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.