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What's Happening with the Sitcom?
January 27, 2021  | By Mike Hughes

TV keeps teetering between two extremes – comedy is king, and comedy is dead.

Now we're at the latter: On the broadcast networks, laughs are scarce – except on Thursdays, when they hit overload, and in a brief Monday island with the delightful Bob (Hearts) Abishola.

Mostly, however, this is a tough time for situation comedies. As the trade paper Variety put it: "Three episodes of CBS' Young Sheldon were the only sitcoms to make this year's list of top 100 telecasts with total viewers. Among adults 18-49, there were none."

That list involves individual episodes (pitting them against specials, football, and more), but it signifies a sharp drop from the days when The Big Bang Theory reigned. Still, we've seen this before.

In 1985, people felt sitcoms had faded; CBS had only three on its fall line-up. Two years later, the top seven shows in the Nielsen ratings were sitcoms. In 1997, NBC had 18 on its schedule.

Sitcoms soared, then faded again. A couple of reasons stand out.

Some benefited from "co-viewing" – different generations watching them together. That's been true of bad sitcoms and of some good ones – from I Love Lucy to Roseanne and Modern Family.

That was fine until families put TV sets all over the house. Kids were in one room with the Disney Channel, their parents in another with Law & Order. Even ABC's "TGIF" block on Fridays faded.

Sitcoms were especially strong with young adults, but those were the same people who were the first to gravitate to reality shows, cable, and then to streaming. In fact, one new streamer, Peacock, is basing most of its promotions on reruns of The Office. Another, HBO Max, paid a fortune for Friends reruns.

The cable and streaming people have a few of their own comedies, which are hard to match. While network sitcoms struggled to make 22 new episodes a year, HBO's Veep could settle for ten gems. While sitcoms had the budget limits of a half-hour format, Amazon Prime's hour-long The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel could dazzle us with period-piece visuals to supplement its sharp wit.

So, broadcast network sitcoms have faded again. Comedy will be teetering on the edge of a cliff until the next rescuer – the next Archie Bunker or Cosby or Seinfeld or Friends – comes along.

For now, most comedies (eight of them) are in a Thursday logjam. There are also the Fox animation series on Sundays, two CBS sitcoms on Mondays, and six ABC comedies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

And yes, some are well worth watching. The Simpsons (8 p.m. ET, Sundays, Fox) is consistently good. Mr. Mayor (8 p.m. ET, Thursdays, NBC) is off to a promising start, despite overmilking gags. Several ABC shows (black-ish and Mixed-ish, 9-10 p.m. ET, Tuesdays; The Conners, 9 p.m. ET, Wednesdays) sometimes become good dramas, with adequate comedy.

But at the top of the list, most people put the Chuck Lorre productions.

With a different showrunner for each one, Lorre lets his comedies vary widely. They can be as brilliant as Big Bang or as ordinary as Mike and Molly.

Lorre is the master of multi-camera comedy – done like a play, with (except during the pandemic) a studio audience. That's been the style of great shows, from All in the Family to Seinfeld, for generations. Only a few others – Conners, Call Me Kat, and Last Man Standing – do it now.

And even Lorre has skipped multi-cam a couple of times.

One of those instances is The Kominsky Method, the Emmy-nominated Netflix show that's Lorre's personal project. (It will be back for a third and final season, but without Alan Arkin, 86.) The other is Young Sheldon (8 p.m. ET, Thursdays, CBS).

And Lorre's CBS multi-cams?

Mom (9 p.m. ET, Thursdays) remains sharp, despite losing a bit when Anna Faris left. But just as Lorre lost a very good comedy actress, he added a great one.

Annaleigh Ashford (top) is known to some TV viewers as Betty the prostitute on Masters of Sex, but she's bigger onstage – seven Broadway shows, a Tony for You Can't Take It with You, and a nomination for Kinky Boots. But Ashford has come back to TV in B Positive (8:30 p.m. ET, Thursdays), where she plays a potential kidney donor, well-meaning but scattered. It's great, Emmy-worthy work.

Then there's Bob (Hearts) Abishola (8:30 p.m. ET, Mondays), at the top. Yes, it has silly side characters. Some (Abishola's aunt and uncle) are delightful; others (Bob's brother and sister) are just sitcom-bad.

But the joy comes from the blunt, no-nonsense approach of the Nigerian-American characters – Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) and her friend, Kemi (Gina Yashere, one of the show's creators). Neatly matching their droll approach is Billy Gardell as Bob.

Take a look at some of these shows, and you'll see that maybe reports of comedy's death are premature.

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