The waiting game: Watching and writing about today’s television comedy

The following paragraphs might not be full of original criticism or analysis or analysis of criticism. It’s just something I’ve been personally experiencing throughout this television season and I felt like it was time to write it down and hope for the best in terms of clarity and thoughtfulness. This seems moderately timely as well, since there’s been much discussion about the nature of television criticism over the past day and a half after Slate’s Josh Levin wrote a piece about Alan Sepinwall, to which folks like Myles McNutt and Sepinwall himself have responded to.

Just a bit of background: Although this blog has been in operation for barely nine months, I’d been doing a lot of the same things I do here for other outlets, most notably for IDS WEEKEND, the entertainment arm of the IU student newspaper. For almost my entire time as the editor and lead reviewer there, I wrote solely about dramas, usually ones with some sort of science fiction or supernatural sort of slant. Your Losts, your Supernaturals, etc. Those were the kind of programs that served as my primary entry point into this field and so I wrote what I knew and what I was primarily interested in. On the WEEKEND Watchers podcast, I’d often talk to guests about reality television and various comedy series, but it just wasn’t something that really held my interest in terms of week-to-week criticism.

When I started TVS, I wanted that to change. I knew that if I wanted to expand both my skills and my knowledge in this reportedly burgeoning field, I had to figure out how to write about comedy series and write about them in an in-depth way outside of “Hey, this was funny.” I know there is certainly a place for those kind of reviews or recaps, but it felt like a waste of my time.* Therefore, time permitting, I’ve tried to write more reviews of comedy series this season and without taking it too far, I think I’ve done a fairly nice job with my thoughts on Community, Cougar Town, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation and the occasional drop-in on The Office and 30 Rock.

*Again, this is the sort of long-ranging discussion that has been going on with critics and wannabe critics for a while now, but Levin’s piece and the various responses touch on it in more detail.

I say all this because there are so many comedies that I watch fairly regularly or at least check in on once a month that I haven’t written about here. And when it comes to the brand-new comedies, particularly on broadcast television, there’s something to be said for patience and the ability to project forward. This season, I’ve watched every new broadcast comedy that’s come down the pike, but haven’t written about any of them but Raising Hope, Running Wilde, Mr. Sunshine and Perfect Couples. I may get to Mad Love and Traffic Light this week, but just because there hasn’t been anything from me on Better With You, Outsourced, Shit My Dad Says and Mike and Molly doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching.

But even though I’m watching, I feel like there’s a weird tension with a comedy in its infancy and the desire to report on and review those early stages as if to put a label on the series as a “success,” “failure” or “good pieces, but no good whole,” etc. You get the point. In this case, I do think the fact that we have moved away from the old pre-Sepinwall or TWoP days of watching a few of the first episodes and then writing a column review making those kind of declarative statements is helpful. Critics writing about comedies on an episode-to-episode basis can trace the changes over time and point out the improvements, the continual faults and more without much difficulty. But even with the state of criticism we find ourselves in today, there’s a sense that those first few episodes are unbelievably important and you are the series you are in those episodes. While having critics point out the improvements is super helpful in allowing possibly disinterested folks who tuned out after those first few middling efforts — like say Sepinwall’s championing of Cougar Town in the second half of season one or everyone’s love for the second season of Parks and Recreation — there is absolutely no guarantee that those disinterested folks are listening, reading or ever going to return.

And no matter what, it’s kind of hard to separate my response as a fan and my response as a critic. As discussed in those various pieces I linked to above, there’s debate about the fine line between fan and critic, but once you make a judgment in either of those roles, it’s moderately difficult to turn it back the other way. I was fully out on Parks and Recreation after the first season and mostly out on Cougar Town after the first half-dozen episodes. I didn’t care for The Office remake after the pilot and didn’t jump back in until after season three and the exact same thing can be said for my reaction to the original episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Whether you’re a critic or just a fan, once you make a value judgment, it’s much easier to just stick with it.

However, as I’ve discovered over this season and then retroactively applied to a number of long-running or now-dead comedies, any snap judgment paid to broadcast comedy is probably not the best way to approach the series. I understand the rational and logistical reasons for why we do such things, it’s the nature of the beast that networks send out somewhere between one or four (obviously, sometimes more) episodes of a new series and then the critics job is to evaluate the series based on those episodes with the option of sticking with it past that, depending on what kind of work that critic likes to partake in. But even bracketing off a negative review of a comedy with a “Well, it could improve so keep a look out” or “The pieces are here, but…” still feels reductive to me.

