There was a time when the only man who stood between prime time and sitcom oblivion was Charlie Sheen.
Beginning most notably with the arrival of Survivor at the turn of the millennium – prime time TV quickly turned its back on the venerable situation comedy. Instead, it embraced whole-heartedly the splashy, less-expensive, unscripted charms of the singing competition, the eating competition, the guy-looking-for-love-while-living-in-a-mansion-full-of-horny-chicks…er…competition. Reality TV.
By 2005, the sitcom was pretty much dead, attracting barely 7% of the Nielsen prime time audience. Compare that to reality shows – which nabbed a dominant 77. Only boozy, serial fornicating Charlie Harper (Sheen) managed to crack the Top 20 that season (#17). But, quite honestly, Two and a Half Men wasn’t exactly a primo rep of the sitcom genre. Nobody admitted to watching Two and a Half Men, though we had no problem admitting we’d eat bull testicles for a chance at $50,000.
Oh, how the mighty sitcom had fallen. It had been sixty years since I Love Lucy popularized the idea of taping a show on a stage, before a live audience, using multiple cameras and multiple takes to get things just right. Usually set in a home, or at work, the basic sitcom employed simple dialogue and character-oriented scenarios.
It was a format that could fill a half-hour with nothing more than a beer, a big, comfy chair and a good script. I’m thinking of the classic All in the Family, of course, which redefined the sitcom in the seventies as not just a place for laughs – but adult political debate. Archie Bunker was the racist we loved to hate – and hated to love. And it was his success that transformed the sitcom from just popular to the dominant format on TV. Oh sure. For every Mary Tyler Moore Show there was a Who’s The Boss? And for every Three’s Company there was a Seinfeld. But bad, good or unwatchable, the sitcom ruled.
So what happened? Well, when the reality trend hit, it was a matter of simple math. Fear Factor and Survivor are attracting huge ratings? And they don’t cost crap? Let’s do more of those. I mean, why hire actors and writers when amateur folks are giving it away for free? It just made economic sense.
So as Frasier faded into the sunset in the mid-part of the last decade, suddenly sitcoms looked high-risk compared to two chicks in bikinis eating lizards around a fire. What eventually saved the sitcoms (besides Mr. Sheen) was what initially spelled its demise – money.
While reality shows continue to dominate prime time viewers – they don’t have viewing “legs”. That is to say – nobody watches reality show reruns. They have little value once they go off the air. And even less a few years later. Not so with sitcoms. We love our sitcom reruns – Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men. You can’t negotiate the TV dial without hitting one of these shows in syndication.
While nobody would be caught dead watching a five-year-old episode of The Bachelor, you might dial up Netflix and watch 20 straight episodes of NewsRadio (Bad example? You get my drift).
Sitcoms don’t require a lengthy commitment or knowledge of a back story. They are great TV fast food when you have nothing else going on. Hey – it’s that episode where Barney is on The Price Is Right? Wait. Isn’t this the one where Charlie becomes the drunken kiddie entertainer? I have 30 minutes to waste…
So sitcoms are back. Good and bad. Two Broke Girls. Whitney. Mike and Molly. Hell, The Big Bang Theory is currently the biggest show in Canada. Take that Dancing With The Stars. And don’t forget the faux doc comedies like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, which are also doing just fine.
Already on schedule for next season are 36 scripted network shows – 16 of which are comedies or sitcoms. I believe even Charlie Sheen is coming back to TV. Though, truth be told, Charlie ain’t exactly been away. Hell, thanks to syndication, Charlie ain’t ever going away.
Hey, isn’t this the episode where Charlie dies? What the hell. I have nothing going on…