For the first time in decades, there were no scripted comedies among NBC’s primetime lineup in fall 2021. The network was coming off a string of tepid new sitcoms and had just said farewell to two mainstays— Superstore and Fox transplant Brooklyn Nine-Nine—but it was still a startling sight. Was the broadcaster that gave us Sam and Diane, Festivus, and Kevin Malone’s famous chili recipe breaking up with comedy?
To paraphrase another show from NBC’s storied sitcom lineage: They were on a break. The network came into 2022 swinging, with two new offerings with ties to Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. American Auto moves Justin Spitzer from the sales floor of the fictional retail giant Cloud 9 to the glossy offices of car manufacturer Payne Motors. Dan Goor and Phil Augusta Jackson’s Grand Crew, meanwhile, is a traditional hangout comedy with a primarily Black cast, in which six thirtysomething friends navigate careers and relationships and unwind together at a beloved wine bar. Both shows bring their exemplary first seasons to a close Tuesday, March 8.
These were trusted names to bet on following that fall gap: Spitzer and Goor have been part of NBC’s upper echelon for a long time, writing on The Office and Parks And Recreation, respectively. Jackson worked on B99 for four seasons and is an alumnus of Key & Peele and Insecure. Still, that’s no guarantee that American Auto or Grand Crew would match those series in terms of quality, or attract their devoted viewers. Even Superstore and B99 took a little time to find its footing.
The question remains: Is there still room for innovation within network sitcoms, while still providing the wholesome, appointment-viewing content the genre is traditionally known for?
The Office, Community, and The Good Place were all considered inventive when they premiered. “Must See” Thursdays had been home to Cheers, A Different World, Seinfeld, Friends, 30 Rock, and Will & Grace (twice!). In today’s dynamic streaming era, it sometimes seems like the place for groundbreaking, NBC-style comedy isn’t NBC at all: Its corporate cousin Peacock absorbed A.P. Bio last year for a fourth and final season, and delivered superlative laugh riots in Girls5eva, Rutherford Falls, We Are Lady Parts. Kenan returned to the air in January, but Mr. Mayor and Young Rock won’t begin their sophomore runs until American Auto and Grand Crew temporarily vacate their Tuesday-night timeslots.
So what comes next for the creators, NBC, and broadcast sitcoms overall?
While American Auto and Grand Crew aren’t necessarily groundbreaking in tone, they evoke the sharp humor and earnest sensibilities of the creators’ previous work. Goor tells The A.V. Club that he and Jackson didn’t dwell much on whether fans of B99 or Insecure would like their new venture.“It’s a good point to wonder about, but the focus is on what Grand Crew is on its own,” he says. As a first-time showrunner, Jackson says he feels the pressure to deliver for viewers who followed the antics of Brooklyn’s 99th precinct for eight seasons, but reminds himself that both shows are totally separate comedic beasts.
In that sense, American Auto and Superstore feel more like long-lost cousins. Superstore’s executives were antagonists to Cloud 9’s middle- and working-class employees, but American Auto tries to find humanity in the ruthless powers-that-be of a car company. Additionally bridging the gap between new show and old: Jon Barinholtz in the role of an inept goof—only this time he’s an affluent, privileged goof, and the grandson of the former Payne CEO. There’s even a will they/won’t they romance between Payne employees Sadie (Harriet Dyer) and Jack (Tye White) reminiscent of the previous series’ Amy and Jonah.
While Superstore boasted a multiethnic cast and revolving roster of guest stars, American Auto is confined to Payne’s ivory tower. “When you’re doing something for network TV, you’re planning the long game. I’d like to expand the cast and organically form a wider group, although it was easier to do so on The Office and Superstore,” Spitzer says. His hope is that audiences discover the show’s distinctive nature over time, in words that echo the Grand Crew creators: “Eventually, it’s going to sink or swim based on its own merits.”
Spitzer initially wrote a pilot for American Auto in 2013, after working on The Office as a writer and producer for multiple seasons. It didn’t come to fruition back then, and he ended up helming Superstore until 2019 before passing the showrunner baton to Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller. After writing about the lower rungs of workplaces on two popular NBC comedies, Spitzer decided to revisit his initial idea. “The story ended up changing a lot,” he says. “I spent so much time on Superstore where corporate was the unseen villain. Coming back to American Auto, I know we’re kind of with the bad guys now.”
