When Good Things Happen to Bad TV
By kent woodyard
May 16, 2011
“Here’s the deal,” I said to my roommate, Aaron. “I’ll sit here and watch this with you, but for every five minutes that I don’t laugh, I get to eat one of your Oatmeal Cream Pies.”
“Deal,” Aaron said.
Thirty minutes later, as I struggled to finish Cream Pie #6, I grabbed the remote and turned the channel. Aaron was out of snack cakes and I had proven my point: Two and a Half Men is the least funny comedy on television.
The fact that Two and a Half Men (TAAHM) is perpetually and painfully unfunny is not especially newsworthy. There have been many unfunny shows on television. My Name Is Earl is one example. Anything involving Carson Daly is another. What is interesting about TAAHM is that, in addition to being the least funny comedy on television, it is also “the biggest hit comedy of the past decade” (New York Times).
Or at least it was. The recent meltdown and termination of TAAHM’s star, Charlie Sheen, has put the show’s future in question, but it has done nothing to diminish TAAHM’s status as the most watched, most lucrative sitcom in the post-Friends world. In its eight-season run, the show has never ranked lower than 19th in the ratings (based on average total viewers per episode). It averages 15 million viewers a week, and has made Charlie Sheen, at $1.8 million an episode, the highest paid actor on television.
To put this in context, critical darlings 30 Rock and The Office have never cracked the Top 50 (#86 and #52, respectively). My new favorite show, Parks and Recreation, couldn’t even break the Top 100 last year (#108). In fact, with the lone exception of Modern Family (#36), none of the comedies I watch have come close to rivaling TAAHM’s success.
And TAAHM isn’t alone. The top half of the weekly ratings are dominated by traditional, single-camera sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory (#12), How I Met Your Mother (#42) and Rules of Engagement (#47). In addition to airing on CBS and being wildly popular, these sitcoms share much in common with TAAHM. Namely, they’re not that funny and I don’t know a single person who watches them.
This begs the age-old question: Why do good things happen to bad shows? Or, more to the point, how can 15 million Americans be so wrong so often? Now, before you write me off as just another entertainment snob sitting in my tower, sipping Intelligentsia coffee and sketching in my Moleskine notebook while casting derision on the huddled masses below, let me be clear: I’m not. I don’t watch foreign movies. I don’t read The New Yorker. I don’t find out about indie bands until Ryan Seacrest tells me about them. From music to movies to television, my cultural tastes are decidedly mainstream; except when it comes to sitcoms.
While I understand there is room for disagreement when it comes to subjective subjects like comedy, I don’t think my preference for NBC’s Thursday night lineup is purely a matter of opinion. And if it is, then it is an opinion shared by The Emmy’s, The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild and various other award-granting groups.
A side-by-side viewing of Parks and Recreation and Two and a Half Men shows why. Parks and Rec—along with the other NBC comedies—is a writer-driven show. As such, a premium is placed on things like character development, dialogue and plot. The characters are complex, and the location—small-town Indiana—feels authentic. The jokes are topical, intelligent, random and well-delivered. Compare this with TAAHM and the other CBS comedies, which are producer-driven shows. They portray staged conversations in the same living rooms, kitchens, coffee shops and bars we’ve been seeing since I Love Lucy. The characters are one-dimensional stereotypes (i.e. the womanizer, the nerdy brother, the oafish teenager), and the jokes are easy and obvious.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand why the latter of these shows consistently outperforms the former, but I suspect the answer could be found in that last sentence. Maybe “easy and obvious” is what people want from their sitcoms. After spending the rest of their waking hours wrestling with work, family, finances and the future, maybe people are just too tired to watch a program that will require a modicum of intellectual engagement.
Perhaps this is why so many Americans prefer the cathartic humor of the CBS comedies (i.e. setup, punchline, laugh-track, repeat) to the detached irony and dry wit employed by the NBC writers. It seems as plausible an explanation as any. The NBC shows derive much of their humor from difficult subjects like race, sexuality, loneliness and professional fulfillment, and it appears the majority of television owners would rather not expend the time, energy or attention span necessary to process that stuff. They’d rather watch the people making fart noises and telling boob jokes two channels over.
Two and a Half Men and their sister shows on CBS have discovered the same gold mine that Michael Bay, Jay Leno and others have been mining for years. Call it “lowest common denominator programming.” They dumb it down, play it safe and round off the edges in an effort to attract as many Average Joes as possible. While this “low hanging fruit” approach leads to the creation of empty amusements that are neither edifying nor (in my opinion) all that entertaining, it is difficult to fault the creators. This is a for-profit industry, and the ratings and box office receipts speak for themselves.
The economics of it don’t make it any easier to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the allure of mindless diversions as much as the next bored yuppie (see: my previous piece on Jersey Shore), but even so. I can’t help lament the fact that some of the finest television of the past decade is going unwatched and unappreciated while millions of Americans tune in to watch Mr. Sheen and the guy from Pretty in Pink exchange penis jokes.
Perhaps the cancellation of the show will be the one positive fruit to fall from the crazy tree Sheen has spent the past few months cultivating. Here’s hoping.
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