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The network's comedies thrive through their themes and cohesive aesthetic
The state of network comedy is pretty bleak.
Networks can't compete with the creative freedom cable channels like FX and HBO and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon offer comedy creators. Standards & practices and commercial pressures make sure of that, so networks have had to try to adapt to stand out in the changing landscape.
Mostly they have been unsuccessful: NBC's once-storied comedy brand has faltered in the past few years, though it recovered slightly in 2016 with the moderate critical and commercial success of Superstore, The Carmichael Show and The Good Place. Still, it hasn't launched a sitcom that captured the zeitgeist since Parks and Recreation in 2009. Fox is faring even worse -- it cancelled all of its 2015 freshmen comedies, and things aren't looking good for this round, either (Making History had its episode order trimmed before it even premiered). CBS has continued to put up solid numbers for everything that isn't The Big Bang Theory, which remains enormous, but its sitcoms rely on tried-and-true formulas. It's barely even tried to adapt.
The only network that's creatively thriving is ABC. The alphabet network has been building a recognizable, intelligent and scaleable comedy brand since Modern Family premiered in 2009; and in 2016 that brand reached maturity.
In 2016, more than ever before, every show on ABC's two main comedy nights felt like a piece of a whole. This is partially due to the overarching ABC aesthetic of bright lighting and colorful production design. But more than that, it's due to the network's singular focus on warm, loving family sitcoms that each year have grown to encompass a broad range of experiences and perspectives that find the human commonalities in all different kinds of families we find in this country.
Since Modern Family launched with "gay couple with an adopted Asian daughter" and "patriarch who got remarried to a much younger Latin woman," every season has brought new types of characters to the network. The Middle, which premiered the same week as Modern Family, has depicted the traditional white middle-class Midwestern family with realism and heart. In 2009, this show was more like most other sitcoms, but by 2016, its placement in the lineup underscores that stories about white middle-class Midwestern families are no more or less important than any other story, just part of the American tapestry. The next piece of the puzzle was The Goldbergs in 2013, which sent the ABC aesthetic back in time to the 1980s.
In 2014 and 2015, ABC doubled down on its commitment to showing a variety of families with Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, excellent shows about an African-American and a Taiwanese-American family, respectively. 2016 continued this trend to an even greater degree with The Real O'Neals, Speechless and American Housewife. The addition of those three has made every half-hour of comedy on Tuesday and Wednesday nights a vital slice of life.
The Real O'Neals, now in its second season after premiering in the spring, got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but has found its footing as the ABC sitcom about what it's like to be a gay kid in a religious household. It's still not the strongest, but it's a worthy entry to the lineup, thanks to its unique perspective and strong ensemble cast (which is true of all of these shows).
Speechless, the best new family sitcom of the fall, does excellent work as a realistic, warmhearted depiction of a family with a special needs child. And American Housewife, the fall's highest-rated new sitcom, captures the easily-overlooked struggle of being overweight in a culture that demands perfection with a winning performance by Katy Mixon.
The year also saw Black-ish ascended to "best sitcom on network TV" status with no real challengers thanks to its stellar second season. Other than long-in-the-tooth (but still solid) legacy nominee Modern Family, it was the only network show to earn an Outstanding Series nomination in Comedy or Drama at this year's Emmys.
Admittedly, ABC still doesn't have a perfect comedy lineup. Multi-cam sitcoms Last Man Standing and Dr. Ken on Friday nights are not quite in line with the Tuesday and Wednesday shows, and ABC seems to acknowledge this by separating these two outliers from the rest. It would feel unfair to include them in the discussion of ABC's comedy core, since they're not part of the Modern Family tree. Yet even they fill certain necessary holes in the lineup with their depictions of a blue-collar clan and a successful Asian-American doctor raising his own family.
ABC's success proves that comedy can be progressive without being preachy, inoffensive without being unfunny, heartfelt without being saccharine. Most importantly, it shows that inclusion works. People will watch stereotype-undermining comedies about people different than them as long as those comedies are funny and sincere and the chemistry between the actors is compelling. They may even gain a little empathy in the process. ABC figured out that the way to thrive in this increasingly demographically-varied landscape is to embrace the variety of experience and find the thing that everyone has in common: a crazy family.