There are few safe bets in this new fall television season, especially when it comes to network comedies. Little consensus has emerged about which shows will burn bright and which will burn out. Depending on whom you ask, 2 Broke Girls is the savior of the multicamera sitcom or a just-interesting-enough premise for CBS Monday nights. New Girl’s Zooey Deschanel is either grating or the effortlessly endearing pinup of Williamsburg. The still-to-debut Apartment 23 is confusingly self-referential, or refreshingly so. The characters in Up All Night can be obnoxious and despicable, but maybe that’s the point.
To my eyes, none of these shows’ pilots episodes have the impact of, say, the Arrested Development pilot (even if none are Secret Girlfriend bad, either). My colleagues and friends are equally conflicted; there isn’t a single new comedy that anyone can unanimously agree is, at the very least, good. And when people refer to a comedy being “good,” they mean funny. Unlike dramas, comedies tend to be evaluated in binary: Funny or no?
With pilots, the answer is almost always “no.” There are simply too many factors stacked against a comedy pilot being funny. As Todd VanDerWerff points out in his piece about the multi-camera sitcom, comedies rely on the strength of their ensembles, which takes a bit of time to develop. Plus, dramas can occasionally succeed on premise alone, whereas in comedies, unless the premise is purely a means for telling jokes (like Childrens Hospital) or there isn’t a premise at all (like the experimental Louie), you need more than just an interesting idea.
And even if a pilot does squeak out a few jokes, funny isn’t something everyone will ever agree on, especially on network sitcoms. Last year’s greatest success story, Raising Hope, became a success story down the line. The pilot was decent, and most people stopped watching. Then, later, those who stuck around talked it up enough to prompt others to catch up. If I was going to convert someone to that show, I’d be reluctant to show him or her the pilot. But that’s not unique to Raising Hope. I feel that way about all of today’s most beloved network comedies: Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, Community, The Office, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory. (I don’t include Glee in these conversations, because even though it competes as a comedy at the Emmys, I just don’t see it as one for many reasons that could make up its own column.)
How could it be that every great comedy on television got off to such a weak start? And if that’s the case, am I judging this year’s crop of pilots too harshly? To help answer the question, I went back and rewatched the pilots for all those shows, plus a few others like Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (not a network sitcom, but not too far off, either). And I found their pilots far funnier than I remembered them being the first time around. I’m not surprised: Now that I know the characters much better, little things they did or said tickled me. It felt like hanging out with an old friend.
But in the absence of knowing these characters the first time I watched, there was little potential for character-based comedy, and I could only judge the pilots on the surface level. With the exception of Arrested Development, these pilots resort to well-worn TV tactics hoping to hook viewers: plot and conflict. At the end of the 30 Rock pilot, after Liz Lemon spends the entire episode trying to recruit Tracy Jordan for The Girlie Show, Tracy takes the stage and instantly wins over the crowd by shouting catchphrases from his movies; he might as well have been holding a huge sign that said, “To be continued.” Parks & Rec devotes most of the episode to The Pit and Leslie’s obsession with filling it and building a park, only occasionally letting Ron or April speak. And as far as Community is concerned, I imagine some meeting where a network executive asked, probably while checking his Blackberry, “So what’s this show about?” It’s much easier to say, “A group of misfits are forced to get along at a community college” than it is to say, “Pop culture and paintball,” and thus the pilot focuses on the forming of the study group and Jeff’s obsession with bedding Britta. Comedy born out of plot is never going to be as rich as comedy born out of characters—plots are disposable and characters are a constant. It’s like eating a cookie for dinner instead of a Michelle Obama-approved meal.
There’s little these comedy pilots could do to avoid focusing on the set-up. They’re tasked with establishing the show’s key players and providing viewers with a plot-specific reason to stick around week after week, and they only have 21 minutes to do so. But what amazed me most about these pilots is even though they spent the lion’s share of their limited time on story and character development, each one manages to slip in a few moments of unfiltered funny—little tidbits that are particular to the show and its writers’ collective sense of humor. In the pilot of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the sweetly oblivious Charlie drags his friends to the same coffee shop every day so he can flirt with the waitress, even though she’s made it abundantly clear that his obsession creeps her out. How I Met Your Mother begins its run with Ted’s decision to end his singledom, much to the chagrin of his womanizing friend Barney. But the show goes out of its way to include a scene where Barney plays laser tag, a hint of weird idiosyncrasies to come.
Comedies are best appreciated by taking the long view. When I think about the current season of Parks & Recreation, I’m less excited about what might happen to Leslie when she runs for office than about more details of Ron Swanson’s obsession with hunting and breakfast food, or appearances by supporting characters like Jean-Ralphio and Perd Hapley. After three seasons, the show has built a sandbox for its characters to play in, and it’s big enough that there’s endless material for the writers to draw from. To quote an overused, mathematically unsound principle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there’s not much of a whole in the Parks & Rec pilot. Its sandbox was still being constructed, even if it still contained hints of what was to come in unfinished form, as when Leslie gives Ann a tour of the Parks Department that includes a mural depicting the gruesome slaughter of Native Americans. Even at episode one, the show is already thinking about how to incorporate the strange history of Pawnee and teasing an element it can play around with in the future.
It’s with this in mind that I rewatched New Girl, Up All Night, 2 Broke Girls, and Apartment 23, and found them much funnier. I paid less attention to their overarching theme or plot, and looked instead looking for the small, seemingly insignificant moments that tease the singular humor of the shows’ writers—glimpses of the sandbox they might build. It’s unrealistic to expect New Girl to be remotely as funny as Parks & Rec at this point in time, but if I’m enjoying any part of the show’s set-up, I’m going to stick around to see if I love the punchline.