Sad State of Sitcoms

Raymond finale will leave big void in prime time

Back when the TV season started, I wrote in this space that I understood why Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS’ signature sitcom (and TV’s top-rated one), was planning to call it quits this spring. The reasoning was that it’s better to go out while the creative fires are still burning and before the masses begin howling for you to.

Now I’m not so sure. The official finale is May 16, with an hour tribute followed by, in a blessed reversal from Friends-finale bloat, one last half-hour episode. But when Raymond signs off after nine seasons—its retrospective show is prophetically titled The Last Laugh—it will be one of the most devastating nails yet to be pounded into the flimsy coffin of a once powerful and powerfully entertaining genre.

That’s because there isn’t a new commercial or critical breakthrough situation comedy on any broadcast network this season. Not one.

The polished Raymond cast and its gifted writers borrow from life to produce giant belly laughs from the most mundane- seeming of domestic family situations. Raymond is the last shining example of the classic four-camera soundstage sitcom, a throwback to TV’s earliest and most purely theatrical roots.

The simplicity and artificiality of the format (some would call it timeless; others, anachronistic) lead detractors to proclaim that the sitcom’s glory days are behind it and that a more sophisticated and jaded audience has moved on to be amused by shows with fresher approaches. Evidence: The one instant-hit comedy of any sort this season is ABC’s smart Desperate Housewives, an hour-long dark satire decked out in glossy soap-opera drag.

But if we’re to believe that viewers desire something different, how to explain the sorry predicament of the most audaciously inventive and original comedy: Fox’s loudly acclaimed but little-watched Arrested Development? It quietly went off the air a week ago after the network reduced its episode order, seldom a sign of a long life ahead.

Then Fox, hoping to emulate or stimulate the sort of cult/fan Internet outpouring that usually greets such marginal shows, set up its own “save-the-show” Web site, asking those who visit to submit a pledge of loyalty.

How about you first, Fox?

This, after all, is the network that recently announced the renewals of two long-in-the-tooth “youth” comedies whose clock is ticking more loudly than those digitized bumpers on 24 episodes: For no good reason, Fox is bringing back Malcolm in the Middle and That ’70s Show, a sitcom that is losing its marquee talent (Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace) to movie stardom.

Arrested Development’s predicament seems even sadder viewed against the dreadful new comedies Fox has been testing this spring. Life on a Stick is a feeble romp about slackers who peddle fast food at a mall—a sitcom that gives junk food a bad name. Then there’s Pamela Anderson in Stacked, which imagines itself to be “Cheers in a bookstore.” Of course, beautiful, buxom, cosmetically altered women can be smart, literate and funny. They also can be Pamela Anderson, who as a sitcom star is remarkably flat.

And yet, with shows like this actually on the air, Fox is still going to make us wait until May to learn if Arrested Development is spared?

Cue up that laugh track, because I feel a crying jag coming on.

Granted, Arrested Development isn’t for all tastes. But at least it has flavor.

By comparison, sit down at ABC’s sitcom buffet, if you have nothing better to do, and you’ll find it’s all the same interchangeable and irredeemable bland menu.

Arrested Development is densely plotted and layered with perversely funny gags—when, on an episode a while back, the boozy matriarch (Jessica Walter) exposed her chest, as people are wont to do on this show, the screen flashed to a ’50s test pattern. The merrily deranged Arrested Development is the litmus test for those who wish network TV could be more like HBO.

Still, few of us believe that newly installed Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori, fresh from the ballsy Petri dish of FX programming, will let the execution of Arrested Development be one of his first actions. It’s probably safe and will be allowed to struggle onward for a third year, proudly claiming title as TV’s most defiantly wacky underdog, the show viewers clamored to save.

But what of Liguori’s former colleague, Kevin Reilly, who left FX to oversee the arid wasteland of NBC’s aging, faded prime time lineup? If anyone could use some cheering up...

Having flamed out early with the costly debacle of Father of the Pride, NBC is now stuck with the brainless disappointment of Joey, the shrill & tired Will & Grace, and its own version of Arrested Development in the much admired but stubbornly low-rated hospital comedy Scrubs.

NBC’s boldest comedy move was to order a limited-run adaptation of BBC’s brilliant workplace satire The Office, hewing closely to its documentary-style look and its squirm-inducing deflation of a boob of a boss. Though miles better than last season’s botched remake of Coupling, NBC’s ambitious but woefully uneven Office lacks the nerve to be as gut-wrenchingly realistic as the British version.

Where Ricky Gervais (star and co-creator of the original), as delusional office manager David Brent, could be both shockingly obtuse and subtly, heart-rendingly pathetic, on NBC, Steve Carell (of The Daily Show) plays the lead role as a loud, obnoxiously obvious boor. He acts as if he’s in a more ordinary sitcom, hearing an imaginary laugh track in his head.

But then, you can’t really blame him. It has been a while since he has seen a good comedy on TV.