The Season of the Not-Quite-There Sitcom

Sitcoms are tricky shows to invest in. They need a little time and a few episodes to grow into the shows they’re meant to be — for 30 Rock to find its manic energy or Community to really let itself be weird. On rare occasions, a comedy’s auspices are clear and realized enough that the tone and thrust of its run makes itself clear from the get go: Modern Family — the overtly affluent, opaquely progressive, and broadly slapstick ensemble that debuted in 2009 — is ABC’s proudest, most lucrative example.

The network sitcoms that survived the initial ratings bloodbath and its subsequent wave of early cancellations, specifically The Mindy Project, Go On, The New Normal, and The Neighbors, are all fascinatingly (and frustratingly) in states of arrested development. None of them — even as they close out their first (and for some, maybe only) seasons — ever quite turned that last corner from being promising to being actually good, to reach the point where enough of their creative pieces come together in a cohesive, consistent, and yes, funny, way. It was the season of the not-quite-there sitcom. And in these ratings end times, where it’s become as difficult to remain a modest hit as it has to become one, a comedy doesn’t have the luxury of taking too long to gel.

Because for not-quite-there sitcoms, it feels like a matter of wanting to grab them by the shoulders and forcibly shake some sense into them: They’re the brilliant, misbehaved younger siblings of comedies — the screw-ups that, if they got their act together, could be great. Mindy Project! Stop distracting yourself with those unfunny nurses and that British lothario! Go On! Let your deviant freak flag fly! Don’t be ashamed of it! New Normal! Stop sledgehammering that point you’re trying to make when you could use a regular-sized hammer!

Take The Mindy Project, so far the only on-the-bubble comedy to be renewed for another season. Mindy Kaling has, in the same way The Office could coax pathos out of outsized embarrassment and pride, used The Mindy Project as an emotionally revealing study of the synthetic alchemy of romantic comedies, a way to use When Harry Met Sally to help understand how men and women relate to each other through miscommunication. The building rapport between her OBGY-N character and Chris Messina’s gruff, Springsteen-agro and fellow gyno Danny Castellano is functioning as a foil to Jim and Pam romances (fitting, given that Kaling wrote much of their material). Mindy and Danny aren’t cute and winsome, they’re blustery, impulsive egomaniacs who lash out with attitude and humor to protect their tender hearts. They’re perfect for each other and watching them squabble to figure it out is the best homage to the Nora Ephron-Nancy Meyers ethos Kaling articulates to be the show’s own.

But Kaling could stand to be more selfish with her own show. By straining to develop a dysfunctional workplace ensemble around Mindy’s better, isolated narrative, the show feels like two different shows wedged into the same 22 minutes. It just hasn’t been able to find a good way to integrate the cast into the same story arc; shorthand like parties and workplace gatherings haven’t worked.

Because for not-quite-there sitcoms, it’s usually one or two significant elements that are holding them back from being the better show they always were. Sometimes, like with Mindy, it’s a matter of acknowledging what isn’t working. The show has undergone some casting changes (all of Mindy’s best friend characters so far have been either been underwritten or just plain duds) and it will at least have another season to try and course correct.

Go On has the opposite problem: it needs to grab a tighter hold of what is working and go all-in. When its ensemble — a hodgepodge therapy group that includes the grieving sports radio host played by eternally arch-witted Matthew Perry — comes together, it’s an oddball meeting of deviant weirdoes. It’s in many ways a cleaner, name-brand version of Community, with mismatched types convening to learn from each other how to learn about themselves. Few of the outside-of-the-group setting pairings mesh, but Perry and Julie White’s hard-nosed, sardonic lesbian Anne are a worthy duo; they have the kind of nudging, platonic tough-love relationship that makes each of them better people. But overall, Go On needs more therapy.

The New Normal, meanwhile, might be the most problematic of the not-quite-there sitcoms, because technically, it has gotten there. You just can’t see or hear it underneath it’s overworked metaphors and one-too-many-zingers. But this is a Ryan Murphy show (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story), and New Normal is just as marked by stylistic embellishment.

About a gay couple (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) who befriend their surrogate (Georgia King) and her family, the amiable cast plays off each other well, but is too often undermined by the saccharine or overwrought underpinnings of its liberal domestic drama. Which is a shame, because a lot of what the show has to say about how nontraditional families observe traditional values is constructive, and when it reels itself in, affecting. The episode where David (Bartha) has to give up his leadership in a Boy Scout-like troupe was pointed, but evinced genuine, legitimate feelings of anger, pride, and helplessness.

And then there’s the absurdist The Neighbors, which somehow plumbs the well-treaded depths of suburban American parables and allegories and unearths fresh insight. But its goofy setup — aliens are masquerading as humans in a way that evokes Third Rock From the Sun — has in equal turns been its best source for satire and the device of its complete undoing. It tapered off the cheesy alien animations and doodads as its season progressed, but this is the kind of not-quite-there sitcom that has to be willing to toss aside most (if not all) of the gimmicky premise that got in on the air in the first place. It would be a better show for it. (Cougar Town, bless its heart, is the best example of this.)

Except for Mindy, these not-quite-there sitcoms are in renewal limbo, their fates to be determined in the next few weeks as the networks figure out their new schedules ahead of their upfront presentations to advertisers in May. I’m a terrible forecaster for show renewals, but all signs from experts put these shows as toss-ups, as not leaning hard toward either renewal or cancellation. Betting on not-quite-there sitcoms is also betting on weird, cruel TV Darwinism controlled by demographics and DVRs. But I’m also someone who’s spent enough time watching TV to know that at a certain point, some shows just can’t be turned around — each of these shows, though, deserve at one last chance to finally get there.

Aleksander Chan is an editor at Austinist. Follow him on Twitter.

The Season of the Not-Quite-There Sitcom