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The Evolution of Thursday’s “Must-See TV”
"The Cosby Show"
Though the show’s premise was groundbreaking at the time in that it was one of the few sitcoms that resisted the racist stereotypes of the early ’80s, it rarely mentioned race explicitly, choosing instead to depict a tightly knit, educated black family without bringing politics to the forefront of the plot lines. Not only did it artfully and subtly walk a political line, but Bill Cosby paved the way for other stand-up comedians to transition into TV, a trend we see in abundance today.
Though it debuted as the worst-rated sitcom on television, Cheers was based on the winning workplace-oriented model that proved successful throughout the ’70s. Drawing on the inspiration from greats like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the ensemble cast gradually climbed its way to the top by the third season. Unlike The Cosby Show, the network’s greatest hit at the time, Cheers skewed to adult audiences, but the fact that the bar became a home away from home for the cast of wacky characters drew on the successful, audience-attracting model of family-oriented programs. Each member of the ensemble cast won awards in acting, and the show took home an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Not only did the show catapult Michael J. Fox into stardom, it mirrored the country’s shift in politics. While sticking with the family model, it frequently showed conservative Alex P. Keaton good-naturedly butting heads with the views of his hippy parents. It showed the family unit as The Cosby Show did, but shifted the wisdom from the parents to the up-and-coming generation. Interestingly, the show took place in the early years of the Reagan presidency and depicted the shift from free-spirited ‘’70s culture to the conservative “Me Generation,” often with funny and heartwarming results.
"A Different World"
Though this show is a spinoff from The Cosby Show as it follows one of the Huxtable daughters to college, it marks a serious departure from the family-oriented viewing of the previous era. A Different World shifted focus to the younger generation, tackling social issues more directly and depicting a friend-centric plot in order to capture the coveted younger audience. TV watching was less a family experience as children and young adults found themselves with more money and more independence from their parents.
Instead of trying to tackle social issues like many of its predecessors, this show sought to be about nothing and as a result it was the most relatable show on television. The cringe-worthy plotlines made for comedic gold and the imperfect characters were both lovable yet unlikable, thus defying stock characters typically found on primetime. Unlike the work-centric comedies that preceded it, Seinfeld relied on the lives of single friends in New York City, a model that’s used again and again only with arguably less success.
Kelsey Grammer continued to play the pompous psychiatrist from Cheers in this successful spinoff, making Dr. Frazier Crane the longest-running live-action character in TV history. With five outstanding comedy series awards, it surpasses any other show. The idiosyncratic comedy, will-they/won’t-they love story between Niles and Daphne, and heartwarming father-and-sons relationship was enough to hook audiences and win critical acclaim. Despite the fact that almost every Cheers character made a cameo throughout the series, the show’s depiction of atypical gender roles and the slightly untraditional family unit, marked a departure from the TV of the Cheers era.
"Will and Grace"
Despite the often-controversial issues it tackled, the show was wildly popular among viewers and critics, winning eight seasons on the air, sixteen Emmy Awards, and eighty-three nominations. Will and Grace was so successful arguably because it followed in NBC’s tradition of touching on political and social issues in superficial ways, giving precedence to comedy while not ignoring the issues of the day.
The likable ensemble cast debuted in the top-ten spot and never dipped in ratings for its entire ten-year run. Not just a highly watched show with sixty-three Emmy Awards to its name, it spawned many cultural phenomena from a haircut (the Rachel) to a famous pickup line (“How you doin?”) to a coffeehouse craze. Depicting a group of twenty-somethings whose friendships were more like the family unit we saw in the ‘’80s may have been fresh at the time, but now the model seems to be the clichéd kiss of death for a show. No one can seem to re-create Friends.
"The Office" and Other Workplace Comedies
Since the ending of audience-magnet Friends and the network’s departure from the successful four-sitcoms-one-drama model, NBC has fallen from its original glory. The Office is the only show that registers in the top fifty most-watched shows. Yet we see some similarities between NBC’s latest Thursday-night lineup consisting of Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Office, and the hits that first launched the network’s heyday: each show relies on an ensemble cast of unrelated, extreme characters that are brought together through work or school. Could NBC be banking on history repeating itself, only this time without a laugh track? Will workplace comedies restore the network’s must-see status? Watching the 8-to-10 comedy block today, there’s a tinge of nostalgia with the show’s heavy use of meta-focused jokes and mocumentary premises. It’s almost as if the network is an aging parent reminiscing about the golden years as captain of the football team and yet hoping that a generous dose of self-deprecating humor will make it fresh and funny.