The Tyler Perry model is the future of sitcoms, alas

By many standards, Anger Management ought to be considered something of a disaster. First, it’s not a good show, and can’t be, because the method of production makes anything better than “adequate” impossible. As showrunner Bruce Helford explained the process, they have to shoot two episodes a week. Second, it’s a show made to exploit the publicity around a washed-up star: the production company put it together in part to capitalize on Charlie Sheen’s firing from his previous show. Third, Sheen has begun acting the way you would expect, showing up late and firing his co-star in the middle of the run when she complained about his showing up late. And fourth, the ratings for FX have tumbled to the levels you would expect for a show that isn’t very good, yet the network has committed to air 100 episodes of the thing. So, no network will ever again fall for this kind of arrangement, right?

Wrong. FX has signed on to air another sitcom produced in the same fashion, this one with two former stars, Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence. Same deal: the producers make 10 episodes as a sort of pilot season, and then the network can exercise its option to pick up 90 more. This is the production model created by Tyler Perry, and other people have become interested in it. The idea is that if you can manage to make 100 episodes as fast as possible, the show makes back all its money as soon as you’re finished, because you instantly have enough episodes for syndication. It’s not unlike the 65-episode cartoon seasons that used to be bigger than they are now: arrange to sell 13 weeks’ worth of daily episodes into syndication right away, and you can justify the combined cost of the episodes.

What this 100-episode model is not about is making quality sitcoms. They can be professionally done, and Helford, a sitcom veteran who is no longer considered a bankable creator at the networks, seems proud of turning out a professional-looking product on such a tight schedule. Bob Boyett, another veteran, is behind the Lawrence/Grammer project, and presumably has the know-how to churn out a lot of episodes that look something like a network sitcom. Of course, they don’t have the time or money to aim higher than that. It almost makes you nostalgic for the ’80s syndicated sitcom boom, to which this is the successor. At least those shows only had to do 24 episodes a season.

For the network, it seems probable that even if they don’t get the viewers, they’ll still make money. Or at the very least, that Anger Management-type shows are a winning investment for them. Their financial risk is limited because of the cheapness of the show and the fact that the production company is offering them a good deal. It’s a bit like the position Fox was in when they kept renewing ‘Til Death: nobody’s supposed to watch it, and it’s cheap enough that it doesn’t matter that nobody’s watching. Except ‘Til Death, being on a regular one-episode-per-week schedule, had some wiggle room to make crazy episodes and acknowledge that nobody was watching.

It seems funny that at a time when more shows are getting more time to make their episodes – moving towards shorter seasons, even on broadcast – there’s an increased interest in doing the exact opposite with sitcoms, making them even faster and in greater bulk than in the days of the 39-episode season. But it makes a certain amount of depressing sense. There is a lot of demand, in the syndication market, for “traditional” sitcoms, and because the networks are running out of them, there’s not enough 100-episode shows to meet the demand. So Debmar-Mercury, the company behind this format, decided to make 100-episode shows out of whole cloth. Tyler Perry’s sitcoms exist because the broadcast networks had given up making sitcoms with black leads; the idea was that this market was so underserved that TV stations would accept bad shows. If there were a Cosby Show on the networks these days, there would be no need for a Meet the Browns. Now this model may be applied to the entire four-camera sitcom format, where we get hastily-produced ersatz versions of the sitcoms that broadcast networks used to to.

As a sitcom fan, I find it a little sad, because it suggests that sitcoms just aren’t taken seriously (well, you know what I mean). Networks like FX pride themselves on applying a certain standard of quality control to their in-house scripted programs, but when it comes to a four-camera sitcom, they might just as well be reality shows: cheap, disposable episodes to be made as fast as possible and thrown on the air. At least TV Land and ABC Family, other cable players in the traditional-sitcom game, are trying to do sitcoms with a bit more care (they actually use an audience for their shows; Debmar-Mercury shows don’t have time for that, so the episodes are shown to an audience after they’re completed). But the thinking overall is still to make old-fashioned, comfortable sitcoms that can sell into syndication.

Not since Lucky Louie, and rarely before then, has a cable network actually tried to make a traditional sitcom that can stand with other cable shows, and gets as much care and thought and effort put into it. I do have to wonder: if networks like FX are so committed to the idea that viewers want quality TV, then why aren’t they trying to make four-camera sitcoms that don’t need to be apologized for? It seems that on some level most cable executives still don’t think a traditional sitcom can be taken seriously as TV art, so it doesn’t matter whether they have bad ones or good ones. And that’s a shame, because if broadcast is having trouble making quality sitcoms, and cable shows little interest in making them, then where’s the high-quality traditional sitcom going to go?