For years now, hourlong dramas have been TV’s greatest claim to the title of “the only art form that matters.” If you’re going to argue with someone at a party that TV is better than movies right now—which I’d really discourage, because it’s impossible to prove your case one way or another—you would almost certainly turn to Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Justified or Homeland or pretty much any drama that’s aired on HBO since 1999. The half-hour, though? That was the domain of the sitcom, the word that the anti-TV forces have always given an extra amount of villainous hiss. Who, oh who, could possibly be so impressed by a sitcom?
This was the year that all changed. This was the year of the half-hour, when a bunch of different movements on cable and broadcast networks provided the best year for TV half-hours in the history of the medium (except for the mid-’70s heyday of MTM and Norman Lear). From the lighthearted japes of ABC’s Happy Endings to the serious examination of the consequences of addiction over on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, this was a year when so much of the exciting and influential work on TV was being done in 30 minutes or less. And here’s the thing: Neither of those two series I mentioned made my top 20 —the half-hour is just that good right now.
More than a few people bristle at this notion. Part of the reason the half-hour has always been TV’s redheaded stepchild is because comedy carries less cachet in Western culture than tragedy. Everybody’s forced to read Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet; not as many American students make their way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Making people laugh is, for whatever reason, seen as a lesser achievement than making them cry, never mind the fact that both are intensely hard emotional reactions to provoke. Watch a drama about the 2008 financial crisis, and you can reasonably expect your friends to find you a sober, serious thinker. Watch any of the number of TV comedies dealing with how the fallout from that event still falls down around its characters’ ears, and it’s much harder to make that case.
Yet anti-comedy bias within Western culture is a perennial: Everybody knows it exists, but nobody’s quite sure how to get rid of it, even the people who are aware of it. (I just wrote all of this, and I’d still vote for Lincoln over 21 Jump Street if somebody handed me a Best Picture ballot, though I had roughly the same amount of “good time” at both films.) Yet this year two new forms of reverse snobbery cropped up. The first was the notion that the cable comedies—which can often be all but laugh-free by design—were somehow “better” than mere broadcast sitcoms, which are packing some of the highest laugh-per-minute rates in TV comedy’s history. Then there was the flip side of this argument: Those cable comedies somehow weren’t “real” comedies, because they didn’t make viewers laugh 500 times per second. Both arguments are so, so stupid. I turn to Girls, Louie, Archer, and New Girl for vastly different things, but all sit comfortably in my top 10.
That’s why I’ve taken to just calling these sorts of shows “half-hours.” Not only does it avoid the pointless “what is and isn’t a comedy?” argument, but it allows us to see just how much inventive stuff lies within the format. (That’s to say nothing of the brave souls pioneering even newer forms of TV in the 11-minute format, mostly on kids’ channels and Adult Swim.) Looking at TV in terms of half-hour chunks of real estate allows the viewer to see just how much space there is, how the gamut of worthwhile TV half-hours runs all the way from the ultra-traditional (but still fun) antics of The Big Bang Theory to whatever Louis C.K. has dreamed up that week on Louie. Think about those polar opposites and all the points—good and bad—in between, then think about how little experimentation there is anymore in TV hourlongs, which have largely ossified into a collection of case-of-the-week procedurals and serious cable dramas, give or take a Parenthood or American Horror Story.
Don’t get me wrong: I love many of these hourlongs, but they increasingly seem a little timid in their own success. Something like Starz’s Magic City is a solid show, with many good moments in it, but it often seems created by a committee that bought an Ikea guide to assembling a complex cable drama. Compare that to the big pay-cable half-hour debuts of the year, HBO’s Girls and Veep, two shows that come at the question of what it means to be alive in 2012 in very different ways, yet both arrive at their completely different answers in highly satisfactory fashion. Magic City often seems to play into the increasing sense that networks use their “prestige” hours as their own mission statements, casting the network as auteur, instead of the showrunner. But it’s impossible to imagine Girls and Veep without Lena Dunham or Armando Iannucci.
In some ways, this is just the long cycle of TV reasserting itself. The hourlong is coming off of a really great decade, so the half-hour was destined to rise again, just as the amazing decade for traditional sitcoms in the ’70s gave way to the drama revolution of the ’80s. The medium tends to move in broadly cyclical turns like this, where one type of program will be creatively ascendant, while the other picks itself up off the ropes. The comedic reinvention we’re praising right now will seem as tired to us in 2022 as the Sopranos straitjacket does right now. It’s also possible a spate of great hourlongs will have me writing the exact opposite piece next year, praising networks for finding ways to break out of the self-imposed boxes of the same old antiheroic tropes.
But I think that’s unlikely. There are so many great, unexpected half-hours all over the cable guide right now that it would be hard for all of them to die at once, and it seems like every time one falls, another three take its place. The deal Louis C.K. made with FX increasingly drives discussion of the half-hour world over on cable—where half-hours are more attractive because they’re generally cheaper to produce—while the broadcast networks have at least three nights where I watch two solid hours of what might have been snorted at as “sitcoms” even a decade ago. (For the record, they’re Fox’s Tuesday lineup—the current best, I’d say—ABC’s Wednesday, and NBC’s Thursday.) Nearly a decade since Arrested Development blew up the broadcast single-camera comedy revolution pioneered by the twin successes of Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs, TV half-hour writers seem as comfortable writing in that style—and coming up with a variety of types of shows within that structure—as they have been at any point. 30 Rock, Ben And Kate, and The Middle are all filmed in similar styles, but no one would accuse them of being all that similar. And that’s to say nothing of the animated sitcom, which is also hitting some high-water marks at present.
Much has been made of NBC aggressively pursuing a strategy of “dumbed-down,” lowest-common-denominator half-hours, and its success with it. (After all, the largely atrocious Matthew Perry vehicle Go On is the biggest new comedy of the fall.) This is meant, I suppose, to point to an assertion that TV’s half-hour golden age is approaching its end. Yet I don’t feel that way. The fortunes of broadcast half-hours have been tied for too long to the fortunes of the NBC Thursday comedy block—and in particular Community and Parks And Recreation—but there’s finally interesting work happening at all four major broadcast networks, even if this fall was a lousy one for new sitcoms.
The standard-bearers have ended up being Ben And Kate, a likable show with a lack of anything like heft, and The Mindy Project, a deeply flawed, hopelessly confused show that could turn into the best show on TV one week without surprising me. That said, if we expand to the full year, there are plenty of interesting comedies that debuted in early 2012, including Girls and Veep, but also ABC’s surprisingly frisky Don’t Trust The B—— In Apt. 23.
Even if the broadcast networks canceled every good half-hour—and that seems unlikely, considering they’re doubling down on even marginal ratings players like Bob’s Burgers—there would still be cable, where half-hours deliberately aimed at niche audiences (like Wilfred and Key And Peele) continue to thrive.
As I write this, I see the typical grousing from some of my critic friends—at least on Twitter—that the year has been fine, but not as good as years past. And maybe that’s true if the primary place you look for good TV is in the dramatic field (though I can name several dozen poignant and heart-stopping moments in dramas from this year), or if you tend to judge TV years in terms of the newest, latest thing. But from where I stand, TV just completed a fantastic year, and much of that is due to reinvestment in half-hour storytelling, and the willingness to let the showrunners of those series pursue their own creative yen wherever it leads. Cheer up, everybody. The half-hour shows are here to save television, just like we always hoped they would.