Last night, after Parks and Recreation — a low-rated, but much beloved comedy – ended its seven-season run on NBC, it marked the end of an era. NBC and its primetime comedies have been a staple of, to borrow their tagline, must-see television since the mid-1980s, when The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court were all shown on the same evening.
The NBC Thursday night lineup used to be so strong that even bad shows could do pretty okay if they were sandwiched in between, say, Friends and Seinfeld, which was NBC’s strategy: Move higher rated shows to another night to foster in new comedies. This was a smart strategy in theory, but it rarely worked. And it led to nights of true must-see television being short lived, as popular shows were jettisoned off to Tuesday to be replaced by something no one wanted.
Because of this constant reshuffling, the lauded ‘90s NBC Thursday night comedy lineup was (A) never stable and (B) never had all of its best shows all on at once. The best four lineups of the ‘90s look like this:
1993-1994: Mad About You, Wings, Seinfeld, Frasier
1994-1995: Mad About You, Friends, Seinfeld, Madmen of the People
1995-1996: Friends, The Single Guy, Seinfeld, Caroline in the City
1997-1998: Friends, Just Shoot Me!, Seinfeld, Veronica’s Closet
What’s funny is that, just 10 years ago, Thursday night comedy lineup looked to be dead: Joey and Will & Grace led off the night, followed by The Apprentice. Do you know how there are sometimes stories about a terminally ill person who will all of sudden seemingly start to recover, right before he or she eventually passes away? This is what happened to Must-See TV.
During the 2009-2010 season, the Thursday night NBC lineup looked like this: Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock. This block certainly didn’t get the ratings of its predecessors (though The Office did pretty well), but these were all critical darlings, and it felt like some sort of order had been restored. This truly was Must-See Television, even though not as many people were seeing it. As it turns out, this was prime time comedies’ death knell, disguised as life.
Looking back, I think NBC really did try. Community continued to draw in very few viewers (though it was and still is popular on the internet), yet NBC kept renewing it, hoping people would catch on. It didn’t happen. Granted, NBC didn’t have a lot of choices, but it stuck with these low rated comedies so long that “Thursday Night Comedies” lost all its meaning. And then the last of them to still be on network television, Parks and Recreation, had its finale unceremoniously shown at 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, which seems callous, but maybe is fitting. It’s trying to let us know there’s really no true hope for the primetime network sitcom. (Last night, the much hyped Parks and Recreation finale finished second in its time slot, behind Person of Interest — and also had about nine million less viewers than the dumb Two and a Half Men finale, which is a sad statistic.)
For the 2014-2015 season, NBC aired The Biggest Loser on Thursday for the good portion of the season and is now airing The Slap and The Blacklist. It’s revealing that NBC didn’t even want to take a chance on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show produced by the powerhouse team of Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. It will now air on Netflix, where it will probably survive. And, not surprisingly, this is where the television comedy is most-likely headed. And that’s fine, but there was something nice about the communal experience of NBC’s Thursday night block of comedies.
So, is the television comedy dead? More specifically, is the network television comedy dead? As I type, there are (kind of surprisingly) 17 network comedies still airing — eight of those on ABC — and most of them (a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an exception) seem aimed at the kind of person who enjoyed Everybody Loves Raymond. Basically, “easy” television. Just 10 years ago, there were 33 network sitcoms, and yes, most of those were for the Raymond crowd, too (including the actual Everybody Loves Raymond), but things were about to change. The Office had just premiered, and Arrested Development was on the air. Risks were being taken.
So, the answer is “no,” it’s not dead. Parks and Recreation was not the last network comedy. It just feels like it. (Remember, people still tuned in for that dumb Two and a Half Men finale!) But, there’s still some hope: A show like the aforementioned Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing well, and Philip Lord and Chris Miller’s Will Forte-starring Last Man on Earth will debut soon. Yes, these are the type of shows that are dying. The network sitcom is still alive, but the challenging and/or “daring” comedy is what’s dying, which means the chances of finding another Cheers or Seinfeld or Parks and Recreation look pretty bleak.
Those are the days that are over.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.