30 Rock

As the warm season approaches, networks often have difficult (and not-so) decisions to make regarding their schedules and roster of programming. Surely the ratings have a lot to do with the decision making processes, but, as fans, we like to believe other factors come into play to some extent — whether it’s product placement monetization, #hashtag trend prominence, or executives possibly playing favorites hopefully with our favorites. We choose to believe in these less quantifiable and more unconventional series success variables so to justify our hope in the future of a favorable TV landscape, a future of fully packed DVRs and neglected loved ones. The hope fuels the ubiquitous social media campaigns, the zealous written pleas mailed to the network in bulk (do people still do that?), and manic financial support for commercial sponsors. Whatever the cause for each decision, cancel or renew, either a fandom finds corroboration in an x number of episodes commitment or viewers curse the callousness of network suits and their unwavering reverence to whims of Nielsen homes.

And all of that is simply to say this — listed at times with brazen bias:

  • Community has been renewed by NBC for a fourth season of 13 episodes. Not a surprise necessarily but surely a relief to many. This season has been filled with ups and downs for Community fans — consistently low ratings followed by a long impromptu mid-season hiatus, then a solid return with quality episodes that appeared to showcase creator Dan Harmon’s pointed response to the show’s received criticisms and uncertain future. To top it all off, it’s funny as fuck. The recent episode “Curriculum Unavailable” provided a ceremonious goodbye to the paintball episode tradition and, in essence, the Community of old. Times are a-changin’. And Community still has time (a new time actually, on Fridays come Fall), even if, rumor has it, Dan Harmon doesn’t.
  • FOX is giving Fringe a fifth and final season of 13 episodes, 13 more opportunities for Peter-Olivia shippers to be simultaneously placated to and kept in a persistent state of unease. That Fringe.
  • NBC has also given 30 Rock the go ahead to produce 13 more episodes for what is being labeled the final season. The guarantee is more that Tina Fey and the gang will be returning, not necessarily that the amount of episodes is set in stone or in this being the true last season, last inevitable live episode, last batch of Donaghy-isms, etc.
  • TBS has successfully acquired Cougar Town from ABC, saving the comedy from certain cancellation. Another opportunity for comedic relativism (“You just don’t get it. It’s funny.”) to gain some traction for those that stand by Courtney Cox’s ability to deliver on humor.
  • A bunch of no brainers were renewed including: ABC’s Happy Endings and Shonda Rhimes stuffs; an assortment of CSINCIS’s on CBS; Parenthood, Smash and Law & Order:SVU on the peacock network; and Bones and New Girl on FOX.
  • New shows The Secret Circle, Ringer, both on the CW Network; GCG on ABC; The Finder and Breaking In on FOX; NBC’s Awake, Best Friends Forever, and Are You There Chelsea? have all been canceled, Awake due to its overly advanced brand of storytelling, the rest because they sucked. But to be fair, there’s no guarantee Breaking In will stay canceled — that sly Christian Slater.
  • Have you ever watched NYC 22? Good. And now you won’t have to.
  • TV by the Numbers has a handy list of all other cancelations and renewals for the whole season.
  • Finally, Community and Fringe have been renewed! (Still great news the second time around.)
  • Advertisements

It’s become apparent that HBO very much wants to be in the young people business. After the gradual decay of its former golden child (in all the demos that matter), Entourage, and the almost immediate disillusionment with How to Make It in America, the unabashed doppleganger featuring NY grit instead of LA sheen and fashion instead of Hollywood, HBO has decided that maybe the Y chromosomes were to blame in their relentless pursuit of a youthful aesthetic. They’ve now seen it fit to give Girls a shot, purposefully remain in the New York state of mind, and let creator Lena Dunham run wild in a world of privileged 20-somethings caught somewhere between college and adulthood, between full parental support and almost inevitable support groups for social dysfunction.

On the surface, what Girls does differently than many of its predecessors is thoughtfully explore clichés of the real world (which for a long time TV has purported to be based on despite little to no evidence, just largely misleading titles like The Real World) more subtly, critically, and for the humor therein. Where How to Make it may have been painfully self indulgent in it’s depiction and idolization of the overexposed subcultures of big city America, Girls shuns the h-word of the times and subverts the underlying lifestyles and attitudes that make putting a camera on young folk a perennially attractive idea no matter the decade, the trope, or the pigeonhole.

