And every year around this time, the US networks mostly order single-camera sitcoms without laugh tracks. As the industry prepares for this month's fall schedule announcements, most of the comedy shows under consideration are single-camera, as they have been for at least a decade. And yet it's not impossible to get a new traditional sitcom on TV today. It just has to be based on an old one.
One of the few studio-audience sitcoms that has been granted a spot on the schedule for the new season is Will & Grace, a limited-run revival of NBC's last big hit multi-camera show. The stars of Roseanne have agreed to come back for a reunion series. Netflix brought back most of the cast of Full House for the inevitably titled sequel, Fuller House; the Disney Channel canceled Girl Meets World but picked up a similar sequel series for That's So Raven, and Queen Latifah announced earlier this year that she's working on a revival of her own hit 90s sitcom, Living Single.
And if you can't get the original cast back together, you can always make a new show under the same name. Norman Lear's comedy One Day at a Time was successfully remade by Netflix, with Justina Machado taking over Bonnie Franklin's old role, as a single woman raising two children. Even before the show was renewed for another season, the studio let it be known that it was interested in doing reboots of other Lear sitcoms from his 1970s golden age, like All in the Family and The Jeffersons.
It's a strange position for television's oldest format. Old multi-camera shows are still popular enough to be brought back from the dead, and new multi-camera shows like The Big Bang Theory continue to be more popular than single-camera comedies—and yet their popularity hasn't translated into a lot of new shows in the form.
But in today's TV market, if a creator is making a new half-hour comedy, it makes much more sense to do it single camera. Not only is the form more artistically reputable, but it may actually be more profitable. While no laugh-track-free comedy has ever equaled the broad success of Friends or Seinfeld, it may be pointless to try and aim for that kind of popularity in today's fragmented TV market, and people who try usually fail. Louis CK's first TV series, Lucky Louie, was shot in front of a studio audience and tried to be the successor to popular working-class comedies like Roseanne; it was canceled after one season. He then came back with the more personal, non-traditional comedy Louie, and was rewarded with a long run and multiple awards. Combine this with the fact that there are many more outlets willing to bid on single-camera comedy—most cable networks avoid original multi-camera shows—and it's hard to see why a new script would be done any other way.
What may save the traditional sitcom is that Hollywood doesn't only run on new and original ideas. An old-fashioned sitcom may look much better to studio executives if it's based on a property they already own. According to Vulture, the rebooted One Day at a Time came about when an executive at Lear's company pitched it to Sony, which had seen "a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic." A proposed remake of The Honeymooners would update the show to deal with issues like divorce while keeping only the basic premise of two working-class couples. These are ideas that could just as easily be pitched as original multi-camera shows, but no one would buy them. Just as Lear remade British sitcoms into American shows like All in the Family and Sanford & Son, today's traditional sitcom producers may use the cushion of familiar, pre-sold titles to tell the stories they want to tell.
And if there's one thing that drives today's Hollywood more than recycling, it's nostalgia. In this case, nostalgia for the way old-school sitcoms were able to reach across partisan lines. Because studio-audience sitcoms have to please a room full of people off the street, they indulge more in easy jokes and stereotypes than more sophisticated modern comedies. But because of that, they have more cultural power than almost any comedy without a laugh track. Even before Will & Grace came back, it was talked up by the likes of former US vice president Joe Biden as the show that helped mainstream LGBTQ rights. Now that it's been revived, Megan Mullally told the Big Issue that the show was "entertaining to the largest amount of people possible, some not necessarily as enlightened about certain issues regarding civil rights. Because it sinks in there." The new One Day at a Time, similarly, tried to use the populist, crowd-pleasing format to communicate progressive ideas.
So just as the movies are increasingly divided between originals and reboots, the sitcom may be starting to develop a two-tiered system. Anything original or forward-looking will be done without a laugh track, but studios can look through their back catalogs to find old-school properties they can dust off, just as they've done for old comic books and cartoons. And creators may be willing to sign on in the hope of reaching the old-fashioned mass audience with these old-fashioned titles. Sure, the critics will mostly prefer the non-traditional work; Richard Morgan of the Washington Post, while acknowledging that Will & Grace may have been necessary as "a charm offensive for for the sake of straight America's tolerance of LGBT America," hoped that the new episodes would be more challenging in the manner of Atlanta, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and Master of None. But the reality is those smart, laugh-track-free shows can never reach as many viewers as Will & Grace, and will never change as many minds, no matter how many Vulture or AV Club recaps are written.