There’s an abundance of family sitcoms on television right now—and when it comes to the major networks, most of them are on ABC. Modern Family kicked off this relatively recent trend. Its critical and commercial success gave ABC a nice template to work off of, and over the past couple of years, they’ve gradually branched out further, becoming even more inclusive in the kinds of families they depict.
With Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, and The Real O’Neals, ABC has diversified its slate of comedies more than ever before. Each of these shows distinguish themselves in crucial ways. Take Blackish: a show that in its second season became consistently funnier week after week and masterfully tackled real-life issues like police brutality. Fresh Off the Boat also found its stride in its second season, and although the show is set in the 90s, it smartly addresses and subverts cultural stereotypes we still see today.
The Real O’Neals, which premiered mid-season this year, is the latest show to join their ranks. On its surface, a sitcom following an Irish-Catholic family doesn’t exactly seem diverse (let alone groundbreaking), but having the show focus on a gay teenager, who’s also narrating the story, is an angle that hasn’t really been explored before. It’s hard to imagine this show airing on a broadcast network five or ten years ago, but our country has also made major strides in support of marriage equality since then. The show is indicative of how America is changing, and it’s a great example of art imitating life—TV following in the footsteps of real-life progress. With middling ratings, The Real O’Neals was renewed for a second season by a hair, but it fits in nicely with the other family comedies on ABC’s schedule.
Individually, none of these shows are groundbreaking, per se; nor are all of them unanimously adored by critics. However, it’s incredibly important—not just for television, but for society—that these shows are on the air. People want to see themselves reflected in stories, and not all groups have had many opportunities to do so. It’s hard to believe, but Fresh off the Boat is the first sitcom starring an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl aired its one season in 1994.
There’s a powerful relationship between art and real life, and if shows aren’t reflecting reality as accurately as they could be, that’s a big problem. Television may be a single medium, but it’s one that has grown and changed over time alongside society. Portraying families of all different races, religions, and sexualities, and reflecting those stories also produces comedy that is specific and authentic, and that’s something worth recognizing. In many cases, it also means we get better television.
Streaming has been helping lead the charge for more inclusivity as well. Amazon’s Transparent might be one of the best examples of this. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black prominently features women of color and LGBT characters as series regulars. This is another important step forward for television to make. As fights for LGBT rights continue in certain states across the country, TV has slowly been catching up, and becoming increasingly more inclusive. Another Netflix comedy, Master of None addressed the lack of equal representation in the entertainment industry with a brilliant episode called “Indians on TV.” Clearly, when it comes to representing everyone on TV, there’s still a long way to go. For now, these shows hold even greater importance for what they’re accomplishing.
Aside from CBS, with its staunch devotion to all things Chuck Lorre, ABC might be the only major network right now that has such a clear and deliberate “identity” for its comedies. Fox still has New Girl, but without Mindy Project or another standout show to take its place, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes something a Fox comedy. The same can be said for NBC. In another era of TV, NBC brought us Must-See TV hits like Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends. Those shows did monstrous ratings and were enormously successful. In the years that followed, even when NBC was ranked lowest among all the major networks in viewership, it still had critical favorites like The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community. NBC currently holds the number one network spot again—but do they have any sort of cohesive identity? It’s equally difficult to determine what the network is looking for in their comedies right now.
While other networks struggle to find an identity that works, ABC has been quietly rebranding themselves, building a solid schedule of inclusive family shows. Look at any of the half-hour shows on their current schedule: nearly all of them feel like they belong there. When it comes to sitcoms, they have the most clearly defined “identity” right now. Having the confidence to try new things and tell more diverse stories has paid off. It’s given us breakout stars like Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat) and Noah Galvin (The Real O’Neals) and has effectively rebranded the network as a hub for smart family sitcoms.
Streaming has drastically changed the way audiences consume television. Major networks no longer have the same level of influence they once did, and it’s harder than ever for them to stay relevant. Yet for all of the strides and innovative programming Netflix and Amazon have been making, neither seem to be tapping into this niche of diverse family shows the way ABC is. Netflix and Amazon probably aren’t interested in creating any kind of singular identity; they’re more concerned with having as wide a range of shows as possible. But having this type of niche is one of the ways a network like ABC can stand out in today’s streaming age.
This fall, ABC will add another comedy, Speechless, to its schedule. The show stars Minnie Driver as a mom raising a special-needs child. They’ve done well so far with getting more stories for Asians and African-Americans on TV, so it will be interesting to see how they handle portraying the speech-impaired community. ABC deserves credit for what it’s done so far, and hopefully, these shows are just the beginning of what will continue to be a long and interesting wave of diverse family comedies. There is so much more comedy for all of the networks and streaming services to mine, and so many more types of families to showcase. If more networks like ABC can find what works for them, then they might still stand a chance in this current fractured TV landscape.