From ‘Happy Endings’ To ‘Modern Family’ Do Characters Or Scenarios Matter More In Making Hit Television?

Huffington Post television critic and friend of the blog Maureen Ryan talked to a bunch of comedy showrunners and came up with seven ideas for what’s holding comedy development and the growth of comedy audiences back. You should read it to consider all of them, but I wanted to pull out this particular point:

3. For a show to succeed on a broadcast network right now, does it have to appeal to a wider range of people?

The characters on “Modern Family” — one of the few solid comedy hits in recent years — represent many age ranges and ethnicities, and the comedy appeals to a similarly wide range of viewers. Groff says that the history of “Happy Endings” has served as something of a “reality check” for him — and perhaps for networks buying younger-skewing shows.

“I do go, ‘We did a pretty good version [of a show about people under 30]: a funny, appealing, accessible show with a great cast, and it’s struggling,’” Groff said. The answer might be to make sure that future shows “definitely appeal to enough” 35- to 49-year-old viewers, and find ways to “monetize or count in the ratings the ones who watch other ways,” he said.

I’m a big believer in the idea that shows should be more diverse for practical reasons: you’ll have more hooks on which to hang plot points and character conflicts, and more details with which to build up your characters into actual people, and if you do well in developing characters who reflect markets that are underserved, you might actually pull in viewers you didn’t know were out there for you to find.


But I don’t know that this alone is enough to pull in four-quadrant viewership, and a lot of viewers from all of those quadrants. If representing a diverse range of experiences alone was enough to make a show a monster hit, Community and Go On should be bucking with Modern Family in the rankings, but if I start thinking about that scenario too much, I’ll get depressed. Instead, I think the key to Modern Family isn’t just that it represents so many kinds of people, but what it represents them doing. In Modern Family, young or old, male or female, gay or straight, white or Latino, you can live in gorgeous, expansive California homes, in financial security, with strong family support, and a lot of sunshine. Similarly, NCIS a drama that includes nerds and punks, frat boys and Mossad officers, an irascible Brit and the ur-daddy figure of television, Leroy Jethro Gibbs himself, all kicking ass in the name of American security.

It may be that characters provide useful hooks for viewers, but setting and scenario matter more. The Big Bang Theory, for example, features characters that many viewers can’t identify with or wouldn’t want to identify with because they’re geniuses, esoteric scientists, or have significant social deficiencies. But as nerd culture has taken over mass media and nerds have accrued social capital, it makes sense that a world of geeks would suddenly be a much more desirable setting. Similarly, the world of Two and a Half Men bears no resemblance to my actual life, and probably isn’t a place I’d care to visit if I were mysteriously zapped into my television (I would most likely end up running a spritely news blog in Pawnee, Indiana), but I can see why a playboy’s world is one that plenty of folks would be amused to drop in on.

The problem is that finding appealing scenarios is an awful lot more difficult and less predictable than plugging in demographics and casting accordingly. But viewers deserve both. It’s not enough to be represented on screen if the person you’re supposed to relate to isn’t doing anything you find appealing or admirable.