The show kicks off with pharmaceutical exec Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer) joining Payne as CEO. Her cluelessness about the automotive industry causes troubles for the team, including PR head Sadie, product designer Cyrus (Michael Benjamin Washington), and legal counsel Elliott (Humphrey Ker). Spitzer says Katherine’s skewed views “make a fun jumping-off point for stories about terrible decisions coming down like outsourcing, hard negotiations with unions, and what that process looks like from the other side.”
Finding humor in these gray areas is an exciting challenge. In episode six, “Commercials,” Payne is under fire for lack of LGBTQ representation in the boardroom. As a response, Katherine demands a TV spot be reshot with same-sex couples. The hilarious half-hour is also an astute reflection of how brands can disingenuously tout support for minority communities. It also pulls back the curtain on the casting process; Katherine and Sadie worry wildly about not hiring enough people of color or hiring too many. “It was influenced by how, as TV writers, it feels like every casting decision is loaded. Even when you don’t mean to say something with it, you are,” Spitzer says.
NBC has long been a haven for Black-led sitcoms, like Julia, 227, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, A Different World, and the forever-tainted family show it spun-off from. With a few exceptions like The Carmichael Show and Kenan, though, Grand Crew is a modern rarity in this respect. “To be honest, it has been a while since an ensemble like this one was on NBC,” Jackson says. “I’m hopeful it’s a signal of a change where there is more room for nuanced points of view from people of color.”
Adds Goor: “We want to present multi-dimensional characters in a story that is normally told with a non-Black cast. That’s a worthy thing to be doing when there isn’t that much of representation to begin with.”
Grand Crew follows the lives of siblings Nicky (Nicole Byer as a career-oriented real estate agent) and Noah (Echo Kellum playing a hopeless romantic) and a set of their close friends. Goor and Jackson began cooking up the characters and premise in the middle of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s run; its central setting is based on a wine bar Jackson would frequent with friends who include Kellum and Carl Tart—the latter of whom plays Grand Crew’s freewheeling Sherm Jones.
Jackson and Goor aim to address issues relevant to the Black community, but to not sound preachy while doing so. “At the end of the day, we want to make an enjoyable show,” Jackson reiterates. “From episode to episode, we’ve dealt with topical themes, like breakups from the perspective of a Black man or the importance of having a Black therapist, or the struggle of communicating with parents. For me personally, I was 30 when I told my father I loved him. We’re building our stories in the writers’ room by discussing our experiences.”
American Auto and Grand Crew join a wave of shows across multiple networks—ABC’s Abbott Elementary and The Wonder Years, CBS’ Ghosts, Fox’s Pivoting—credited with aiding an unexpected broadcast comedy resurgence this season.
Goor says he’s constantly thinking of how network television has changed since he worked with Michael Schur on Parks And Rec, and since they co-created B99 in 2013. “In a lot of ways, it’s all getting closer to premium cable and streaming,” Goor says. He adds that B99 found its largest audience not on Fox or NBC but on Hulu, which impacted metrics for broadcast ratings. “Nothing is just network TV anymore.” Jackson says he’s heard people unknowingly refer to Grand Crew as a Peacock or Hulu original.
Network TV is increasingly folding into streaming to make the viewing experience easier for audience members who can’t watch shows the nights they air. ABC and Fox (and, for the time being, NBC) shows stream on Hulu the next day; NBC is moving its next-day streaming to Peacock in fall 2022. CBS transports its shows to Paramount+. Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson recently told The A.V. Club this “smart” decision contributed to her show’s staggeringly large viewership.
For Spitzer, the tie-in between broadcast and streaming has resulted in more creative freedom. “My guess is there is less pressure to fit things in one mold. We’re allowed to step out of the box with specifically targeted comedy aesthetics. I understand 15 years ago, you would need to bring in a big sector of the population for live viewing. The tent isn’t as big now. That’s why I think network sitcoms have made this turnaround,” he says.
“When you’re doing something for NBC now, you’re also doing it for Peacock or Hulu to some extent. We bleep our ‘fucks,’ but there’s not too much of a difference anymore.”