The New Age of the Family Sitcom (and Where Louis C.K. Is Taking It)

A week ago, David Brooks wrote a column about how these days, TV shows are mainly concerned with “flocks” — circles of friends on Cougar Town, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Community, et al. Brooks’s musings about the meaning of flocks struck me as a little alarmist. (Is one-on-one friendship dead? Are these post-Friends series symptoms of the new social-networking shallowness? Can men and women be friends?)

Still, Brooks, and Neil Gabler, whose even more apocalyptic L.A. Times column Brooks was riffing off, do seem to be on to something with the argument that friendship is television’s central subject, even if I don’t share their fear of some nationwide Zuckerberg-induced friendship-deficit.

But their timing is off. There are flocks on TV, as there have been since the networks began trying to replace Friends and Sex and the City, but the real sitcom story, at least this year, is the resurgence of the family show — which virtually disappeared after the finale of Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005. It’s back, in both traditional packages and startling, radicalized forms.

Most noticeably, there’s Modern Family, last year’s ABC smash hit, a show that merges new-fangled mockumentary with old-fashioned warmth. There’s The Middle, ABC’s unheralded but excellent sitcom about two working parents and three teenagers (the standout being Eden Sher as the heartbreakingly eager Sue, though the whole cast is terrific). And there’s Raising Hope, the sole breakout debut this fall — a charming, daffy, obnoxious series about a white-trash family raising an “oops” baby. Brooks mysteriously described Fox’s Raising Hope as a flock show, but it’s not: It’s a pure family series, three generations’ worth.

On network, there’s a rising set of family dramas, including Parenthood, the appealing spinoff of the Steve Martin movie, as well as No Ordinary Family, ABC’s blandly workable superhero family show (hard to hate, hard to adore). On cable, United States of Tara is the standout in the edgy-family comedy category. If you stretch the definition, I suppose these shows feature “flocks.” But didn’t the Cosbys interact more than ordinary families do, long before Twitter reared its head?

Even shows that aren’t about families are honing in on the psychology of parents. Dexter began as an allegory about a serial-killer single guy; it’s turned into a series about a monster father trying to make sure the damage doesn’t infect his son. Caprica appears to be a high-concept science-fiction series, but at heart, it’s the story of parents so grief stricken by the loss of their children that they are willing to accept any substitute — even artificial intelligence — to salve their loss.

And then there’s the most interesting and most unsettling new parenting show, the one about the unhappiest parent: FX’s Louie, starring comedian Louis C.K. as a divorced dad. If all the best parenting sitcoms have Roseanne’s DNA, Louie has it the most purely, in that it’s willing to admit to parental unhappiness, not in a cynical or borscht-belt way, but with radical candor. And where Modern Family merrily crosses demographics (a 7-year-old can watch it and so can a 35-year-old sitcom buff), Louie is dirty and raw, a series for adults, and as far as I can tell, the only alt-sitcom to speak specifically to parents. (Although I guess you could count Arrested Development.)

In one of the show’s best episodes, Louie — who loves his kids but is worn down by caring for them — sends them to his ex-wife for the week. He knows he should feel free. Instead, he turns into a “bag of shit like I always am”: pigging out on ice cream, getting stoned with his neighbor, tossing a jug of water out the window, and eventually buying a mangy dog out of sheer loneliness. It’s wild, surreal, dark stoner comedy, but the most noticeable thing is the way the entire adventure is bracketed by the paradox of Louie’s life: He’s wrecked by fatherhood, but he’s nothing without his children.

Louie has been picked up for a second season, but it’s currently on hiatus. To hold you until then, download these two fascinating podcasts, in which comedian Marc Maron and Louis C.K. discuss why they’re no longer best friends. The conversation goes deep, like some particularly filthy episode of In Treatment, and it’s fascinating on the questions of both friendship and comedy. In the second podcast, the two discuss the creation of Louie and its autobiographical origins.

Also, here’s that episode, “Dogpound.”

The New Age of the Family Sitcom (and Where Louis C.K. Is Taking It)