Ask any AV Club commenter: NBC’s recent mistreatment of Community, along with the abrupt end of 30 Rock, are the most horrible events in human history, comparable only to an atrocity like the cancelation of Arrested Development.
It’s easy to get all “life is unfair” about the apparent abuse of these brilliant shows, especially when a show like Two and a Half Men is still so hugely popular. But NBC is only looking out for its bottom line. Beloved as they are by critics and cult fandoms, 30 Rock and Community, as well as Parks and Recreation, have gone ignored by a significant amount of the general public. Why is that? You can pat yourself on the back all you want and say these shows are too witty and fast-paced for dumb ol’ regular folks, but are they really? Community and 30 Rock whip back and forth between scenes at the same rate as popular cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Parks and Recreation is shot and edited exactly like the vastly more popular The Office.
And hear me out on this one: are the jokes that much cleverer, per se, on Parks than Men? Sitcom jokes are sitcom jokes. They take a certain wit to write and a certain grace to deliver.
No, what makes Two and a Half Men worse than any of these struggling sitcoms is that watching Two and a Half Men feels like being trapped in a public men’s room. I’m pretty sure its creator, Chuck Lorre, just hired all of your uncle’s nastiest friends to write it. It’s more depressing than any episode of Louie could ever be, because it takes place in a Mamet-esque chauvinistic moral vacuum.
This New Yorker article by Emily Nussbaum differentiated Men from more incisive sitcoms that also center around dirtbags, such as Archer and Eastbound and Down. Of Men, Nussbaum writes: “The primal joke was on lesser, envious men, as well as the skanks who fell for [Charlie Sheen’s character’s] wiles.” (Lorre’s other big hit CBS garbage sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, embodies that same spirit even though the main characters are all nerds.)
What would The Big Bang Theory be like without the aid of a laugh track? Some genius found out:
Let’s go back to the pacing: those Lorre shows feel really slow, right? Maybe I’ve become spoiled by non-laugh-track shows at this point, but every joke is obviously followed by a laugh from the audience, then another character responds to that joke by making a face or saying, “I don’t THINK so,” or something, so the whole process of a single joke takes forever. It’s so boring that once the joke comes, you don’t care that it’s mean. You’re lulled, then shocked. The slow pacing actually allows for more brutal entertainment to get through. (I feel the same way about football and auto racing, if you subscribe to the idea that people only watch for the crashes, which my one friend who likes NASCAR has never dissuaded me of.)
Here’s another, more depressing idea: do people hate underdogs now? Do Community’s loveable losers, 30 Rock’s consumers of night cheese, and Parks and Recreation’s small-town goofballs deter people for some reason? Are TV’s Sheens and Kutchers just fictional versions of the Trumps, Kardashians, and Romneys who so collectively fascinate and disgust us? Maybe at this point in the history of sitcoms, and pop culture in general, we’ve been so inundated with badness that we can’t recognize a good thing, like Community, when we see it. We’re programmed only to differentiate between slow-paced, mean trash and fast-paced, nice trash. (I also acknowledge that we’re in a golden age of cable television, but that’s not what this article is about. Obviously Breaking Bad would not last two episodes on CBS.)
Maybe I shouldn’t be mansplaining other peoples’ tastes as though they’re some medical condition. Other shows certainly poke holes in my ideas: How I Met Your Mother is nice, pretty funny, fast-paced, and popular. Modern Family is nice, progressive, not that funny, and popular. What do you think?