Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Since the early '80s, Thursday night's Must See TV lineup has been NBC's cornerstone. The best comedies in history have aired in that time block: The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Scrubs, Will & Grace...the list is long.
NBC is a long way from the halcyon days of Seinfeld and Friends. It currently ranks dead last among the four major broadcast networks. Still, the peacock has maintained its dedication to intelligent, innovative comedy. Maybe people aren't watching — and I'm not entirely convinced that's the case without seeing the numbers for online viewers — but I'm convinced the 90 minutes between the cold open on Community through to the end credits on The Office is the best time slot this side of cable. When 30 Rock is in the mix, it's even better.
As always, NBC uses Must See TV as a proving ground, rotating in new shows around the 8:30/9:00 anchor slots, currently held by Parks & Recreation (a show that's still building and audience) and The Office. Last season, NBC debuted Outsourced in the lineup. Outsourced had a workplace setting predominantly featuring single characters aged somewhere between 24 and 45. Unfortunately, it was also completely unfunny, but it made sense.
This year, it seems to me NBC had one ideal option for this lineup: Up All Night. Cast-wise, it made sense. The show stars Will Arnett, who is married to Amy Poehler and had previously appeared in 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, and Arrested Development (a spiritual precursor to the current Must See TV lineup), and Maya Rudolph, a former SNL player alongside Poehler and Tina Fey. It could be argued Up All Night's target demographic (30-somethings with children) fit in perfectly with the sort of people who have watched The Office the last seven seasons. Beyond the slim degrees of separation, Up All Night just looks like it belongs on Thursday night.
Instead, NBC went with Whitney.
I've only seen one and a half episodes of Whitney, so I can't definitively say it's horrible. But it's pretty bad. Prettttaaay, pretttttttaaaaaay, pretty bad. Maybe a couple of chuckle-worthy jokes slip in. Maybe the characters could be fleshed out into something resembling likability. It's not promising, is all I'm saying.
But what's especially astonishing is how completely divergent Whitney is from the rest of the Must See TV lineup. It has a multicamera layout and a prompted live studio audience, for Pete's sake. Over the first 10 minutes, my wife and I exchanged at least eight glances of utter disbelief. It felt like we were watching a relic.
Now, I know plenty of shows — successful ones and critically-acclaimed ones, even — still utilize laugh tracks. I know Seinfeld, maybe the best sitcom of all-time, utilized canned laughter, and I can go back and watch "The Pick" and have audience reaction seem quite natural.
Whitney, though, feels patronizing. The fact Whitney's audience is live (which Whitney Cummings herself points out at each episode's outset followed by a defiant/apologetic "You heard me.") makes it even worse. There's something wrong, almost inhumane about it, like you can picture the individual audience members prodded into a nervous chuckle by an enormous LAUGHTER sign. Paired with How I Met Your Mother, maybe Whitney would work a little better (though it still wouldn't be funny). Setting it alongside blazingly-paced shows like Community makes it look like the Vancouver Whitecaps kicking off against FC Barcelona.
(Here, by the way, is what laugh track sitcoms look like without the laugh track. The pauses completely detract from from very solid jokes.)
Obviously, there are sitcom crutches today that will one day be deemed quaint. The whole mockumentary/"knowing look to the camera" will one day be representative of sitcoms in the late '00s. And I'm not saying laugh tracks can't be utilized effectively. But I think we're past the point of that being standard. Audiences across the board have embraced Modern Family. They can handle quick edits and the pace of actual human interaction. Maybe we're all sheep at heart, but it's nice not to be reminded of that fact every eight seconds.