In 1982, NBC was falling apart. It was on its last season with Taxi before it moved over to ABC, and its Thursday night line-up was anchored by the dismally rated Fame television series (which would last only two seasons) and a little show called Cheers, which came in last place that year in the Nielsen ratings. NBC nevertheless renewed it because they didn’t have anything else to replace it with. In 1983, things weren’t much improved: The Thursday night lineup was anchored by the middling Gimme a Break, a second season of the low-rated Cheers, and a show called We Got It Made that moved to Saturdays by winter and was replaced with Mamma’s Family and Buffalo Bill (which would last only part of two seasons).
However, things took a dramatic turn in 1984, when The Cosby Show debuted on NBC. It would change the entire landscape of the network for nearly 30 years. The Cosby Show lifted its time-slot partner, Family Ties, which in turn made a huge hit out of Cheers, which itself helped to make a big hit out of Night Court. For the next three decades, Thursday nights on NBC would generate one hit after another: A Different World, Wings, Mad About You (which spent two seasons on Thursdays after The Cosby Show left), Frasier, Will & Grace, Seinfeld, Just Shoot Me, Friends, Scrubs (which spent part of four seasons on Thursdays) and The Office.
Around the turn of the century, when Friends left the air, ratings began to tumble. And yet, for a smaller — but smart and affluent — audience, Thursdays on NBC was still Must See TV, with The Office, 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation. For critics and other like-minded people, it was often the only night we tuned in to NBC, and while the network could boast little else, at least it had the most creative and original comedy block on network television.
Now, 30 years after the debut of The Cosby Show, the NBC Thursday night comedy block is a disaster. Not only is it getting atrocious ratings, now even those of us who had been habituated thursday night viewers are abandoning the two hours that we automatically viewed each week. The Office and 30 Rock are gone, Community is not on the schedule (and who knows what we can expect from it when it returns after a disastrous season without Dan Harmon) and even Parks and Recreation — the best sitcom on television for a a three-year stretch — is not quite what it once was (notwithstanding last night’s excellent episode with Sam Elliot’s anti-Ron Swanson).
What remains, besides Parks and Rec, are three new shows that aren’t even as good as the lesser shows that have rotated through the NBC comedy lineup over the years, like The Single Guy or Boston Common, Suddenly Susan, Battery Park, Outsourced, and Stark Raving Mad, to name just a few. In fact, even the critically reviled Joey was better than most of what is on Thursday nights now.
NBC must have believed that Michael J. Fox would do for Thursday nights what Bill Cosby did in the early 80s. They gave him a full-season order based mostly on a pitch, and expectations that The Michael J. Fox Show would reignite the magic ran high. We should’ve known, however, that when NBC scheduled The Michael J. Fox Show for 9:30, they already realized that they had a stinker in the making. Yes, there is a great cast here — with Betsy Brandt and Wendell Pierce, in addition to Fox — but the writing is struggling to bring itself up to mediocre. Not even Anne Heche could bring any life to the series in last night’s episode, trying to extract laughs out of getting her hand smashed.
But if the best we can say about Fox’s show is that it’s on the brink of so-so, it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of the other two new entries. I could only muster the first half of Sean Saves the World last night before I had to turn it off in disgust. When’s the last time a good sitcom centered around a single Dad trying to buy a bra for his teenage daughter? Sean Hayes has great timing and considerable effervescence, but Sean Saves the World seems like a campy throwback to ABC’s TGIF lineup with Full House and Family Matters, only it is aimed at an older, disinterested audience.
In Welcome to the Family, meanwhile, last night’s second episode of the series was a 22-minute set up that culminated in two men punching each other in the balls. That is literally what happened.
To the dismay of its core sitcom audience, last year NBC’s president Robert Greenblatt vowed to broaden the appeal of their comedies. They brought in big names — Matthew Perry, Justin Kirk, and Jimmy Fallon, who produced a family sitcom with the Cosby’s Tempest Bledsoe and Anthony Anderson — and tried to reach out to a larger audience. None of the sitcoms that NBC debuted last year made it to a second season. But Greenblatt apparently learned nothing from his mistakes because this year, he brought in three more big names — Sean Hayes, Mike O’Malley, and Michael J. Fox — but he didn’t change the approach of those sitcoms. They’re still trying too hard to appeal to a huge audience, but there’s no longer a huge audience to appeal to. They’re already watching Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men on CBS.
NBC could’ve continued to generate well-crafted, thoughtful comedies with smaller cult audiences that would generate plenty of profits in syndication and on Netflix, like Community, The Office and Parks and Rec. It chose, instead, to go bigger, dumber, and more forgettable. It’s that final adjective that’s the most detrimental. Our television options these days are vast. The Michael J. Fox Show or Sean Saves the World might have survived in 1984, when there were only a handful of channels with scripted programs to choose from. But now? There’s too much good TV that we feel like we need to see, so we’re no longer interested in disposable comedies. We no longer watch television to kill time before bed. We watch television for riveting stories and complex characters. Two guys punching each other in the balls doesn’t meet that standard. I’m not even entirely sure whether the charming, infectious The Cosby Show would meet that standard anymore.
All I know is that NBC is trying desperately to replicate the success of the early years of its Must See TV run, but we live in a different era with more sophisticated television watchers. Instead of aiming for those big successes and failing spectacularly, maybe NBC should try to replicate its smaller successes of recent years: Smart, low-rated sitcoms that play well in syndication and on Netflix and that viewers gobble up on DVD. The profit margins may be smaller, but at least you’ve created something to be proud of.