Partly because my own viewing habits are oriented toward comedy, and partly because good comedies tend to get better as they go along (some dramas are at their best in the first season; half-hour comedies almost never are unless they’re badly re-tooled), I’m always conscious of the way some comedies get better or worse than they appear to be in the pilot.
The big news this season is the massive improvement in Parks and Recreation over its six-episode first season, which was kind of an extended pilot. However, while the improvement has been wonderful to see, I can’t say it surprised me much; I went into the season basically expecting it to get good, because it’s Greg Daniels and his shows always improve exponentially in the first full season. (King of the Hill, The Office and now Parks are all shows that seemed like tough propositions, and they all got good. It’s just inadvisable to bet against a Daniels show.) So the improvement that took me by surprise was that of Community, a show I was lukewarm about based on the pilot and the first few episodes. That lukewarmness — lukewarmitude? — still stands, but the show has gotten good, to the point that I consider it the best new comedy of the season.
My problem with the show at the beginning was that, like many single-camera comedies, the characters were collections of over-the-top eccentricities posing as people. But the show has successfully worked to humanize the crazy characters, and, maybe even more importantly, to get comedy value out of the characters who aren’t over-the-top wacky, like Annie and Troy. This has allowed them to actually create scenes where characters interact and play off each other, and the show is getting closer to becoming a true ensemble comedy, where putting any two characters together produces a different kind of humour. This is the essential thing for any sitcom; they’re built on relationships, and if you have a good set of relationships and character combinations to build on, you’ve got something. They’re still working stuff out, but I’d expect an even bigger improvement if the show gets picked up for a second season. It just seems to have clicked at some point, and that’s always a good thing to see.
(My favourite part of any season is — when it happens, I mean — watching a comedy start slow and then find a way to make its characters into people with funny relationships. We saw it happen a couple of years ago with Big Bang Theory, when we realized that Sheldon was funny and that he and Penny were funny together, and suddenly a show with a weakish, much-revised pilot became a durable hit.)
On the other end, I don’t think Modern Family has ever completely lived up to its pilot. And even that pilot was maybe a little over-praised as being the Greatest Pilot Ever. It’s a good show with good actors, yes. There’s no element of the show that I could point to as being particularly weak. But there’s nothing about it that makes me anxious to come back, either. Part of my problem may be that the multi-house, multi-family format is limiting the number of effective character combinations they can do. (Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara spend most of their time interacting with each other or with the kid, and none of them are very interesting together. Same with Cameron and Mitchell; their interactions at this point are getting a little old because they’re always the same.) But ultimately it comes down to two almost intangible factors. One is that the characters still haven’t really emerged as people for me, rather than types, and at this point I don’t think they’re going to. They are all recognizable as well-drawn, well-defined types whose traits can all be summed up in a single logline. They don’t surprise me much.
The other, related factor is something that plagues a lot of the shows created — jointly or apart — by Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan. That’s what strikes me as somewhat over-polished joke writing that calls attention to its own craftsmanship. I feel like, whether the show is theatre-style or documentary-style, the jokes are the kind that always leave me conscious that they are jokes, combinations of words assembled and massaged by pro writers. The lesser episodes of Frasier or M*A*S*H have that problem for me too, but those shows have quirky characters who can surprise you even with a joke that’s a little bit too pat. So it all comes back to that ill-conceived, ill-defined question of whether the characters have something more to offer than their basic, stereotypical definition would suggest. Personally, I don’t find that with Modern Family. I don’t argue with those who feel differently, but for me, everyone is still in their neat little sitcom character boxes.