Post-strike recovery may give sitcoms an edge

Like “Lost’s” stranded survivors, the sitcom has been awaiting rescue — and, indeed, a strange confluence of events is providing a small window to gain a semblance of momentum. The question is whether the present players have what it takes to grab that lifeline, or if the genre is plagued by forces beyond its control.

The aftermath of the writers strike has afforded comedies a competitive edge, inasmuch as they can deliver episodes faster than hourlong dramas (or “dramedies,” a la “Ugly Betty”) as networks race to salvage the spring with original programming.

Given the dismal fortunes that have assailed the sitcom, even a fleeting advantage represents cause for hope. So CBS will be back starting in mid-March with nine fresh installments of “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother” — more than any other sidelined programs. April will sprout fresh episodes of NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” “30 Rock” and “The Office,” along with Fox’s “Back to You” and “Til Death,” and ABC’s “Samantha Who.”

In addition, Fox is poised to launch two half-hours with promising creative pedigrees: “Unhitched” (unleashed with the help of the Farrelly brothers) and “The Return of Jezebel James” (from “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino). Unfortunately, both shows have the feel of instant also-rans, the theatrical equivalent of those shelf-clearing projects released between New Year’s Day and Super Bowl weekend.

Breathing life into comedy is hardly just an academic exercise. As recently as a decade ago, the sitcom was TV’s most profitable format, yielding billion-dollar franchises such as “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Yet since “Friends” capped its run in 2004, the primetime sitcom rapidly withered as a mass-appeal ratings draw, and the lucrative syndication market has dried up as well.

Part of that has to do with a niche-appeal shift that enables viewers to seek out comedy narrowly tailored to their tastes. Most of the little gems — like HBO’s “Extras” or “30 Rock” — have been little seen, and cable “successes” such as Showtime’s “Californication,” FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program” — attract puny audiences by broadcast TV standards.

The shortage of existing hits has made establishing new comedies even more difficult. Lacking the big concepts that can sell dramas like “Heroes,” sitcoms historically relied on a “circle of life” approach: “Raymond” helped beget “Two and a Half Men,” just as “Seinfeld” gave a push to “Frasier.”

With so few proven comedies, networks have been forced to get creative, from Fox using “American Idol” to prop up mediocre half-hours to ABC airing 90-minute installments of “Dancing With the Stars” as an unorthodox platform to funnel women toward the Christina Applegate vehicle “Samantha Who?”

Scheduling tricks alone, however, won’t end comedy’s malaise, which is why the strike came at such an inopportune time — just as CBS’ cerebral “Big Bang” was exhibiting signs of ratings growth and “Samantha” was seeking to find light beyond the shadow of “Dancing.”

Whatever the underlying cause of comedy’s stupor, despite plenty of recent series breakthroughs — including cable dramas “The Closer,” “Mad Men” and “Dexter” — the sitcom has mostly gone begging, leaving development execs to ponder whether this is another bad cycle or if the ground has irreversibly shifted beneath them.

Hit movies such as “Knocked Up” indicate that collective laughter remains possible (and enjoyable), but TV operates under its own rules, and a stream of creative misfires — including a parade of dreadful improvised cable comedies — hasn’t conjured up any panaceas.

This spring thus offers a modest shot at redemption in what could otherwise be a near-lost season for sitcoms, which is even more sobering considering that the fall development process has already been seriously disrupted. As it is, some veteran comedy writers have sought greener pastures in the hourlong form, taking staff jobs on shows such as “Desperate Housewives.”

Without raising the bar too high, then, the coming weeks bear watching for those whose moods are brightened and pockets filled by the sweet sounds of studio-audience laughter. Because if current trends continue, the main difference between the line of a striking sitcom writer and a post-strike one will be that the first carried around a picket sign and a good excuse.

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