Can NBC Strike Gold Twice with Its New Sitcoms?
Time is cyclical, and one of the most readily available places for supporting evidence is network television programming. With its triptych of recent workplace sitcoms, NBC has revealed its intent to recapture the success of its last great block of half-hour shows, the 2012-concluded “Comedy Night Done Right.” Each of these new shows — Superstore, Great News, and Trial & Error — bears striking resemblances to its direct “Comedy Night Done Right” predecessor — namely, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation, respectively.
This isn’t the first instance of a network trying to establish a roster like that of NBC’s near decade-long programming run. Choices made by the network’s competitors have indicated an interest in recreating the magic of their “Comedy Night Done Right” slate of sitcoms. Most recently attempted — in form, if not necessarily in content — by Fox’s 2016 Tuesday Night of New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Grinder, and, prior to that, vaguely replicated by ABC. However, this is NBC’s first effort back into the comedic space it once dominated since the network retired the scheduling block alongside its initiator, and backbone for seven seasons, The Office. Now, five years and a host of family-centric shows removed from both the show and the block’s end, NBC has a stable of comedies under its belt that have the best chance of any network at replicating their last great rotation of sitcoms since they left the air.
With the humble two-season charmer Superstore spearheading the initiative, this past season NBC’s apparent mission was to find programming that captured the well regarded appeal of their predecessors to retain and attract attention for themselves. Avoiding a complete retread, the new shows retool their core concepts to fit contemporary topics and audiences. Superstore, created by longtime The Office writer Justin Spitzer, follows the employees of a Walmart-esque retail store primarily through the lens of Jonah Simms, a business school dropout who didn’t expect his career to end up as an entry-level employee at a superstore. To fit the decade’s shifting national pulse, Superstore swaps the underlying Atlantic cruelness of “harmlessly” ignorant regional manager MIchael Scott and The Office for the underlying misguided Midwestern conservatism and wholesomeness of “harmlessly” ignorant store manager Glenn Sturgis.
Likewise, Great News, a breakneck-paced depiction of the behind-the-scenes inner workings of nightly news production from 30 Rock alum and Tina Fey mentee Tracey Wigfield, capitalizes on the helicopter mom-daughter relationship between its main characters and skewers the trendiness of “#adulting” ideology popular among its millennial target demographic. Meanwhile, marketing itself as “The New Comedy Parks & Rec Fans Have Been Waiting For,” Trial & Error employs the former’s docu-style format to tell the story of a small town murder trial-turned-national headline, taking cues from real crime stories and the French miniseries The Staircase. In their summaries, the three shows unilaterally appear to update each of their predecessor’s premises just enough to warrant being new shows, while nonetheless attempting to retain the winning formulas that made the prior shows so popular. This gives them not only the daunting pressure of immediate comparison to three critically acclaimed series of considerable adoration, but also the task of rising above the notion of being cheap knockoffs throughout their advertising.
Luckily for NBC and the shows’ viewerships, based on each show’s run so far, they’ve elevated above the cheaply assessed similarities in front of and behind the camera to those beloved past series by embracing their differences from those shows rather than relying on what they have in common. Superstore maintains much of the workplace antics that The Office became hugely popular for, but it recontextualizes them for a retail, front-of-house faced setting and often doles them out through brief but hilarious interstitials of odd customer behavior. The show’s staff treats working in retail with an experienced eye, and the show doesn’t steep to glossing over the job’s less attractive elements for the sake of network television. It’s deft and considerate to topics like striking, layoffs, and clashing work politics where peers might often go for a more brazen or obtuse approach. As a result, Superstore is one of the most accurate workplace comedy portrayals since Fox’s short-lived restaurant sitcom Kitchen Confidential, finding ways to recognize and celebrate the necessary teamwork and abandonment — or, at the least, management — of ego that goes into working a job of such nature.
Navigating workplace obstacles also proves to be central to Great News’s framework as the show centers on a young woman’s trials producing a nightly news program when her hovering mom reenters the workforce as an intern at her studio. The unique but quickly familiar interplay between mother and daughter shoehorned into the workplace provides plenty of fresh comedic ideas, but the age divide between the show-within-a-show’s co-anchors played acutely by John Michael Higgins and Nicole Richie carry just as much weight.
Still, it’s Andrea Martin as the plucky, endearing-despite-herself mother Carol Wendelson — in a welcomed, late career turn much like Carol Kane’s Lilian Kaushtupper in sister show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — who steals the show and handles the overbearing mom dynamic so well you may start to feel bad for the actor’s two children. If only signifying the strength of the others, Great News is currently the weakest of the three shows, although it does have the least inertia behind it as the least developed and aired so far. Nevertheless, it presents extreme confidence and a playful tone right out of the gate, with Wigfield maintaining the whip-pan speed she worked with at 30 Rock and borrowing from her own life experiences to cultivate an assured voice that comes through as soon as the opening of the first episode.
Trial & Error, the least connected but most explicitly similar to its “Comedy Night Done Right” counterpoint, takes a bit longer to differentiate itself from its point of comparison. Much like Parks and Recreation in its season 3 reboot, Trial & Error begins with Josh Segal, a stuffy yet in-over-his-head professional, arriving to do consulting work in a small town, here as a lawyer rather than Parks and Rec’s auditor in Ben Wyatt. As he is introduced to the ragtag team that will support him through the case, the main cast is a veritable who’s-who of Parks and Rec character types. The one piece able to differentiate it early is John Lithgow as the case’s central murder suspect, who magnificently stands out as an eccentric in a sea of eccentrics.
As the show settles in and finds its own ideas, it separates itself despite the retained Parks and Rec smalltown quirkiness by doing less in the way to ground its absurd cast of characters to a believable universe. As the town of East Peck and its constituents get fleshed out, Josh quickly devolves from straight man into just as much of a weird mess as anyone else there. Trial & Error knows the nature of its world cannot reasonably be drawn back to a real world counterpart, unlike the heightened but still simulated bureaucracy at the core of its predecessor, so it embraces the wild, red herring-laden storylines of its other reference points. Much like the nonfiction versions of its kind, it knows these incongruous details help maintain its existence as a story and, cleverly, gets a ton of mileage out of twisting plot points and impossible coincidences that hold up till the case closes.
Despite the wealth of similarities between NBC’s sitcoms new and recently canned, Superstore, Great News, and Trial & Error have quickly carved out their own places at the network. With renewals for each show already confirmed, along with the high-concept, metatextual The Good Place, NBC could have a winning — if overloaded for the current climate of network television — two-hour block of comedies on its hands for the fall 2017 season. As of yet it might be too early to tell, but, like clockwork, “Comedy Night Done Right” may just be coming back around.
Matt McMahon is a champion of short-lived sitcoms and pop culture writer who can also be found at CutPrintFilm and McSweeney’s. For a bunch of condensed versions of what you just read, you can find him at the Twitter handle @MC_Mayne, which he came up with when he was much younger.