Monday, July 7, 2014

The demise of Undateable shows why comedy is dying on broadcast television

Undateable was not a great show. It might have been. We’ll never know.

This summer, NBC burned off Undateable. The final three episodes aired on July 3. I don’t think you need me to explain why that’s a tough sell for any show.

nbc undateable
The demise of Undateable coincided with memories of one of NBC’s greatest triumphs, which was aided by another of its greatest triumphs. Last week, many celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Seinfeld pilot. Its origin story is one that will almost certainly never happen again.

It aired one episode in the summer of 1989. It then aired four episodes in the summer of 1990. In a different world in a different place, these five episodes attracted 19+ million viewers – cable was a non-existent threat and people always watched broadcast. That was enough to get Seinfeld a real series order and the rest, well, you know the rest.

Seinfeld got those 19 million viewers because it ran in the summer after repeats of Cheers, another show that would have never survived in 2014. Its first season is one of the most incredible pieces of television I have ever seen in my life. There is one episode focusing on Coach’s daughter (watch here) that is as heartbreaking as any drama could ever aspire to be. The show vacillated seamlessly between drama and comedy, literally reinventing the sitcom on the fly.

Cheers, of course, is famous for coming in 74th place out of 77 shows for its freshman season. It jumped up to 35th place in year 2 and then spent the next decade firmly in the Top 10.

I am not comparing Undateable to either of those shows. It was simply a show that showed promise. The two leads had outstanding chemistry from the pilot episode and that came across. The friends were funny. The episodes, even the ones that weren’t top notch, were good for a solid laugh out loud moment or two. The show never overstayed its welcome. I watched all three episodes last Thursday night and I enjoyed it.

Based on the ratings, I may have been the only one.

It infuriates me that a quality show like Undateable would be banished to this summer death slot when so much absolute crap gets a real chance. Undateable isn’t the only comedy to get shoddy treatment this year as many fans of the Fox comedy Enlisted were furious over its Friday night timeslot. Even a potential good-faith effort went awry – Enlisted’s finale on a Sunday night went up against US/Portugal and the most-watched soccer game in the history of this country.

Yet, a show like Mixology – one of the worst shows I have ever seen – got a prime slot after Modern Family. The Millers, which criminally misuses Will Arnett and features SO MUCH YELLING, is getting a second season solely because it follows the Big Bang Theory, a show so good the NFL is forcing it away from Thursday nights. You can air 30 minutes of me sipping coffee and get three seasons if I followed the Big Bang Theory.

sean saves the world
Look at the absolute crust that NBC aired on Thursdays this past fall. Welcome to the Family – a show I never watched – lasted three weeks. Sean Saves The World & the Michael J. Fox Show crumbled for months. While I understand the appeal of Fox, in what world does Sean Hayes get a leading role in a show with his name in the title in 2014? Who was that targeted too? Who wanted that? Who would even think people wanted that?

While dramas remain strong on broadcast, the comedy on the big four is essentially dead. Compared to a comedy, it’s easy to nail a drama pilot and get people interested quickly. Look at the Blacklist, which essentially only needed to put James Spader out there doing James Spader things and people would sample it after the Voice. It’s not too hard to get people willing to test out a cop procedural or a Scandal.

It’s infinitely harder to get comedy right from day 1 and provide enough ratings to satisfy broadcast television. In fact, in 2014, it has become nearly impossible.

What’s the last great comedy broadcast has produced? Only The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family are certified blockbuster hits and they debuted in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Even NBC’s best comedy – Parks and Recreation – debuted in 2009, is entering its last season and has spent most of its existence as cannon fodder for Sheldon Cooper.

In the past five television seasons, only two shows stand out. New Girl took all the goodwill it had built up and destroyed in its two episodes last fall. Brooklyn Nine-Nine won a Golden Globe and appears to be a breakout hit, but spent most of its first season attached to the sinking rock known as New Girl.

And that’s it.

The problem that now faces broadcast television when it comes to comedy is that they have completely broken the system and the viewers’ trust is now at zero.

Why would I get invested in any show now that isn’t a runaway hit? It’s upsetting to me that I watched the entire season of Undateable, that I really liked it and that it’s going away forever because it’s not delivering Big Bang Theory numbers out of the game.

Look at another show I really liked – Community. As a fan of that show, I have spent infinitely more time thinking about its future than actually enjoying the show on a weekly basis. Even the news that it’s coming back for Yahoo further showed the destruction of comedy. Yahoo made its shrewdest move in forever because the announcement of Community was a giant, made-to-order marketing ploy to let the world know they are in the television business.

They got millions of dollars in free press – what website didn’t report on the news? – for a show that NBC canned.

This fall, Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC will throw out a huge number of new comedies. If they’re lucky, one or two may come back a year from now.

What’s the point anymore? Why do they deserve my attention when I know every cable channel is going to at the very least provide me with a full season no matter the ratings?

The comedy is just about dead on broadcast. And that’s depressing.

Even more depressing is that I will never know how Justin gets over Nicki.

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