NBC pulled the plug on The Michael J. Fox show yesterday, putting an end to their Thursday night experiment with broader comedies, an experiment that began last year with several sitcoms that didn’t make it until their second seasons (Guys with Kids, Animal Practice, Go On, and 1600 Penn). What’s interesting about the cancellation of all three of NBC’s new Thursday night comedies this season is what they all had in common: They were family sitcoms designed to appeal to a broad audience featuring — at least in two cases — big stars (Michael J. Fox and Betsy Brandt on The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Hayes on Sean Saves the World. Welcome to the Family had the less popular but very familiar Mike O’Malley and Mary McCormick).
Each of the three were a different spin on the standard family sitcom premise: Michael J. Fox’s was a family sitcom where the lead character had Parkinson’s; Sean Saves the World was a family sitcom with a divorced gay Dad in the lead; and Welcome to the Family was a meant to be a kind of Modern Family that was even more modern, merging a squabbling Hispanic and White family together through an unplanned pregnancy.
But the other thing they had in common was tired writing. They took decades-old sitcom tropes and simply modified them to fit these updated characters. They built shows around a premise, instead of around the characters. They didn’t bother challenging the audience, they simply tried to please as many people as possible.
In an age where we can eschew the television shows meant to please the masses in favor of television shows designed to appeal to a specific demographic — our demographic — broader is no longer better. We want characters with which we can identity, and not jokes delivered by stereotypes designed to artificially reflect us. More importantly, in our sitcoms we want a reason to laugh, and nothing in Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, or The Michael J. Fox Show gave us a reason to do so.