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Comedy Crawls Back on NBC

Must See TV has been gone for a while now, but two shows are bringing laughs back to the Peacock

NBC
NBC

You might not remember this, but NBC used to be great at comedy. Over two decades of laugh tracks and catchphrases, the Peacock trained viewers to associate Thursday nights with the gloriously hyperbolic concept of “Must See TV,” a label that collected Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Will & Grace under its affable, snarky, and, it must be said, extremely white umbrella. And for one astonishing moment in the late aughts, it assembled the Avengers of whip-smart meta-sitcoms: Community, 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. In retrospect, it was the supernova before the black hole. The problem with cramming four excellent-yet-niche shows next to each other is that “niche” is essentially a euphemism for “bad business,” and so by 2015, NBC had hastily dispatched with the dying embers of “Must See TV” and debuted a full Thursday lineup of debatably smart not-comedy: The Slap, Heroes Reborn, The Blacklist, Shades of Blue. (Comedy survived, but elsewhere on the network and nowhere near as acclaimed.) For the past year or so, “comedy on NBC” has been spoken of in the past tense, something great we were lucky to enjoy before losing to the sands of time, like Freaks and Geeks or New York in the ’70s.

As the fall 2016 broadcast season enters its final weeks, though, the most fragile of newborn phoenixes has risen from the smoldering ashes Leslie Knope once called home. It’s two shows, not four, and it’s a promising beginning, not a generation-long reign, but there’s finally comedy on NBC again — interesting, boundary-pushing, and most of all seriously good comedy. And it’s just established enough for enthusiastic praise to no longer feel like a jinx.

Last year, NBC quietly rolled out Superstore, a workplace comedy from a former Office producer with a sensible launch strategy and an awkward late-November premiere date. Led by Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, Superstore was paired off with Eva Longoria’s Telenovela and cued up directly after reality megahit The Voice. The block was narrower than “Must See TV,” but also more recognizable, and extremely smart: Latina-led comedies, boosted by a massive show rather than forced to stand on their own in an attempt to revive a severely diminished franchise. But then Telenovela failed, Superstore caught on, and NBC opted to pair it with The Good Place, Michael Schur’s Parks and Recreation follow-up for the network and a gamble in its own right, on Thursday nights. (The coveted Voice lead-in went instead to This Is Us, adding fuel to its towering, molasses-scented bonfire.) That a second-season sitcom was considered healthy enough to anchor a fledgling network lineup was encouraging. That both Superstore and The Good Place have proven excellent and worthy successors to that late-aughts mini golden age is even more so.

Superstore’s namesake setting is Cloud 9, a Target/Kmart/Walmart–esque labyrinth of unethically manufactured consumer goods staffed by a motley crew of misfits: Ferrera’s put-upon working mom Amy, recession-stranded business school bro Jonah (Ben Feldman, a.k.a. Ginsberg), teen mom Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), and overeager suckup Mateo (Nico Santos). Comedy about the working class has been a staple from Good Times to Roseanne, but Superstore switches its focus from the lifestyle of hardship to the soul-sucking, dead-end job that (barely) furnishes it. And like its predecessors, it knows “soul-sucking” and “dead-end” aren’t contrary to comedy; they’re ideal facilitators of it.

Superstore applies that inherited wisdom to a particularly 21st-century kind of working-class life — the kind with towering student debt, chronic underemployment, childcare worries and atrophied labor protections. It makes for a weirdly perfect marriage with conventional sitcom structure, which favors precisely the same inertia and hamster-wheel motion that keep a show frenetic yet static, and therefore sustainable. The delightfully meta premiere to the second season picks up on the first season’s cliff-hanger of a manager’s unjust firing escalating into a strike with real demands … only to see it accomplish nothing besides a return to the status quo. That’s how TV works, but it’s also how most actual attempts at change work, too.

The Good Place takes the precise opposite approach to storytelling, though it shares Superstore’s intelligence, ambition, and (especially compared to NBC sitcoms past) refreshing diversity. The Good Place populates its basically-heaven with Pakistani English heiresses, West African college professors, and Buddhist monks. Which only makes sense given that heaven has no border, but wouldn’t necessarily be true of a show with the same concept green-lit only five years ago. Where Superstore cleverly makes an implicit sitcom trope explicit and folds it into its world, though, The Good Place disposes of it altogether.

The Good Place is less a sitcom than a humorous fantasy, which edges its humor ever closer to the absurd. (Think millennia-old demons who talk like basic bitches and snort the concept of time.) The initial batch of episodes released to critics demonstrated that The Good Place is uncommonly thoughtful, folding sincere discussions of ethical philosophy that namecheck Kant and Hume into its Technicolor zaniness. In the last few episodes, though, The Good Place has also kicked into a narrative overdrive by wrapping up a mistaken-identity plot that feels more in line with Designated Survivor than Parks and Rec — and seemed destined to last the whole season. This thing is moving fast, a luxury it’s afforded by condensing its plot into 13-episode seasons as opposed to stretching it out over 22. And a straight-to-series, full-season order allowed Schur and his writers to fully map out and plan the story in advance. There’s a destination as well as an accelerated journey.

NBC has invested in two genuinely experimental shows, and for now, that experiment is working. Neither Superstore nor The Good Place is a runaway hit, but runaway hits are few and far between these days — and besides, NBC already has one of those for the fall. Instead, both have settled into a comfortable resting place of around 4 million viewers per week, with Superstore enjoying a temporary bump from a between-seasons Olympics episode and both shows reaping the rewards of being produced by NBC’s in-house studio, meaning the network can make money off them via syndication and streaming rights as well as ad revenue, and that the shows themselves are slightly insulated from Nielsen ratings as the be-all, end-all of their market value. (A heavily serialized show like The Good Place is bound to play particularly well as a binge.) The days of the “Must See TV” power lineup are over, but so is the brutal, simple math that made it impossible to last. Comedy has a toehold on Thursday nights again. Long may it reign.