Pop Culture — The sitcom is dead, long live the sitcom
The sitcom is dead, long live the sitcom

by Amy Diaz

Forget not-so-must-see TV, go to the DVD section

 

The situation does not look good for situation comedies.

New sitcoms such as Joey and Committed do not display a promising future for the format. Most of the great sitcoms of the recent past have long since left the airwaves and the few remainders — Everybody Loves Raymond, for example — are on their way out.

But shows like the recently premiered The Office point the way to a possible renewal of a stronger, smarter version of TV comedy. What could the new model of sitcom look like? For one thing, a lot less like the I Love Lucy three-camera-and-a-studio-audience sitcom that has been the standard since the 1960s. The sitcoms could be filmed (for a more TV-drama look) and contain no laugh track, which frees the writing from the yoke of the two-line-set-up-followed-by-a-punchline rhythm. Shows such as Sports Night and, god help us, Sex and The City are early examples of the way sitcoms may evolve. The result could be shows with more of a niche audience, both a positive and a negative for advertisers. (Niche means you can sell more specifically but to a smaller group of people.) Networks will therefore have to be a bit more patient (no more pulling a show after two episodes) to help build an audience. And a patient network is about as common as a thoughtful and steady toddler.

A few shows currently on the air also show what future seasons could bring. Most of these are barely holding on against the ratings hogs of reality shows but most have a good chance of at least surviving until next season. Here are a few places to find the funny:

The Office

Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC

The American version of the BBC is not quite the symphony of hilarious awkwardness that the original was. Steve Carrell plays Michael Scott, the American version of office boss David Brent (Ricky Gervais). Like his Brit counterpart, Michael Scott is a blowhard twit who is despised by his employees. Not that he would see it that way — he believes himself to be the best possible of bosses and a sparkling wit with brilliant comic timing. There’s just something about British television that made this mock-workplace-documentary far more biting and funnier. But this adaptation is probably the first American version of a BBC in a long while — think Coupling, Men Behaving Badly — to at least not shame its original.

Arrested Development

Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on FOX

It’s really the deadpan Ron Howard narration that makes this twisted story of the once-wealthy, still-entitled Bluth family such a comic treat. Jason Bateman plays the long-suffering Michael Bluth, the son forced to run the family business and attempt to keep the family (including one brother who is a magician and one who is a giant momma’s boy) from completely flipping out after their father (played with magnificent, increasingly crazy bastardry by Jeffery Tambor) is arrested for an assortment of crimes. The boozy society mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) and the flaky Bluth daughter (Portia de Rossi) lend the show a screwball quality without descending into cheese. Arrested Development has never garnered the big ratings but did win an Emmy after its first season. On the bubble in terms of returning for the 2005-2006 season, the show, which got a late start this season, is scheduled to end in April before the May sweeps.

Scrubs

Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC

Zach Braff — who is quite the little writer/director/compiler of music as proved by Garden State — anchors the solid cast of this medical comedy. He plays Dr. John Dorian JD a medical resident who is still learning how to pull off the whole grown-up thing. Sarah Chalke, the second Becky on Roseanne, plays Elliot, a fellow medical resident. Originally a gal-pal love interest for JD, Chalke plays her character as an increasingly nimble screwball yet straight-edged nerd-girl. Giving us one of the best looks at young married life I’ve ever seen on television is JD’s friend and colleague Turk (Donald Faison), who recently married nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes). Sadistic superiors are played with brilliance by Ken Jenkins and John C. McGinley. The show has matured over time from just medical wackiness to genuine dramady about growing up. The writing is sharp, surprising and solid whether the scene requires laughs or something subtler.

Rescue Me

FX

Nothing says comedy like dead firemen and 9/11! Except, surprisingly, in the hands of Denis Leary, the tale of a fire house still dealing with the emotional effects of Sept. 11, 2001, actually is pretty funny. Leary has been in love with the procedure, stress’ and loss-filled lives of public servants since his work on the smart yet short-lived cop comedy The Job. Many of these same writers and directors are back for Rescue Me, a comedy with plenty of drama that centers around firefighters and their families. Tommy Gavin (Leary) is in the process of divorcing his wife but has moved only as far away as across the street in order to keep his eye on her and their kids. He also watches over the wife of Jimmy, his cousin who died on 9/11. And that “watching over” includes plenty of things that don’t sit so well with Tommy’s Catholic guilt, especially since he still sees and talks to Jimmy at times, as well as the ghosts of other dead firemen and victims of fires over the years. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, funny stuff. But Leary, with his weight-of-the-world hunch and his ain’t-taking-no-bull expression, pulls off the heavy-stuff without getting too maudlin and brilliantly plays the tragedy of life for comedy. The first season is scheduled to be released on DVD in June; the second season is scheduled to air starting in August.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

HBO

Larry David is a god. A balding, angry, misanthropic god of social awkwardness, but a god nonetheless. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a partly improvised, L.A.-centered, more grown-up version of the “show about nothing” that David helped friend Jerry Seinfeld create. Larry David plays, as Seinfeld did, a version of himself. David is wealthy, married to the very forgiving Cheryl (played with exasperated dead-panness by Cheryl Hines) and helped in his career by his agent Jeff (Jeff Garlin). Despite this success in both career and personal life, Larry is perpetually at odds with his surroundings. He is George Costanza at his most inept, Jerry at his most selfish. The result is sublime comedy as Larry tries to negotiate out of as much social obligation as possible. (One of the best episodes featured Larry deliriously happy because he had managed to earn the hatred of all of Los Angeles—he danced around a Starbucks when he realized that he would never be asked to do anything by anyone again. Of course, his happiness was thwarted when he was forgiven and once again forced to be a part of the world.) Wanda Sikes and Richard Lewis make frequent appearances as David friends adding comic styles that nicely complement his own. The next season is scheduled to begin in July.

- Amy Diaz

 
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