BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Things are changing over at NBC. With Community’s cancellation and the announcement that the next season of Parks and Recreation will be its last, the comedy brand that the network stumbled into a decade ago is on its way out.
The age of the low-rated, critically acclaimed NBC comedy began in 2005 with The Office.The British remake was followed by 30 Rock, then Community and Parks and Recreation. Since then, these shows have come to define an era of accidental creativity. Frequently moved around and rarely all on at the same time of the year, these four comedies, which usually aired as part of the formerly legendary NBC Thursday night lineup, became a new kind of “Must-See TV” for an Internet-driven audience looking for smarter, more original sitcoms.
NBC rarely knew what to do with these shows—or with the rest of their network for that matter. With the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s behind them, they quickly slipped into last place and their incompetence in trying to come back became notorious. Just recently, it was revealed that they had a chance to move forward with the massive AMC hit, The Walking Dead, but passed on it because they thought they thought the show would be better without zombies.
But through all of NBC’s development woes, a few fiercely loyal fans always stuck around to come back to their favorite Thursday-night comedies. They may not have been massive in number, but their devotion was strong. A few years ago, when NBC placed the much-maligned Whitney among this highbrow roster, Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris posited that while Whitney was bad, it received uncharacteristically harsh treatment in light of the other shows it was forced to stand next to.
NBC’s Thursday lineup—is Cultville, a journey through a land of smart-asses and misfits in which Whitney could not be less at home. It feels like a CBS (Coarse, Brassy, Sitcommy) show that landed on the wrong network on the wrong night, and that’s why it incited such indignation.
The typical NBC Thursday night comedy doesn’t have a laugh track. In its place, shows like Community and The Office have ironic commentary. They’re not about family or friends; they’re about people you find yourself semi-contentedly stuck with—in a dead-end college, an Indiana municipal building, a paper-sales branch office. They are sharp, often very funny, sometimes sad and a little bitter.
Three years later, NBC’s unintentional comedy brand is all but gone. How did this happen? The main reason NBC may be less content to give niche series more breathing room is that they’re no longer in last place. When you’re at the bottom, the stakes for what makes a show worthwhile aren’t as high.
But as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out last year, NBC is no longer in last place, thanks to hits like The Voice and The Blacklist. With ABC (who appear to be taking the opposite of the breathing room approach, as evidenced by the way they gutted most of their comedy lineup this past week) now at the bottom, NBC is clearly doing everything they can to make sure they stay on the rise.
So what does “doing everything they can” mean? For NBC, it appears it means becoming CBS.
While usually thought of as the “old people network,” CBS has stayed on top through more traditional, if less buzzed-about programming. As the other major networks have changed formats, experimented with tone, and generally done their best to look like the more cable, CBS has kept the number-one spot by basically staying the same.
At the Onion A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff, described NBC’s transformation into a mini-CBS thusly:
As always with NBC in the last 10 years, the kneejerk assumption with a new fall schedule is to jeer and laugh about how many dumb moves the network is making. (Something we did just last year.) But there are no good ways to say this other than this: This is a pretty solid, consistent schedule, and it will likely help NBC increase its level of competitiveness with CBS, particularly if the latter network continues to see its viewership advantage erode. NBC has more or less done this by becoming CBS, with a little bit of mid-00s Fox (thanks to the reliance on a singing competition) mixed in. Yeah, there are problem spots here, but they’re mostly stuck in places where NBC knows they’ll be problem spots, or they’re being used as sacrificial lambs to the great god football. The bumbling NBC that propped up critically acclaimed, low-rated comedies because it didn’t have a lot else is more or less gone. It’s been replaced by a hyper-competent CBS clone.
Above all else, it’s worth noting that even the “successful” NBC comedies of the last decade haven’t been that successful. Community has been historic in the past for surviving despite dismal ratings. But 30 Rock didn’t do much better, it just had the added advantage of being an Emmy-awards darling. The Office got a fair amount of trophies over time, too, even winning the Outstanding Comedy Emmy in 2006 (Steve Carell won a Golden Globe for his work on the show the same year), although it never cleaned up the way 30 Rock did.
However, the idea that The Office was ever a ratings juggernaut isn’t entirely accurate either. Even in its highest–rated years, it never cracked the top 10. And despite making it to syndication and generating revenue through merchandise, the show hasn’t ever had the profitability of something like The Big Bang Theory.
And in TV, profitability is still everything (and this is especially true for network television). Whether you choose to believe that the medium is in the midst of a new “golden age” or not, even the best shows are a product of major corporations, who would rather put out 10 terrible series that made money than one great one which didn’t.
One of the most brutal characterizations of this system in recent years came from Community creator himself, Dan Harmon. In a Grantland piece highlighting his Harmontown podcast, the supposed TV “genius” is quoted as saying:
When 30 Rock lands on the cover of Rolling Stone, when any television show is lionized for being ‘smart,’ someone’s laughing all the way to the bank—some company, it used to be General Electric, but now it’s Comcast. That there’s a difference between any of this shit is the greatest joke that television ever told. I mean, as the creator of Community, I’m telling you: It’s all garbage. And the idea that my garbage, y’know, needed a better time slot or deserved an Emmy or didn’t deserve an Emmy, the idea that it was better or worse than 30 Rock or Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks and all that shit—you only have to take a couple steps back before you realize that you’re looking at a bunch of goddamn baby food made out of corn syrup. It’s just a big blob of fucking garbage.
“Garbage” might sound a bit harsh, but the truth is that television remains designed to sell products with as little interference as possible from whatever goes in between the ads. If it is all just one big garbage dump, you can bet that the select few who faithfully followed the aforementioned comedies over the last decade will prefer their old garbage to NBC’s new.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.