When That Clever Hook Can Kill Your Sitcom

united-states-of-taraAllow me to coin a new term: ‘pre-cancelled.’ The definition: a television program’s eventual demise caused by a fatal flaw in its rollout.

A pre-cancellation can be attributed to several factors. The show in question may be the victim of a struggling timeslot. It may garner critical derision at the annual upfronts. Or perhaps it simply has Christian Slater attached as its lead. (Bah-ZING.)

That said, one of the most avoidable forms of pre-cancellation occurs when a series’ concept relies heavily on an overly-specialized premise. Put another way, few things erode a sitcom faster than a misguided hook. The death knell may not chime for a season or two. Or it may only take a handful of episodes. But rest assured, like dollar store batteries and puppy mill Dalmatians, the ol’ lifespan’s gonna be severely compromised.

Once a sitcom paints itself into a narrative corner, the end result is never pretty: it either cannibalizes itself like the Donner party or devolves Truman Capote-style into a mockery of its engaging former self.

In recent years, the longest-running sitcoms have been nearly all soft-concept, in that they don’t rely on a hefty gimmick to lure in viewers. Let’s distill some down to their essence:

Seinfeld: Four friends hanging out.
Friends: Six friends hanging out.
The Office: Buncha co-workers hanging out.
The Big Bang Theory: Buncha nerds hanging out.
Cheers / It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Buncha bar folks hanging out.
The Simpsons: Buncha yellow cartoon characters hanging out.
Two and a Half Men: The Odd Couple, plus some kid who belches.

Although these shows may vary in terms of quality, originality, and acclaim (from the critically-adored Seinfeld to the oft-maligned Two and a Half Men), they each have two things working to their advantage: 1) strongly delineated and identifiable characters. 2) A near-limitless supply of storylines at their disposal. The former fuel the latter, like a collection of streams feeding into a big-ass river. And the latter comes courtesy of the soft-concept format, which prevents the aforementioned storylines from being tethered to a narrow set of options. (e.g. 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, where dad sure as hell better be giving some 16-year-old suitor the gears each week.)

Admittedly, many soft-concept series can resort to well-worn tropes. Even unabashed clichés. Regardless, each possesses the built-in mechanism to last multiple seasons without a significant dip in quality. Certainly not a luxury every show can claim.

Which isn’t to say a soft-concept premise is the key to longevity; a good dozen or more ‘conventional’ comedies prematurely bite the dust every year. Similarly, not all sitcoms with a high-concept hook fizzle from lack of story options. Red Dwarf and Aqua Teen Hunger Force have each made it to ten — and counting — seasons. Red Dwarf spins the yarn of a slobbish mining ship employee who, after 3 million years in suspended animation, travels the galaxy with an uptight hologram, an obsequious service mechanoid, and a vain, James Brown-type fellow who evolved from his cat. Aqua Teen Hunger Force chronicles the absurdist adventures of three roommates: an anthropomorphic milkshake, meatball, and box of French fries. (The fact they’re essentially a talking Happy Meal is Aqua Teen’s least bizarre facet.)

And yet, when stripped down to their basic components, both shows’ ‘hooky’ outer shells give way to gooey, soft-concept innards. Red Dwarf is The Odd Couple in space (charitably, with no kid who belches), whereas Aqua Teen is a surreal chromosome or two away from Comedy Central’s Workaholics. Sure, they both feature a crazy hook. But that hook is embedded into a comedy whose character-driven foundation allows for an unlimited number of storylines to unfold.

So when is a show’s hook its fatal flaw instead of its biggest asset? When the hook dramatically limits the amount — and variety — of stories that can be told. Here’s a litmus test of sorts: the next time you tuck into a new sitcom pilot, ask yourself this question: can I envision what a season six episode might look like? If the image that comes to mind causes anything from mild eyebrow furrowing to full-fledged repulsion, the show’s premise may be flawed. Fatally so, in most cases.

Some examples of sitcom hooks gone awry:

The Last Man on Earth (FOX)

The Premise: After a deadly virus eradicates humanity, Phil Miller must learn to survive — and keep his sanity — as the last man on Earth.

The Flaw: Despite the title — and months of promotion suggesting Phil is the last man on Earth — Phil ain’t the last man on Earth. The cast has ballooned exponentially since the pilot, veering us further away from the original high-concept premise.

The Fix: I very much enjoy this show (wonderful cast, top-notch writers). Yet despite a season two pick-up, I feel uneasy about its long-term prospects. Phil quickly went from a sweet guy desperately seeking human contact to the least likeable character in an ever-growing ‘society.’ Not exactly what viewers signed up for. Perhaps another virus could revert him to the loner we all knew and loved?

The Knights of Prosperity (ABC, 1 season)

The Premise: Several likeable, down-on-their-luck blue-collar folks form a club whose sole purpose is to get rich by robbing Mick Jagger.

The Flaw: A terrific and often hilarious show plagued by a fatally misguided premise. You see, should the Knights of Prosperity ever successfully rob their celebrity target, the series would be over. Kaput. Done. As a result, there’s no option but to keep them stuck in a frustrating limbo the entire series.

The Fix: As with The Last Man on Earth, what made The Knights of Prosperity so enjoyable was the combination of sharp writing and some fantastic acting. (Cast members included Gotham’s Donal Logue and a then little-known actress named Sofia Vergara.) It was a pleasure ‘hanging out’ with these characters each week as they plotted, bickered, and ultimately had each other’s backs. But for the sitcom to succeed in the long run, the gang needed the occasional victory, not a myopic fixation on a big score that could never come to fruition. Why not make them a low-rent A-Team instead, taking on quirky and occasionally dangerous jobs to supplement their meager incomes?

Hello Ladies (HBO, 1 season), The Dating Guy (HDNet, 2 seasons), The Single Guy (NBC, 2 seasons)

The Premise: A single guy looking for love in the big city.

The Flaw: Each episode sees our protagonist go — or attempt to go — on a date, only to have it temporarily work out — or not work out at all. Lather, rinse, repeat ad infinitum.

The Fix: Yes, plenty of great sitcom moments stem from dating woes, but why not apply the Seinfeld model and simply make dating one of the many activities its characters enjoy? Let’s see these guys live their g-darn lives. If they’re intriguing and make us laugh, we’ll stick around, whether their dance cards are full or not.

United States of Tara (Showtime, 3 seasons)

The Premise: This half-hour dramedy follows Tara Gregson (Toni Collette), a suburban mother who deliberately goes off her medication to discover the origins of her multiple personality disorder. Tara’s alternate personalities (a.k.a. ‘alters’) include a 1950s-style housewife, a flirty teen, and a boorish Vietnam Vet.

The Flaw: Although colorful, Tara’s alters quickly succumbed to the law of diminishing returns with their one-note personas. To compensate, the second season tossed two new identities into the mix, with season 3 tacking on yet another. We can only assume there’d be a football team’s worth of alters had United States of Tara lasted several more seasons.

The Fix: Hoo boy — ya got me there, guy.

My moral here, for what it’s worth: whether you’re hankering to watch — or eventually create — a sitcom with a truly sustainable premise, might I suggest one that eschews any form of narrative stranglehold for something more open-concept in nature? Whether it’s hella weird or timidly safe, I promise the odds of its pre-cancellation will drop significantly. So much so, there may even be room in the cast for one Mr. Christian Slater. (I’ve got a soft spot for the big lug.)

Steven is an award-winning writer and comedian. Why not follow his pithy musings on Twitter or subscribe to his “hysterical” (your words) podcast, ‘You Better DON’T!‘?

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