The familiar cards are quickly laid on the table—worthless English degrees and crummy internships and dickish boyfriends and money from your parents and aimless adolescent anxieties. But don’t worry. Lena Dunham and the series itself is in on the joke, so we all get to laugh.

Girls features young women playing into tropes and archetypes for the desired comedic effect, but supposedly still depicting young women earnestly. So just as viewers may feel that they can relate to or understand the characters—an aspiring writer, a restless girlfriend, an over-the-top bohemian, a girl that’s fairly indistinguishable from the rest (I really can’t remember who she is but Wikipedia says there are four ::shrug::)—the portrayal of women in this series should provide both fans and critics alike with some pause in regards to gender. The girls of the show don’t function as an overtly strong statement on femininity in our culture. It’s not quite Carrie Bradshaw in the late-90s, challenging our preconceptions of what women should or should not do on television. It’s not a TV version of the 1939 classic film The Women, which brought women to the forefront of storytelling by removing literally all males from before the camera (why pretend? I only saw the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan and Annette Benning, but the point stands.) These Girls aren’t even The Powerpuff Girls, failing to ever showcase the figurative or literal feminine super-strength that tears down our prejudices and even hints at girls plainly being cooler than stupid ole boys.

But the series doesn’t have to be any of that. We shouldn’t still need it to. But as clever as the show positions itself to be, it doesn’t seem to actually offer anything particularly clever, if anything at all. The reality of it all is that spoiled white girls running around Greenpoint, Brooklyn dazed and confused and armed with both snark and liberal arts degrees is fine, but understandably unfulfilling for a broad audience. That audience may not appreciate, as Gawker’s John Cook puts it, “a television program about the children of wealthy famous people and shitty music and Facebook and how hard it is to know who you are and Thought Catalog and sexually transmitted diseases and the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” But that’s apparently not Girls concern. Those that wish to indulged in the possibly post-“hipster” or “meta-feminist” revisionist view of adulthood in the “real” world (these quotations connote things, I promise) or simply listen to some Feist and await for boobs and shout outs to your local PBR dispensary, boy do I gotta show for you!

In other news:

  • Best Friends Forever was pulled off NBC’s schedule as an overdue act of fairness to die-hard Perfect Couples fans. via Vulture
  • Fringe got renewed for a fifth and final season. Prediction: Astrid and Walter have been having sex all along. via TVbytheNumbers
  • 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation on Thursday reminded us what television can do to your funny bone, and a second dose of Donald Glover ain’t too shabby either. Coccyx via Grantland
  • New HBO comedy Veep is much better than Girls but Brian William’s daughter is hotter than Elaine Benes, so I picked the Brooklyn yawn to write about instead of the funny Murphy BrownWest Wing love child. I’m ashamed.

There’s a metaphor upheld in classic situation comedies – sitcoms from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to All in the Family – that may be long forgotten now but the words “filmed before a live studio audience” act as artifacts symbolizing its importance. The metaphor points to a time where comedy was acted out on stages in front of real people who laughed at jokes and digested stories in real time. The metaphor is mostly lost on those of us who’ve never had that experience – where something genuinely funny made the crowd roar and the performance itself would pause for a moment to, in a sense, fan the flame and incite a dynamic relationship between the audience and the performers. But still, the pacing and style and techniques of a traditional sitcom remain firmly embedded in our televised culture. There’s a reason Zack Morris or the Fresh Prince (or more recently, Marty Kaan in House of Lies) speaking directly into the camera, to the audience, evokes a tingling of unconventionality and the understanding that something is amiss.

The longstanding rules of a sitcom (or any of the stuff on television really) are set before the viewer implicitly and accepted unconsciously, to the extent that even if the fourth wall isn’t overtly assessed, we feel it being broken. A laundry list of tropes and methods contribute almost insidiously to the familiarity of a sitcom. But there are those (Tina Fey and Dan Harmon come to mind) that wish to break not only the fourth wall but everything – from superfluous cameras to live studio audience chairs. But to be fair, there tends to be innovation and a rich sort of pleasure that spring forth from broken things, despite the apology given to parents and shopkeepers.

