The two most popular sitcoms in the world are a combined 41 years old.
If that doesn’t encapsulate the sorry state of televised comedy in 2020, nothing will.
Now, as that delightfully strange examination of the afterlife known as “The Good Place” (8:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC) ends its acclaimed four-year run, it may very well have the distinction of being traditional television’s last great comedy.
As much as Netflix boasts about its buzzy original content, nothing has ever had the reach, volume or cultural impact of the broadcast networks’ finest.
Even in this era when scripted content is at an all-time high — 2019 saw a record 532 original dramas and comedies in the U.S., according to an FX survey released this month — the biggest noise is still being made by decades-old NBC comedies.
Episodes of “The Office” accounted for nearly 3 percent of all the time Americans spent watching Netflix in 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Friends” was easily the company’s second-biggest hit.
When those two shows were raided last year — NBC is reclaiming “The Office” for its upcoming Peacock streaming service at the end of 2020, and WarnerMedia already pulled “Friends” for its forthcoming HBO Max — Netflix’s biggest move was to poach “Seinfeld” reruns from Hulu. Each of those deals is thought to be in the range of $85 million to $100 million a year.
Similar massive contracts are bringing “Two and a Half Men” to Peacock and “The Big Bang Theory” to HBO Max, because long-running, wildly popular sitcoms are a proven draw, and there’s a finite number of them out there.
Modern network comedies aren’t exactly fashionable. They haven’t been for years. Now it’s as though everyone’s just given up.
Two weeks ago, NBC unveiled a roster of comedies in the works from Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Will Forte and even sitcom legend Norman Lear, who’s executive producing a topical trans series starring Laverne Cox and Las Vegas mainstay George Wallace. Every one of them is headed to Peacock.
FX isn’t broadcast TV, but it’s included in almost every cable package. The channel, and its FXX offshoot, has delivered some of the best comedies in recent memory, including “Atlanta,” “Better Things,” “Archer” and “Louie,” back when you could still watch it without feeling guilty. Now it’s sending some of its high-profile newcomers to something called FX on Hulu, which will be available only to subscribers of that additional service.
TV comedies are clearly in a time of transition.
“Modern Family,” the Emmy winner for best comedy five years running from 2010 to ’14, is leaving the air this spring as a shell of its former self. It was the most recent network offering to win that award, and it could be the last. The only one even nominated in 2019? “The Good Place.”
The series, which follows Arizona dirtbag Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) in her transition to a place that seems very much like heaven — complete with hundreds of whimsically named yogurt shops created by the architect Michael (Ted Danson) — is that rare achievement that embraces brows both high and low.
Over its short lifespan, “The Good Place” has been just as likely to name-drop 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant as it is any of the Kardashians. It’s a comedy very much about ethics and moral philosophy that still makes time for a variety of demons and their penchant for penis flattening.
It’s the sort of series that could set the bulk of an episode in Tarantula Springs, Nevada — a “decommissioned military bombing test site turned suburban township” — and its MGM Grand Luxury Resort and Casino Elementary School — motto: “Always bet on read” — and not care if more than a few hundred viewers appreciated the jabs.
As you would expect for something intelligent in 2020, it’s also among the least-watched series on network television.
There’s hope for “The Good Place,” though, at Netflix of all places.
Getting reliable ratings information from the company, which streams the show’s first three seasons, is a bit like smuggling state secrets out of China — or injury updates from inside the Golden Knights. But when lists of its most-viewed shows do turn up, “The Good Place” often makes the cut.
Who knows? In another decade or two, it may finally become a hot commodity.