The ‘Modern Family’ Effect: Are Family Sitcoms Killing The ‘Friends’ Clones?

Happy Endings came to an unceremonious conclusion in 2013, but fans still feel the sting. Ever since Friends (itself a slight rip-off of Seinfeld) ended in 2004, networks have been trying to duplicate the formula by putting attractive singles who are gainfully employed (but never seem to actually work) into situations where they spend their time getting laid and participating in absurd hijinks. Happy Endings seemed to be its spiritual successor (with a little Seinfeldian meanness at times), and it managed to run for three seasons as a critical darling with a passionate fanbase.

In terms of post-Friends hangout shows, only How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and the once promising New Girl  seem to have surpassed it in terms of longevity. However, it still never achieved even a fraction of Friends‘ level of success and cultural relevancy. With every new television line up, another Friends clone runs for a season or less before getting the ax. Perfect Couples, Traffic Light, Friends With Better Lives, Weird Loners… none made it to a second season.

If you look at the sitcoms that have succeeded, family comedies are once again finding comfortable homes on the major networks. Following Modern Family‘s critically and commercially successful model, shows like The Goldbergs, Black-ish, and Fresh Off The Boat are finding lasting success. And if you look at the new fall line up, a majority of the new comedies are centered around families — Dr. Ken, Grandfathered, The Grinder, and Life In Pieces. There isn’t a single new sitcom about twentysomethings making it in the city to be found.

Nevermind the “friends as family” thing that dominated sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, and Will & Grace, people are being drawn to flesh and blood family. While they may be getting more and more progressive in terms of sexual, racial, and economic diversity, focusing on the family is still the recipe for success.

Perhaps the cause of this is the fact that so many young people are moving back home instead of striking out on their own. Due to the high cost of education and a lack of jobs that pay a living wage, 14% of adults between the ages of 24 and 34 are moving in with their parents instead of on their own. While people watch shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead for escapism, people tend to be drawn to what they know, and maybe what they know is living with Mom and Dad.

Representation is important, and people like seeing dynamics that are familiar on their screens. While living in a fabulous apartment with all your best friends may be the dream, going through the day to day with your nuclear family is the reality. With the chance of a more carefree economic picture unknown, this trend could indeed continue on your screens.

However, there is an anomaly: The Big Bang Theory. Despite being ridiculed by many, The Big Bang Theory continues to be the most-watched sitcom on television. With 24.3 million viewers, The Big Bang Theory‘s catchphrases and uncomplicated jokes make it easily digestible, which probably contributes to its success. After a long day, sometimes people just want to unwind with something simple, not necessarily something with rapid fire, layered jokes. Especially when we may be focusing on more than one screen at a time.

Also, despite their uncanny ability to woo hot blondes, the guys on The Big Bang Theory are socially awkward dorks. Instead of watching a bunch of sexy singles do their thing, people are drawn to the underdog. They’re one-dimensional, but the nerds on The Big Bang Theory are definitely underdogs, and maybe that’s the biggest draw.

While people are stuck in economic purgatory, comedy trends are bound to evolve. We want to see our own struggles on screen, and those weren’t often reflected in the Friends formula. Sure, Joey had sporadic income at best, but he could still pay rent and never had to move back in with his parents. Maybe viewers are just tired of impossibly wealthy young adults in incredible apartments that have no bearing on reality. The norms are changing, and our television is just changing with it. Sometimes that will mean creatively ambitious shows like Rick and Morty, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and The Last Man on Earth, but oftentimes, it seems like it’s going to mean a lot more shows like Modern Family.