Why we can't expect more big sitcoms that bond us in a post-'Modern Family' world
April 8 isn’t just the finale for ABC’s “Modern Family.” It could also mark the end of a TV perennial: the long-running hit network comedy that breaks into the larger culture.
As “Modern Family” exits, less than a year after CBS' “The Big Bang Theory,” TV will lose the last of a long line of durable, award-winning comedies and sitcom superhits. ("Modern" won five Emmys as best comedy, and “Big Bang” was TV’s top-rated comedy for much of its 12-season run.)
Although TV still has excellent comedies, and new ones will surely bloom, the era of the 200-episode series that becomes a cultural touchstone appears to be over. And that’s a loss in a fragmented society where rooting for a sports team or debating the latest episode offers the rare chance to bond amid a minefield of political and social division. (“The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “South Park,” each with more than 300 episodes, live in a different animated universe when it comes to longevity.)
For decades, popular comedies, including some of the greatest, have been part of the cultural conversation, establishing their place initially with the help of big audiences and sustained decades later by large episodic libraries that attract legions of new fans.
Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore starred in shows that virtually the entire country watched. "All in the Family" and its spinoffs made such a mark on society in the 1970s that creator Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear get big ratings restaging original scripts today.
In the 1970s, "M*A*S*H," and "Happy Days" were hugely popular, and they were followed by "Cheers," "Newhart" and "Roseanne." Those comedies passed the torch to "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." In the early 2000s, millions of viewers were talking about “The Office” and Emmy darling "30 Rock."
The lack of likely heirs isn't a question of quality. The loss largely results from how the TV industry produces shows, and how we watch them.
It’s a much different TV universe from just a decade ago, when “Modern” became the kind of high-quality ratings hit that was big enough to make a cultural splash and last 11 seasons and 250 episodes.
With the arrival of streaming services, the number of TV shows has grown exponentially as network TV audiences shrink further after years of erosion from cable and other competition. Newer comedies appeal to narrower demographics, which can yield success, but on a much smaller scale.
As more people watch when they want to, there are fewer opportunities for "water cooler" bonding. Social media connections seem to work better for reality competitions.
"It's going to be so much harder for a show to capture this country's attention, because (viewers) just have too many options now," "Modern Family" co-creator Steven Levitan says. "And because people have so many options, I think it's shortening everyone's attention span. It seems like people move on faster these days. They get three or four years and they're ready to move on to something new. It would be naïve to say that something amazing won't come along that will be every bit as good as our show or others that are well thought of, but it's just going to be a tougher road."
These days, many top comedies, including the most recent comedy-series Emmy winners, Amazon's “Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” are more boutique than big box. Yes, the "Fleabag" Hot Priest went viral, but it’s not likely to have the longevity of “yada, yada, yada,” because the two-season, 12-episode “Fleabag” can’t come close to matching the reach of “Seinfeld” in years, episodes or viewers.
What’s particularly sad is that there’s still a hunger for broad sitcoms, as proven by the popularity of "Friends" and "The Office" reruns on Netflix. where longtime devotees and younger converts can binge episodes and share the common language of "How you doin'?" and “That’s what she said.”
It’s telling that one of the biggest recent TV news announcements is a planned May cast reunion of "Friends," which ended in 2004. And it’s not even a new episode; it’s just the six main actors in one place – no mean feat – for an unscripted special to help launch HBO Max, the WarnerMedia streaming service that will feature “Friends” reruns – poached from Netflix – as one of its biggest calling cards.
With many comedies producing fewer seasons with a smaller number of episodes, there's less of a chance for a program to put together the volume of episodes that will have people still watching and talking about it decades later.
Some comedies may hit the 200-episode threshold, including “Last Man Standing” (173 episodes), “The Goldbergs” (162), “Mom” (150), “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (144) and “Black-ish” (140). . Perhaps a few will get the kind of streaming boost that helped "The Office," which moves to NBC's upcoming Peacock streaming service in 2021. But that won't do anything to establish long-running hits going forward.
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Maybe pining for big-tent shows that connect a broad audience leaves me as stuck in the past as network executives launching brand-name reboots of earlier sitcom hits, including "Roseanne," "Will & Grace" and "Murphy Brown." But it seems like we're losing a valuable way to bond in the inexorable march toward unlimited, self-serve TV.