Over the past several days, I’ve been reading my colleagues reactions to NBC’s executive session at the Television Critics Association press tour, particularly to president Bob Greenblatt’s remarks that, while he loved comedies like Community and Parks and Recreation (a claim that in Community‘s case, I doubt the veracity of), he doesn’t plan to make more of them. “What Greenblatt seems to mean in his formulation is that ‘broadening’ is actually a process of programming shows that are less personal visions of the world by their creators, and more big, easily grasped concepts packaged as big-laff heart-warmers,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker. Time’s James Poniewozik wrote “NBC is under no obligation to make challenging, narrow sitcoms that only critics like me love. TV is a business, and that, as history proves, frequently means being a monkey business. Also: you can make big, broad, even dumb comedies that are great!” And Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter weighed in with a close read of Greenblatt’s carefully couched remarks to suggest that “the words used definitely implied what people seemed to fear – that NBC was going to dumb things down in a real hurry. But the unsexy qualifiers that were left out also suggested that Greenblatt was thinking of something more complex – and that is a middle ground where comedy can be broadly appealing while also smart as opposed to a sophisticated lock-box of cleverness that appeals to a niche audience and thus keeps NBC in the basement.”
I agree with all of those assessments, to a certain extent. But I think that the challenges NBC has faced with finding audiences for its current crop of comedies is fairly easy to diagnose, and with an answer that doesn’t come down to merely that they were too smart for a dumb audience. And that diagnosis suggests the beginnings of a formula that NBC can use to fix itself.
NBC’s critically acclaimed comedies are complex both in their concept and in their human details. 30 Rock is not just about the backstage antics at a television show, it’s about the backstage antics of a sketch comedy show, and how those antics are influenced by corporate pressure. Its characters are engaging precisely because they’re not archetypes: instead, the show stars a neurotic, middle-aged single woman, an insecure black star who intellectualizes his stardom, and a depressive corporate executive. Parks and Recreation is about a small town, but a high-concept one with apocalypse cults and Indian massacre sites and wacky Peruvian sister city delegations. Again, the characters themselves are wonderful and rich, whether it’s libertarian Ron Swanson or apathetic April, and they’re highly unusual tropes in an already wacky town. Community, when you think about it, started off as the lowest-concept of these shows, about students at a community college, and initially, only two of its main characters, movie-obsessed Abed and millionaire Pierce were major deviations from existing tropes. And as much as Community‘s been praised for its experimental episodes, which are genius, it’s also been exceptionally good at its entirely conventional storylines, like Troy’s first legal drink.
I think some of NBC’s response to its current woes, and the response that’s been getting much of the attention, has been to think that both its concepts and its specific storylines and haracter need to be as generic as possible. It’s why they’re producing a show like Guys With Kids, which has an increasingly familiar premise—men staying home to raise children—and relies for humor on the exceedingly low-level, generic idea that males of the species caring for their young is inherently hilarious. To its credit, I don’t think NBC’s reaching all the way for the lowest common denominator. Nothing on its schedule has jokes as racist and pandering as 2 Broke Girls, for example, and the network’s new shows are actually strikingly diverse.
But it’s also instructive to watch 1600 Penn, which the network will begin airing in the midseason, and like Guys With Kids, is one of the worst shows of a new pilot crop. That show, like 30 Rock and Community, has a very specific premise: it’s a look inside the dynamics of the first family, something only a handful of living people can actually relate to without reaching for metaphor. The characters within that family are also specific, some in a way that are relatable and universal—a perfectionist daughter, a hypercompetitive dad—and some of whom are less so—a trophy wife second First Lady, a heavy, fratty First Son who is both cause and solution of international crises. The father and daughter work, but the wife and son are weighed down in nasty cliches and implausibility that isn’t actually funny or insightful. Specificity can be as lowest-common denominator as broadness, and NBC has examples of both ways to fail on its fall schedule.
What worked for the massive and classic shows in the past is very, very accessible premises married to specific, weird, funny execution. Cheers was about people who hang out in a bar, but it also made academia, trivia, sports, and anger management jokes. The show may have gone broad, but it was just as often smart and specific. If you didn’t get why Diane reading Jung in the bar was a hoot, that was okay—Cliff would be along to flub some random bit of trivia in a minute. The show had a lot of different ways to make readers feel connected and smart, rather than acting as an entrance exam: you didn’t have to understand eight-bit video games or corporate media to enjoy at least some of the jokes. Similarly, Friends was a one-sentence premise with a lot of very weird and specific characters. It wasn’t instantly relatable to have Ross working as an archaeologist or Phoebe as a masseuse. But the show functioned on a lot of levels, whether it was a formerly heavy girl’s anxiety about being loved, a goofy actor’s grasping for seriousness, an intellectual’s awkwardness and inability to connect, or a hot chick’s bad choices. Rather than taking specific artifacts of popular culture and applying them to even more specific emotional circumstances, Friends would take something as universal as touch football and make it a strange expression fo the characters’ particular foibles. The audience had a translation key in their knowledge of the game which meant the show could use it to illustrate complex, powerful group dynamics.
NBC has a couple of shows, both comedies and dramas, that I think have the potential to marry general concepts to specific execution. Go On, which stars Matthew Perry as a radio host whose employer forces him to go to a support group after his wife dies, has an easy-to-understand premise, and some very deftly sketched supporting characters, including a widowed, angry lesbian, a withdrawn boy whose brother is in a coma after an accident, and a therapy group leader whose only real credentials are success at Weight Watchers. They aren’t so weird as to be off-putting, but they seem like real people with specific problems. And the show’s ensemble cast provide different kinds of hooks for viewers, which is easier to do than developing a single, universally attractive breakout character.
Then there’s Chicago Fire, a procedural from Law & Order‘s Dick Wolf, which is old-school, but not dumb. Wolf says he wants to make the show “a very, very classic, adult, NBC platinum drama,” and I think the show could easily become that. There are no anti-heroes here, and no real villains either, except for fire itself. The characters are, at least at the start, blander hunks of beef than Go On‘s mourners—a guy whose wife is leaving him, a firehouse captain facing off in the boxing ring with a rival who slept with his ex-wife, a beleaguered fellow played by Sex and the City‘s David Eigenberg whose house has been foreclosed on, a lesbian paramedic. But the stakes they face are real, and Wolf told me that, like Law & Order, Chicago Fire will begin to explore larger political and philosophical issues around fire and EMS response. The network hasn’t had a solid new show grounded in civics for a while, the kind of thing that’s conducive to both think pieces about what it means that it’s popular, but that expresses ideas about citizenship through some solid if unexciting characters. NBC could do worse than to shoot to make a solid B drama that people watch over a glass of wine while they’re making dinner or marathon in re-runs when they’re sick.
It’s frustrating not to watch Community or the more-accessible Parks and Recreation find giant audiences. But I don’t think the solution is for NBC to go dumb, and I don’t think that Greenblatt and company are at a place of pure contempt for their audience yet. And even if they embrace shows that are less than brilliant, I don’t think any audience want to be told the network is selling them a show the executives clearly think is dumb. The desire to escape, to laugh, or to gasp isn’t inherently stupid. And there are a lot of jokes remaining that we can all be in on, no matter our specific backgrounds or cultural interests.