If you were to go back five years and tell me that CBS’ big new comedy was a single-camera adaptation of a British series about a woman—Rose McIver’s Sam, who can see ghosts—opening a bed and breakfast with her husband while managing the spectral residents that came with her inherited mansion, I would have stopped you at “single-camera” and said you were lying.
Watching Ghosts grow into a legitimate hit for CBS, both as a linear broadcast ratings success and the number one streaming comedy on Paramount+, has been a distinctly strange phenomenon. It was supposed to be that cult show you can’t believe is on CBS; instead, it’s the network’s second-biggest comedy, and a disruptive moment in our understanding of how the forms of the television sitcom are being deployed on broadcast television’s most risk-averse network.
Variety’s Michael Schneider calls Ghosts CBS’s “unlikeliest comedy hit in recent… history,” and he’s not wrong on paper. CBS’ reliance on multi-camera sitcoms has made any single-camera comedy feel like a lost cause—the only two shows that have lasted more than a single season are Life In Pieces, which was canceled after only three, and Young Sheldon, a spin-off of its biggest multi-camera success. The network also has almost no history of producing genre comedies, and while there’s a handful of genre dramas in its past the supernatural-tinged Evil was conspicuously shuffled off the network to Paramount+ for its second season. It’s therefore logical to consider Ghosts something of a risk for the conservative-minded CBS, making the show’s success a seeming turning point in the network’s comedy brand.
However, while we have been trained to think of single-camera as a disruptive format choice (especially at CBS) and genre as a limitation on a show’s audience, Ghosts’ success stems from the fact it isn’t treating them this way. While the show is pulling its template from the British version, it differs in its need to tell stories at a vastly different pace—the first season of the CBS version will equal the total number of episodes the BBC version has made across three. But what showrunners Joe Port and Joe Wiseman seemingly realized when adapting the series was that even though the first impressions of Ghosts might seem out of place on CBS, its bones are something that broadcast sitcoms have always relied on: a diverse set of characters in a dynamic situation easily adaptable into the careful blend of mirth and pathos a sitcom needs to build a connection with its audience.
The ghosts of Ghosts, who are trapped in the land of the living after dying at the mansion, are the perfect engine for a traditional sitcom. They’re broad enough as personalities to be played for simple comic relief, whether alone or as a group, and there are enough of them that you can create a large number of different groupings to vary the tone of a given scene or episode. They’re one-dimensional when introduced in the pilot, and the fact they’re frozen in time means some of those jokes—like the eternally pantsless Trevor—can be relied upon throughout the show’s run. The fact of their existence also creates a fun dynamic between Sam and her husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), as only the former can communicate with them, and yet the latter is still always present, and forced to just act like they’re listening and go about his day.
But the ghosts are also characters who are being changed by their access to a “living” to expand their worldview. As they grow in Sam’s presence, we’re pushed to ask the same set of questions for each: how they died, how they lived, and how their perspective on life/death has changed in their endless purgatory. In “Pete’s Wife,” the slain scoutmaster (Richie Moriarty) gets closure with his wife, who he learns was cheating on him with his best friend. And in “Alberta’s Fan,” the Prohibition-era jazz singer (Danielle Pinnock) is thrilled to have a fan show up at the mansion to finally bring her the fame she deserves; he turns out to be a little too obsessive, but he also confirms her suspicion she was poisoned. Despite being trapped in this one location, there is a natural structure to the ghosts’ backstories that the show has deployed intelligently, understanding that their circumstances offer an emotional range most sitcoms would die for.
At the same time, though, the ghosts can also be engines for comic chaos, or odd couple pairings: as Pete is coming to terms with how his marriage ended, the two oldest ghosts—Native American Sasappis (Román Zaragoza) and viking Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long)—are feuding over one binge-watching their favorite reality show without the other. This flexibility comes from the choice to view the supernatural not as the central focus of Ghosts, but rather as a tool at its disposal. While there are some existential questions about why some ghosts ascend and others don’t, the show mostly uses the ghosts and their powers much as sitcoms like I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched used magic: a plug-and-play story generator, with the benefit of having no set rules to limit the possibilities.
Accordingly, the show can just keep accumulating new wrinkles to ghostdom as the stories dictate. We learn kids can see ghosts so that we can pick up some touching backstory of Thorfinn having befriended Sam’s distant (and uptight) relative Hetty as a child without her remembering. We learn that ghosts can sometimes possess humans so that the writers can deploy the always-welcome body-swap trope and let Jay channel Rebecca Wisocky’s haughty energy as Hetty for much of an episode. When the idea of having Hetty’s robber baron husband reappear is too good to turn down, you can just create a vault that traps ghosts inside, have Matt Walsh emerge from it, and then send him to hell to add one more possible wrinkle into the ghosts’ future. And lest Brandon Scott Jones’ closeted revolutionary Isaac not have a proper romantic foil, the show can just have Sam stumble upon a British barracks on the property, because there can be ghosts anywhere (and Isaac happens to have accidentally killed the redcoat he had his eye on).
In practice, Ghosts’ supernatural elements aren’t there to make it different from a “traditional” sitcom: they’re there to give it more flexibility in telling a much wider range of still fairly traditional stories. Its use of single-camera is similarly utilitarian: You could technically make a multi-camera version of this show purely in terms of its style of humor, but it would be impractical from a visual effects perspective, and also limiting in terms of the show’s ability to use flashbacks or visit a wider range of locations (like Sam’s trip to visit her mom’s ghost at the restaurant where she died). Context may lead us to read the show’s format as an effort to separate Ghosts from the rest of the CBS lineup, but the show is still invested in the type of solid sitcom structure and character work that defines the network’s broad-appeal comedy brand.
Returning from a winter hiatus with the February 24 episode, “Ghostwriter,” Ghosts remains disinterested in reinventing the wheel: Sam and Jay are building a website for their bed and breakfast, and the show weaves the different ghosts in and out of the story, centering on Sasappis as he talks about his own creative struggles as a Lenape storyteller. The episode juggles the A-story about the website with a B-story about hippie cultist Flower pushing against the misogyny of Pete preferring to watch basketball with Jay—who cannot see or hear him—instead of her, and the whole thing just clicks into place.
By the time all the ghosts come together to let Sasappis finally tell his story, the episode delivers the kind of warm fuzzies that CBS is delivering with Young Sheldon beforehand, making you wonder how anyone could possibly think this show was “risky.” And frankly, to highlight the fact it isn’t breaking new ground for CBS could be seen as a disincentive to an audience that would only consider watching it because it’s not another multi-camera sitcom.
But the reason Ghosts has become an “unexpected’ hit is its ability to harness the tools of a more modern sitcom to deliver something that still gives that warm, familiar feeling CBS’ core audience expects: It may not be as groundbreaking as it seems on paper, but its skillful navigation of our sitcom moment is breaking new ground for CBS nonetheless.