If we think about the handful of great or near-great comedies on broadcast television — Community, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Cougar Town and maybe The Office and Raising Hope in some order — almost all of them started off fairly slow. I would argue that only Modern Family was ready-made as a “good” comedy* with Community and 30 Rock sort of lurking around that definition. The others ranged from full-blown messes to the “Pieces are here”-types.

*This might be one of the driving factors in the fact that Family hasn’t really improved or grown since that pilot, but I digress.

So this season, as I’ve watched something like Better With You bore me to death in the early episodes, I wasn’t really sure how to react. It’s not as if writing down my spiteful thoughts on those early episodes would have been overwhelmingly useless in the event the series became amazing because those reviews presumably would have added something to the discourse, but I had trouble figuring out how to manage a critical interest with my personal health. I wanted to ditch Better With You and ultimately did remove the season pass, but in the back of my head, I feel like I still made a mistake. Cases like Parks and Rec or Cougar Town are still fresh in my mind, and I would hate to be the guy who gave up on those two series AND Better With You, only to have all three of them become great. It’s a largely selfish assertion, but one that I think all critics and wannabe critics probably deal with. If we’re supposed to be arbiters of taste in some way, we don’t want to be the one who missed the boat on something “everyone” grows to love. But we also don’t want to spend too much time watching a terrible series because those fears are in the back of our heads. The waiting game is a difficult one.

Therefore, I’ve been wondering if there’s any sort of science to these kind of things (even though I know there isn’t). Should I stick with a middling comedy for three episodes and hope it improves? Six episodes? There’s always a lot of discussion that comedies are at their best in the second season, so should I wait around for that and then make a more solidified judgment? Even then, it doesn’t really matter if I’m writing about the series on a week-to-week basis, because my feelings are always going to sway and move, which is fine, but ultimately a bit frustrating.

And I do think this is a phenomenon that, at least for me, is regulated to comedies. With dramas, particularly prestige cable dramas, I am more willing to let it ride because there’s usually a whole lot going on with the narrative and the characters that I can pick out a few elements to chew on, even if the overall series doesn’t quite work yet. Of course, dramas often play the long game anyway so there’s an expectation that we’re not supposed to fully figure it out or enjoy it weekly as we supposedly will once the whole picture has been painted.* Everyone’s enjoyment of media texts is subjective, but it feels like comedy is the most subjective. Thus, if a comedy like Better With You has weak characters, a flimsy narrative AND isn’t really that funny, there isn’t much that keeps me wanting more. Despite this nice era of comedies we find ourselves apart of today, typical individual episodes of a great comedy have less to offer than individual episodes of a great drama. Others might disagree, especially if you’ve read Todd VanDerWerff’s fantastic Community reviews, but in terms of analysis, I tend to think that drama offers a bit more weekly.

*This again brings it back to the overall discussion about criticism and the value of week-to-week reviews or recaps, which I do personally find useful for dramas.

In the end, I’m not sure where this post or even me thinking about these kinds of things gets me, or anyone else. I do know, however, that I am becoming more patient with new comedies because I just never know what could happen, even if in the back of my head, I think I do really know. Outsourced, I’m looking at you. For me, it’s becoming more of a waiting game and although I may never know when to stop waiting and let some of these awful series be awful without the hope or expectation they’ll turn it around, I do find that to be a more helpful lens in which to view and in come cases, review these series.

Your mileage may vary, but I’d be interested to hear how you experience television comedy.

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13 thoughts on “The waiting game: Watching and writing about today’s television comedy

  1. I’m always impressed when a critic can write so much about a TV comedy, because I find that the amount of critical deconstruction a person can do doesn’t work if the show being deconstructed doesn’t take itself that seriously. One of the reasons why the reviews of Community from Sepinwall or Van Der Werff work so well is, to me, partly because the show is constructed so carefully for the most part. You could say the same for Parks and Recreation, and maybe a few other comedies, but after I watch most of the comedies each week, I don’t know that I could say too much about any of them. Sometimes, it’s because there’s little to say aside from “I laughed” or “I didn’t laugh.”

    Modern Family, in particular, fits that definition. I stopped watching the show after the second season premiere. It wasn’t that the show was worse, or unfunny. As you say, the show hasn’t grown at all, and I’ve come to the point where I watch so many current dramas and my TiVo is so full that I don’t need to spend a half-hour of my week laughing at variations of the same jokes that the Modern Family writers have been telling for a year-plus. Shows like Community and Parks and Recreation aren’t content (at least, as of now) at being the same thing each week, which makes them fun to watch and fun to discuss afterwards. I find that most comedies just don’t feel the need to be taken seriously, from a critical point of view.

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