Next up: serial sitcoms

IN THE NEW SEASON of HBO’s “Entourage” premiering this week, fictional star Vincent Chase mulls whom to squire to the premiere of his movie “Aquaman,” edgily waits for opening box office results and has a pal from the old neighborhood unexpectedly waltz into his life — arcs that unfold over several episodes.

Enter the age of the serialized comedy, an animal that has roamed the wilds of pay TV but which is gradually finding its way into the more domesticated space of broadcast television, bringing with it serious implications for the business of being funny.

Despite a dearth of hit sitcoms in recent years, the easy repeatability of shows like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and now “Two and a Half Men” has feathered many a Bel-Air nest, throwing off profits that even theatrical blockbusters might view with envy.

By contrast, the serialized sitcom seems destined at best for more limited paydays — a single instead of a home run.

Obviously, there’s good reason for wanting to inspire viewers to come back week after week, and serialized dramas and reality shows represent some of TV’s most popular fare. Moreover, the ability to tell a story on a continuing basis is perhaps the most unique attribute television has in differentiating itself from other media.

The popularity of serials, however, has also fundamentally shifted the economics of television. Unlike the self-contained episodes of crime procedurals, shows like “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Survivor” either disappear during the summer or repeat at dismal levels compared with their initial telecasts.

DVD sales have provided an unexpected windfall for such dramas, and in the case of “24” probably helped spare Jack Bauer from an early death no terrorist has been able to inflict. Nevertheless, such shows create separate headaches for broadcasters, obliging them to produce and schedule replacement fare between Memorial Day and Labor Day to keep the lights on.

For all the woes sitcoms have experienced, in success they have historically been TV’s most lucrative format, not only repeating well in primetime but potentially becoming billion-dollar franchises when the reruns are sold to local stations.

Various factors have conspired to deflate those returns — including consolidation of TV station ownership, leaving only two major groups, Fox and Tribune, to vie for off-network rights in major cities. That means if one company isn’t interested, chances of a bidding war are virtually nil.

Throw in the dearth of hit comedies, and the sitcom equation has changed perhaps forever — and, based on the fall lineups, has gradually altered the programs themselves.

“Friends” actually became semi-serialized near the end of its run, and now one of TV’s best half-hours, “The Office,” indulges in a similar ongoing romantic thread. Office mates Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Jim (John Krasinski) advanced their longstanding flirtation in the recent finale, raising the specter of how the relationship will progress (or not, given that she’s engaged to another guy) next season.

CBS’ sprightly first-year comedy “How I Met Your Mother” also incorporates a serialized element, and such a riff exists in the net’s upcoming companion “The Class,” which starts with a 20-year reunion of a third-grade class that has a significant impact on many of those who attend.

ABC has bought into the trend as well with “Let’s Rob,” a comedy that will follow a team of misfits as they attempt to burgle the home of Mick Jagger, who plays himself; and “Big Day,” which promises to milk for an entire season the madness surrounding a couple’s wedding day.

The theory is that if these programs strike a chord, a devoted audience will feel compelled to show up every week. The tradeoff, alas, is that those viewers will have less incentive to view out-of-sequence reruns in perpetuity, and will have more difficulty catching up if they don’t watch from the get-go.

Should these programs take root, networks will be left to grapple with a welcome problem — namely, what to do with successful comedies that exhibit the same rerun pattern as “Lost.” At this point, though, there’s scant evidence anybody has bothered to look that far ahead.

In that respect, the serial sitcom is an inevitable outgrowth of TV’s modern mind-set — one that loosely says, “Live for today, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it … and if you want to know what happens, tune in again next week.”

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