Critics have been declaring the sitcom dead for decades. They died in 1983, the year before The Cosby Show resurrected them. They died after Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends went off the air; and they died again when NBC’s Must See TV comedy line-up went belly-up.
Yet the half-hour comedy format remains resilient, capable of reformatting itself and rising again. While CBS has been able to cling to the past with its arsenal of laugh-track sitcoms, ABC has seen a minor resurgence in the form of diverse family sitcoms. NBC is even trying to resuscitate its Thursday night comedy block this fall with the return of Will & Grace, as well as Superstore, the network’s longest-running sitcom since Robert Greenblatt took over as chairman of NBC Entertainment in 2011. It will enter its third season in the fall.
Sitcoms are doing well on networks and basic cable and they’re also thriving in a place that might not have been expected a few years ago: streaming services. Many of the best half-hour comedies have packed up their traditional television conventions and moved to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, where they they’ve become almost an antidote to other aspects of Peak TV.
To wit: While the average television viewer cannot realistically keep up with the riches of television dramas — American Gods, Handmaid’s Tale, The Leftovers, Twin Peaks, Fargo, Better Call Saul, and The Americans among others currently occupy space on my weekly viewing schedule — the half-hour streaming comedy has provided a welcome respite from two-to-three month weekly investments for the average television drama, or the week of nightly viewings we devote to most streaming dramas. But a half-hour streaming comedy? We’re looking at a four-to-six hour investment, tops, which means we can binge an entire season of Master of None on a Saturday night, or Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle on a single cross-country flight. In fact, I pulled an all-nighter over the weekend and finished Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Amazon’s I Love Dick in a single sitting (though I do not recommend this).
I don’t want to overstate it, but when our television schedules increasingly look like lengthy grocery lists, it’s immensely satisfying to be able to check off one or two items in a single weekend. While it may sometimes feel daunting to commit ten hours to watching Patriot no matter how good the reviews (and it’s a spectacular series), it’s well within our abilities to give up a half hour here and there to finish a season of Santa Clarita Diet despite mediocre reviews.
Meanwhile, while everyone seemed to be excited about the return of Twin Peaks, Showtime debuted the series with two one-hour episodes, which meant for many viewers choosing between David Lynch’s comeback or The Leftovers and American Gods. Twin Peaks is also 18 hours long, which will make our Peak TV decisions even more difficult over the summer when it faces off against Game of Thrones and Fear the Walking Dead, among others. To put it another way: a person could watch three seasons of a half-hour comedy in the same time it takes to watch one season of Twin Peaks.
It’s not just the time disparity, either. It’s the fact that streaming half-hour comedies have evolved so much in the last couple of years that they can provide as much substance as a so-called prestige drama, and that substance comes with a side of laughter. Dear White People is a perfect example: It’s funny, engaging, fast-moving and entertaining, but it may also be the most insightful series about racial politics that I have ever seen. The vibrant and beautifully written Transparent has also helped the transgender community make great strides — not to mention the fact that it’s one of television’s best series about Jewish identity issues — and it’s accomplished that in three seasons that can be viewed is less time than it takes to watch one season of The Walking Dead.
Streaming half-hour comedies also lend themselves to quick binges. Network comedies like Black-ish and Speechless are great, but the fact that they air weekly — and are often broken up by long-stretches of reruns — means that they’re necessarily episodic in nature. Streaming comedies are designed for the modern television viewer: They’re self contained enough to be entertaining as stand-alone episodes, but serialized enough to encourage us to watch them in chunks. Typically, they’re also a much cheaper investment for studios and networks than a drama, which means there’s more freedom to take risks without badly affecting the bottom line. A season of Love for instance, can probably be produced for less than it takes to create one episode of Game of Thrones.
In fact, some networks may be engineering their half-hour comedies for streaming consumption. “Looking at streaming as the new aftermarket is a big driver of a lot of programming decisions, not just in comedy,” says Alan Sepinwall. And “with Netflix, et. al., serialization is actually considered a plus.”
Indeed, You’re the Worst probably plays as well on Hulu as it does on FXX; the same can be said of NBC’s The Good Place and Great News. The latter shares a spiritual kinship to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and it’s being dumped by NBC two episodes at a time at the tail end of the network season. That’s typically a ploy networks use to burn off series that they’ve already committed to airing but have no intentions of bringing back (see Best Friends Forever or Bent). Great News, however, has already been renewed for a second season. So why release 10 episodes so quickly? Because it makes them easier to binge on Hulu. Meanwhile, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was originally created for NBC, probably would have been dumped and quickly cancelled two years ago by the network. On Netflix? The third season just premiered, and it’s one of the streaming service’s most popular comedies.
Our political climate favors the half-hour streaming comedy, as well. While a show like The Handmaid’s Tale may be “necessary” television, how many people are eager for a powerful and timely nightmare that heightens our already existing fears? The Americans is a tremendous series — maybe the best on television — but the fact that it echoes our real-life political situation is beginning to feel like a liability rather than an asset.
In short: This is the perfect era for the half-hour streaming comedy, a period in which we’re short on time but we still crave substance. The half-hour streaming comedy is like healthy fast food, perfect for the television viewer on the go who doesn’t want to get fat on episodes of Matt LeBlanc’s Man with the Plan or Kevin James’ Kevin Can Wait. We can still get all the nutrients we need without investing the time in a big meal like a season of House of Cards or Mr. Robot.