Laughing all the way to the bank

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
October 23, 2015

Hit & Miss
modern-family
Modern Family is currently on its seventh run 

The US churns out a lot of appalling sitcoms. But just occasionally it produces half-hour comedies that are pure genius.

Friends (1994-2004) is the most famous example of this. But there’s no question that Friends is matched by ABC’s Modern Family, which is now in its seventh season.

Created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, Modern Family is a mockumentary-style comedy that follows the lives of Jay Pritchett and his extended family, which divides into three units. In the first unit are Jay, his Colombian second wife Gloria, his stepson and infant son. The second includes his daughter Claire, her husband Phil and their three children. Finally there is his son Mitchell, his partner Cameron and their adopted child.

The show won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row before finally being knocked off its perch this year by Veep. In ratings terms it delivers consistently high audiences, averaging around 12 million viewers throughout each season once time-shifting is considered.

There is a slight sense that critics are getting bored with the Modern Family formula, but this has yet to translate into a mass exodus by fans. The show is currently five episodes into its current run and continues to do a good job for ABC, despite being up against last year’s breakout drama Empire and long-running series Criminal Minds.

blackish
Black-ish is given a helping hand by airing immediately after Modern Family

It also provides a good leg-up for one of ABC’s newer comedies Black-ish (now in season two), which airs immediately after it on Wednesday evenings.

With around 150 episodes, Modern Family has also become incredibly valuable as a syndication and distribution property. More than Friends, it also lends itself to adaptation, with local versions of the show made or planned in Chile, Greece, Iran and India.

Modern Family stands out for its ability to both attract audiences and appeal to critics. Compare it with NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for example. That show, starring Amy Poehler, came to an end in February 2015 after seven seasons. While Parks and Rec was well crafted, funny and positively reviewed, its ratings for the last four seasons came in at around the four million mark, which is not particularly good.

NBC is to be congratulated for sticking with it for so long, however, and also with its creator Michael Schur. This summer, the network announced that Schur had been signed up to created a 13-part comedy called The Good Place.

There are also reports that NBC is backing a second comedy from Schur and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) about a happily married interracial couple whose lives change when they move closer to the wife’s family.

The Big Bang theory cast are big earners
The Big Bang theory cast are big earners

So what else comes close to Modern Family? The most obvious comparison is CBS megahit The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), now in its ninth season.

Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show centres on a pair of university physics geeks sharing an apartment and their circle of friends. TBBT’s first season attracted a fairly modest 9.7 million viewers, but by season six the show was hitting the 20 million mark.

This year there seems to be some slackening in the ratings and a growing sense that the formula has run its course. But with the show already renewed through season 10, it isn’t going anywhere just yet.

After then, however, who knows? The lead actors are now on salaries resembling those of Friends cast. So if ratings continue to slide then CBS may decide it is an opportune time to call a halt to the show.

Successful but not spectacular is how best to describe ABC’s The Middle, about a working-class family in Indiana coping with the day-to-day problems of existence. Now in its seventh season, the show has a rock-solid audience of around 8-8.5 million. It has also racked up enough episodes to become a valuable syndication and distribution asset.

The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers
The Middle pulls in around 8.5 million viewers

Not to be overlooked either is Fox’s contribution in the form of animated comedy, with The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy all doing good business (The Simpsons is now up to 578 episodes over 27 seasons).

The Simpsons doesn’t look like it will ever be cancelled (it will take a brave exec to do this), but if we take the view that Modern Family and TBBT are both in the autumn of their lives, what else is coming through that might build up similar momentum?

One show moving in the right direction is CBS’s Mom. Another Chuck Lorre comedy, it focuses on Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother who, after dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse, restarts her life in California, working as a waitress and attending AA meetings. Like many good comedies, Mom started out with fairly good ratings (season one hit 8.3 million) but really took off once word of mouth kicked in (season two drew 11.79 million). Season three, which starts on November 5, will provide an indication of whether the show has stamina for the long haul.

Also building an audience, albeit from a slightly lower base, is ABC’s The Goldbergs. Created by Adam Goldberg, the show is set in 1980s Pennsylvania and is loosely based on the showrunner’s own childhood, during which he videotaped events.

goldbergs
The Goldbergs, airing on ABC, has seen ratings improve since its first season

The show’s brashness has divided critics (it’s not as sedate as The Wonder Years, for example) but with season two (8.3 million) building on season one’s ratings (6.2 million), there were high hopes coming into season three. So far The Goldbergs is holding up well and looks like a dead cert to come back for a fourth run. For all that, though, it doesn’t yet have the feeling that it can develop into a modern classic.

As yet, there are no comedies in the class of 2015/16 that are obvious hits in the making. But one of the more encouraging entrants to the market is CBS’s Life in Pieces, which looks like the channel’s attempt to come up with its own Modern Family.

The show, which has settled in with audiences in the 8-9 million mark, revolves around four branches of the Short family tree and their awkward, funny, and touching milestones. Very likely to get a renewal, it benefits from being aired after TBBT and having the likes of James Brolin and Dianne Wiest among its cast.

Also looking good is ABC’s Dr Ken, which is rating well despite not being that popular with critics. The show, which has just been given a full season order by ABC, stars comedian Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and is loosely based on his experience working as a doctor before making it in Hollywood.

Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong
Dr Ken stars The Hangover actor Ken Jeong

As we’ve seen with The Goldbergs (and Louis CK’s successful sitcom Louie), blurring the lines between reality and fiction is becoming a big theme in US comedy (see also Real Rob and The Real O’Neals) and is an extension of the mockumentary trend.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the big four networks are the only ones capable of delivering great comedy. While those channels are undoubtedly best placed to secure large audiences, the US cable market can also be relied upon to deliver some superb comedy. A case in point is HBO’s Veep, the show that broken Modern Family’s run of five wins at the Primetime Emmys.

Veep recently finished its fourth season and typically secures ratings of around one million. However, its value to HBO is more about its ability to reinforce the brand’s profile and attract subscribers – a job it does very well.

Commenting on the latest run, TV critic Tim Goodman of The Hollywood reporter said: “Veep entered its fourth season, firmly established as one of TV’s best comedies, and then did what seems impossible – it delivered its most thoroughly assured, hilarious and brilliantly written and acted episodes.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep

In May, HBO announced a fifth series of Veep, renewing another of its acclaimed sitcoms Silicon Valley at the same time.

Another show that is attracting plaudits is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was released on Netflix in March.

The series follows 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City, having being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana where she was held for 15 years. The subject matter is more edgy than you’d see on network TV but is typical of the more complex themes that pay TV and streaming services can touch on (another example being Amazon’s acclaimed Transparent).

One other show worth keeping an eye out for is You, Me and the Apocalypse, a joint production between Sky1 in the UK and NBC in the US. The story of an eclectic group of people forced to survive together as a comet heads for Earth has already started airing on Sky1 and is doing pretty well. It will be interesting to see how it performs when it reaches NBC, a more mainstream outlet. If it does well for both partners, it might open the door for a few more transatlantic ventures.

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