Sometimes, when I suggest a show is aspiring to be “the best new sitcom of 1979,” it’s meant to suggest that the newcomer leans too much on old storytelling ideas that have outlived their usefulness. Some old ideas, though, get left behind through no fault of their own, and can be awfully valuable to the person who remembers to pick them up. When “NCIS” debuted, for instance, it felt like the best new drama of 1983, but for all the right reasons.
The sitcom “Ground Floor,” which debuts with back-to-back episodes Thursday night at 10 on TBS, is the latter kind of retro. It’s a traditional multi-camera sitcom, shot on a stage in front of an audience, featuring lots of punchlines and big physical comedy. Aside from a few uses of profanity – because it’s a cable show that airs after 10 o’clock in the year 2013 – you could send these episodes back in time to NBC in the mid-late ’90s and it would instantly be one of the better comedies outside that top tier of “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Friends.”
It’s the sort of show that doesn’t really exist outside of CBS anymore. Multi-camera shows have fallen out of fashion in the rest of the TV business(*), which has created a vicious cycle: the networks make very few of them, which means there are very few jobs where writers can apprentice on multi-cam sitcoms and learn how to make good ones, which means that when other networks try their own versions, they waver somewhere between forgettable (“Malibu Country”) and awful (“Dads”).
(*) The exception: sitcoms for tweens on Disney and Nickelodeon. Will the generation raised on those all but demand more multi-cam comedies from the bigger networks as they get older? Or will they simply never notice that the bigger networks exist?
“Ground Floor,” though, was created by two men old enough to remember when laughtracks weren’t considered a comedy abomination: Bill Lawrence, who before creating “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town” first broke out by creating the multi-cam Michael J. Fox hit “Spin City,” and Greg Malins, who spent years as a writer/producer on “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “How I Met Your Mother.” They know how the format works (and how it doesn’t), and they’ve constructed an exceedingly likable – and, as it goes along, funny (I’ve seen four episodes, and went from smiling to consistent laughter by the end) – mixture of workplace and romantic comedy.
Brody (Skylar Astin) is a San Francisco investment banker in his late 20s who works insane hours as he tries to become a master of the universe like boss Remington Mansfield (John C. McGinley). His world exists many levels, physically and fiscally, above Jenny (Briga Heelan), a friendly building support worker who enjoys a stress-free job where she gets to goof around with her friends, all of whom are paid and educated as modestly as herself. (The IT guy, played by Rory Scovel, is nicknamed “Harvard” because he’s the only one on the floor who went to college – albeit a “very competitive” community college.) Brody and Jenny have a one-night stand after a company party, then decide they genuinely like each other, much to the dismay of their respective co-workers, who feel their respective floors – and classes – shouldn’t mix. Soon, they’re dealing with conflicts about incompatible hours (when Jenny finds out Brody wakes up at 4:30 every morning, she asks, “Are you a ship captain?”) and a huge income disparity (for Jenny’s birthday, Brody gets her a hoodie so nice it makes her feel bad about every other piece of clothing she owns).
It’s a simple idea, and the supporting characters on both floors are fairly broad and familiar types, but the execution is good. Outside of a slightly less nasal delivery, McGinley is giving the same performance he did as Dr. Cox on “Scrubs”(**), which is incredibly welcome. Harvard’s more of a cartoon character, but very specific in his weirdness: he believes, for instance, that all men are envious of his beard.
(**) McGinley’s performance and the writing in general should provide plenty of red meat to sitcom theorists debating how much stylistic difference there really is between single and multi-cam. This is basically the opposite number of “Modern Family,” which is a single-cam show that often uses multi-cam jokes. “Ground Floor” doesn’t have fantasy sequences like “Scrubs” did, but there are jokes that you can easily imagine coming out of the mouths of J.D., Turk or Elliot.
Astin, the love interest from “Pitch Perfect,” deftly portrays both the alpha male qualities of Brody that are meant to drive the culture clash and the beta male humor Lawrence so obviously enjoys giving to his leading men. (There are occasions where Brody morphs into J.D.) And Heelan, who had a small recurring role on “Cougar Town” as Grayson’s dim-witted baby mama, is simply terrific as Jenny: warm and quirky while always feeling like a strong and independent character. (This is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl story.) “Friends” created the false illusion – and one that helped lead to the marginalization of multi-cam comedy – that any attractive young actor or actress could effectively deliver a punchline and carry a sitcom; Heelan is the rare one who lives up to that idea.
Lawrence and Malins use the staginess of the format to their advantage. Many single-cam comedies – or hybrids like “How I Met Your Mother” (where Malins also worked) – are fond of bouncing from scene to scene, location to location, as quickly as possible. With only a few regular sets, “Ground Floor” tries to stay in each as long as possible, letting scenes play out so that the jokes can build and build. Also, the studio audience laughter doesn’t sound like it was electronically sweetened later; most of the jokes get some chuckles, but you don’t hear roars and roars after every mediocre joke, which makes the show more inherently watchable and makes those moments when the audience does go nuts feel honest.
Again, it’s a show that gets better over time, and at this stage you can see the creative team trying out different ideas to see what works and what should be scrapped. (Continuity nerds will notice jokes in the second and third episodes that directly contradict things we learned in the first and second.) As someone who grew up loving multi-cam sitcoms, and who despairs for humanity watching most of the current crop of them, basic competence with the form is enormously welcome. “Ground Floor” already has that, and quickly demonstrates the potential for much more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org