Every new television season comes with its share of new shows, but the fun really doesn’t start until after the premieres, when the networks have to sober up and look at their scripted “one-night-stands” in the harsh light of ratings and feedback. This is when heads begin to roll. But in this slaughter, where the promising don’t fulfill their promise or have enough time to do so, a few of the weaker links still fall through the cracks - like the infamous case of NBC’s two season dud Whitney.
Bawdy, crass, formulaic, and stale, the show spotlighted the talents of comedian Whitney Cummings and was a droll affair that played out in the classic three camera, laugh track addled style of so many sitcoms before it. But, what made this show stick out was the company it kept. At the same time, NBC’s thursday comedy lineup was The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community — all single camera shows with two being faux-documentary style to boot.
To put it simply, “Whitney” was the most red-headed of red-headed stepchildren and, while it started with much hype, it ended like Old Yeller. It was a fossil before it even started precisely because its sitcom format has been the staple of television comedy for so long. It had no alternative but look haggard in comparison to the newer range of single camera comedies, which range from parody (NBC’s Community) to almost pathos (FX’s Louie).
So, what went wrong with the sitcom? When did it begin plummeting into mediocrity? Sure, the laugh track (pre-recorded laughter added to the show in post-production) can be blamed at least for taking the innocence out of the process and allowing the material to grow weak, but shows like “Happy Days,” “The Odd Couple,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were all “sweetened” with the canned giggles in one way or another and the writers and performers still felt an obligation to the live studio audience to be funny - an extra effort that shows on the screen.
What is probably more the case is that the populace have just outgrown the format and, with their lack of caring, it has calcified on its own. “But,” you say, “how can this be true when Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory still do so well?” Well, what is the definition of doing well? Ratings? Awards?” Sure, the sitcom is still the leader when it comes to what is watched in comedy, but, when you look at the ratings, they also, for the most part, come from the same place - CBS - the most watched broadcast network and the last vehemently clinging to the sitcom format that their older, more Neilson TV watching, demographic prefers.
But let’s move on to the awards. The typical sitcom, while still getting recognition in acting categories, hasn’t won an “Outstanding Comedy Series” award in six years, which could have been eight if not for a mercy win for “Everybody Loves Raymond” upon its ninth and final season. Along with that, the sitcom format is only present in one nomination every year, while single camera shows fill the rest of the list. Even worse, a sitcom hasn’t won “Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy” at the Golden Globes in the last 14 years, as most of the wins have went to cable comedy programming, who were the early adopters of the single camera format with shows like Sex and the City.
So yes, the sitcom structure still putters along with it successes, but failures like Whitney show the slow price TV is paying for a lack of originality and its formatting constrictions. The Netflix generation doesn’t buy the preprogramed essence of these ancient formulas they’re tweeting their way from webshow to Youtube clip and becoming the most discerning, or at least most finicky, audience television has ever tried to grab.