30 Rock on NBC makes funny happen with a single camera setup, no laugh-track, and quick cuts. Modern Family on ABC and Parks and Recreation on NBC throw in the mockumentary stylization, perhaps popularized most prominently in the US by The Office, and garners several laughs too with the ratings to match. Curb Your Enthusiasm utilizes a cinéma vérité style to achieve the true-to-life feel without individual interviews interspersed throughout the episode, and can solicit a guffaw with the best of them. These are the quintessential situational comedies of the day, brazenly challenging what a sitcom has been long established to be. But not only do they challenge tradition, there appears to be an established new status quo for comedic delivery with new techniques and methods, which many view as superior.

Over at Salon, Kartina Richardson, expresses the opinion that “once you’ve grown used to adventurous shows like 30 Rock and Louie, the traditional sitcom feels like a relic.” She meant that in a bad way. Presumably not like a cool Smithsonian leather jacket relic once wormed by one Arthur H. Fonzarelli. Richardson implies that the very form of the sitcom has been upgraded in contemporary hands and those shows that fall behind, clinching onto tradition, appear somehow qualitatively weaker than the new standards. Supposedly, the bar has been raised. But how can the bar truly be raised by those who rely so heavily on the bar itself to stand tall upon and be funny?

30 Rock used Kelsey Grammer this past week as a gag without the need to establish why this should be funny. It just was. There was even a song at the end of the episode about it. It’s no surprise that NBC misses Frasier and its heyday of comedic glory, and refers to it whenever they get the chance. But this represents a fundamental component of the new sitcom world order: a persistent reliance on the old sitcom world order…a quality the old sitcoms surely had themselves. Arrested Development, for all its comedic envelope pushing, offered to the viewer one of the most iconic straightedge voices of the 70s-80s sitcom in Ron Howard, as a narrator. Curb Your Enthusiasm literally exists to quench a desire for a more extensive relationship with Seinfeldian story development. Resisting the lingo of the postmodern, it seems that “the great sitcom divide” as coined by Richardson and perceived by several couch-side theorists, is not necessarily a divide but a matrix yielding various shows all self-referencing the matrix.

Hot in Cleveland is just as funny as Community, if not funnier. (Let the pitchforks burn and a group of readers stop here and log back onto Reddit.) Both are on their third season and both represent modern instances of each school of sitcom-thought – TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland using not only a multi-camera setup but also a laugh track. Community is known to be tremendously clever, armed with parody in one holster, a meta-joke in the other. Hot in Cleveland instead relies on the “granny still got it” gimmick every episode (fueled by the best granny we have in the game, Betty White) and single middle-aged white woman hijinks. But whereas Community has been compared to Arrested Development in its originality (a paradox that seems acceptable among some of the most evangelical fans) and encourages a loyal fan-base to parse its subtleties, Hot in Cleveland can be readily compared to everything from Golden Girls to Just Shoot Me and has fans that were pre-cultivated to enjoy this show, to get these jokes, for the most part by the show’s actresses (and guest stars) themselves. Jane Leeves (from Frasier fame), Wendie Malick (from Just Shoot Me), and Valerie Bertinelli (51 and cute as a button) in a sitcom are inherently intertextual, if that’s what you’re into; they reference their past work outside of this show with every line they recite. And the show is damn funny. In a recent episode, flashing back to the 80s, cliches are shot off in quick succession at the comedic pace of the best “new” sitcom you can think of.

Community is great, but it doesn’t seem necessary to make a widespread qualitative distinction to separate it and its ilk from the more traditional sitcoms. The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret can be better than Two and a Half Men without attacking the latter’s set production, like the first season of Happy Days didn’t use a single-camera. C’mon! The tactic seems to cheapen more than enrich an argument. Tradition isn’t stifling creativity despite what some may believe. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that a pre-recorded audience causes a sitcom to feel stale or unfunny. And the reverse logic makes even less sense. 2 Broke Girls wouldn’t be any funnier or any better with less cameras on set. (Many people do however suggest a 0-camera setup would be optimal but remember, no Neilsen no cry.) The sitcom landscape looks a bit different today and some of us clamor for the new and cool like children not fully understanding the shape of it all, but remember all television still fits in a box fairly well. Outstanding traditional sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland still fit fairly well.