How old-school sitcoms made their triumphant return
18th January 2017
If the internet is to be believed, Fuller House, the Netflix revival of ABC’s sitcom Full House, is one of the most popular shows on all of television, rivaling Sunday Night Football and juggernauts like The Walking Dead and Empire in the core demographic of . (Take that claim with a grain of salt — the methods used to measure viewers on the internet and on traditional television are very different, since TV networks care more about who’s watching their ads than their actual programs.) Fuller House was perhaps the most audacious of Netflix’s reboot and revive strategy — which has included beloved favorites like Degrassi, Gilmore Girls, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Wet Hot American Summer.
A Full House reboot didn’t need to exist the days of feelgood sitcoms for the whole family would seem to be long gone in the smartphone era. While the original focused on the idea of men raising children, the reboot focuses on the oldest daughter DJ, who must raise her three sons with some help from her best friend Kimmy. (DJ’s married name is Fuller, pushing the show’s title on to a teetering pile of puns.
) The first season of Fuller House was widely panned by critics — Joshua Alston at the A. V. Club said it “isn’t just bad, it borders on the obscene” — but critical acclaim was never the goal.
Rotten Tomatoes has its critics’ rating at a 32% while the audience score is at a satisfied 74%. As James Poniewozik at the New York Times pointed out, “Netflix’s Fuller House is not good, but that’s arguably the best thing the show has going for it. To make a Full House sequel ‘good’ — less formulaic, more innovative — would be [.
..] a betrayal of the product.
This is, after all, a franchise whose theme song begins, ‘Whatever happened to predictability? ’” Netflix’s more recent decision to revive the late 80s sitcom One Day at a Time, about a divorced single mother raising two kids, seems less driven by the shameless capitalization of a famous brand and more the opportunity to bring a solid, Norman Lear concept into the modern age with a Cuban American family and a host of modern issues. (Of course, any excuse for more Rita Moreno on our screens is a good one.) It’s been rewarded with glowing critical reviews — Alan Sepinwall at Uproxx called it “so good, and so vital — a throwback to an earlier era that also feels like it absolutely belongs in this one”.
With One Day, Netflix was following the lead of the broadcast networks, who in recent years have found success with sitcoms like NBC’s The Carmichael Show and CBS’s Mom. While neither pull in the numbers of a classic like NBC’s Friends (which regularly drew 20 million viewers) both shows satisfy a modern network’s need for a fairly broad, loyal audience at a time of drastically falling viewing figures. To some degree, these shows symbolize a natural swing away from the mockumentary format that took off after the success of both the UK and the US versions of The Office, and brought us brilliant shows like Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, as well as more series like Modern Family.
Eventually, the genre started to push the boundaries of “comedy” with shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent getting nominations for comedy awards despite a joke count more akin to an amusing drama like AMC’s Mad Men than a comedic powerhouse like HBO’s Veep. A push back towards more traditional sitcoms was inevitable. The secret sauce of a good is that the writers and actors can test their jokes on the live audience members who are there to view the taping, meaning they can alter things on the fly like a good standup comic.
The downside is that the pace must remain slow enough to allow for live laughter. A show, which is shot more like a film, can be edited to within an inch of its life, piling joke upon joke with the knowledge that many viewers won’t catch them all on first viewing. The end result is that end up being much broader — trying to make every person in a room laugh at once means aiming at wider targets — while almost inevitably end up targeting a more exclusive crowd, who have the same sense of humor as the people making and editing the show.
In a time when television shows are easier to make than ever — that they ever appear on a television is not a requirement — shows will continue to get more and more specific. Want a show about weed dealers in Brooklyn, ranchers in Colorado, or people that develop cellphone apps? have got you covered. But generally start with a lower concept — a bunch of scientists share an apartment, a couple of twentysomethings work in a diner — and so offer more entry points for viewers who aren’t familiar with, say, the nuances and dramas of the modern standup scene.
Those more approachable shows will inevitably grab more eyeballs, and even the modern streaming services, who profit more than anyone from the fractionalization of media, benefit from a few “big tent” anchors to subsidize their shows. So until there is an individually tailored television series for every single person, a lot of people will still gravitate to the shows that seem welcoming, familiar, even a little predictable. .
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