Two and a Half Men and the rise and fall of the mean sitcom.

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March 28 2011 7:04 AM

Play Nice

The rise—and fall?—of the mean sitcom.

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And if anyone has a darker comic sensibility than Larry David, it's Ricky Gervais, whose BBC show The Office was built on awkward moments, uncomfortable silences, and unredeemable people. When NBC imported the show, the grouches' TV takeover seemed inevitable.

But it could be that the American version of The Office, which debuted in 2005, actually helped to reverse the meanness trend. Executive producer Mike Schur recalls a meeting in the writers' room after the show's abbreviated first season, when Greg Daniels, who had adapted the show for American TV, announced the need for a change.

David Brent, the boss Gervais played in the British version of the show, was relentlessly boorish and despised by his colleagues. But Daniels thought that Michael Scott, played by the likable Steve Carell, had to be a smidgen likable himself. In the season two premiere, "The Dundies," Scott's officemates rushed to their boss's defense when he was heckled by patrons at a Chili's. If he didn't exactly command his employees' respect, Scott at least had their affection.

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That dynamic has come to define The Office; the show still revels in its characters' discomfort, but Scott has evolved into a kind of workplace pet. As Carell prepares to leave the show this spring, the fondness has been even more pronounced. In last week's episode, the whole office conspired to help Michael propose to his soul-mate. And when Michael announced that he was leaving Scranton, his employees were distraught.

Schur and Daniels' Parks and Recreation, which debuted on NBC in 2009, also swiftly converted from cynical to sweet—so sweet that last week, Vulture called the series a study in the "comedic potential of super nice people." As Vulture noted, this wasn't always the case. In the show's first season, Amy Poehler's lead character, city government employee Leslie Knope, was played as a fool and a punch line. Schur says the writers soon tweaked the show to make it clear that Knope was good at her job, not naive so much as idealistic, and as charming as the actress who plays her.

"You don't want to make it a Pollyanna-land where everyone just loves everyone unconditionally," says Schur. But producers do now want the characters to appreciate each other. Even Leslie's misanthropic boss Ron Swanson, played by a glowering Nick Offerman, is at heart a father figure with a comic moustache. In a recent episode, he solved a quartet of problems vexing his employees in one rapid-fire speech—delivered while riding with them on a Ferris wheel.

That scene perfectly captured the way Parks & Recreation routinely manages to hit the sweet spot between funny and kind. Unlike Seinfeld—and certainly unlike Two and a Half Men—the show treats its characters with respect, and asks them to do the same to one another. It assumes that viewers won't run screaming from a happy ending or an emotional beat. These days, this approach seems more and more common. You see it on How I Met Your Mother, Cougar Town, even Community, whose star, Joel McHale, is the host of E!'s snarky talk-show roundup The Soup.

This isn't to say that, with Two and a Half Men on hiatus, TV is devoid of sitcom cynicism: 30 Rock is loaded with insults (tempered by a smidgen of platonic love between Liz and Jack) and the still-going Entourage is fueled by a mostly-unpunished Ari Gold. But even Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, has taken a turn for the soft-hearted. His multi-camera sitcom The Big Bang Theory is ostensibly about nerds picking on each other. But the show has lately reminded us how much the characters appreciate each other. One recent episode was built around the idea that Sheldon, the nerdiest and most petulant in his circle of friends, is nevertheless important to them. When he abandons Howard, Raj, and Leonard for a new clique, the old crew admit they really miss the know-it-all.

This season has also brought us Lorre's new series Mike and Molly, about a couple that meets at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The show launched with a string of cheap-shot fat jokes, and it continues to feature some of the tiredest tropes of cynical TV: the laugh track, the dumb sister, the insult-hurling best friend. But at its core, it's a sweet story of an imperfect couple who accept each other's flaws. On a recent episode, Mike and Molly couldn't quite bring themselves to use the word "love." But the episode ended, pointedly, with a hug.

Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.