The freshman comedies that hit commercially and critically this season shared one common trait: expectation avoidance.
Fox’s musical-comedy juggernaut “Glee” brought soaring song-and-dance numbers to its “Breakfast Club” teen-angst trappings. ABC’s “Modern Family” took a mockumentary approach to the traditional family laffer. HBO’s “Hung” mixed dirty jokes with biting social commentary about an America adrift.
These shows looked different than traditional sitcoms, scrambling forms and genres to almost reinvent the warhorse format.
What looked like radical reinvention from the outside was, to their creators, simply a necessary evolution of the species.
“People sometimes think you have to take three steps away from the conventional, and usually it’s just one step away,” says “Modern Family” co-creator Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier,” “Wings”). “But you do need to take that step if you want to break through to critics and audiences.”
To Lloyd’s eyes, the step that “Modern Family” took wasn’t necessarily its mockumentary approach but the way it attempted to create a family comedy that families could watch together without anyone feeling burdened.
“Family shows usually primarily appeal to kids, with adults gravitating toward workplace or adult comedies,” Lloyd says. “That’s why I never did a family comedy. It seemed the writing would be limited. But it doesn’t have to be. You can deal with raw emotions in a family comedy and appeal to both kids and adults.”
“Glee” and “Hung” attract widely different demographics, but their creators took a similar back-to-the-past approach in making their shows stand out.
“Glee’s” chart-topping musical interludes get all the ink, but co-creator Brad Falchuk believes the show’s earnestness is its most radical element.
“We’re not cynical, we don’t put people down,” Falchuk says. “We thought we could go back to the kind of hope and kindness you see in John Hughes comedies or ‘Cheers’ and ‘Taxi.’ Comedy has become all about irony and detachment. We shied away from darkness.”
By contrast, husband-and-wife writing partners Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson dove into that blackness when creating “Hung.” Their template was another type of comedy that ruled the airwaves — social-issues sitcoms like “All in the Family.”
“We wanted to inhabit the landscape of those 1970s Norman Lear comedies where you talk about a wide range of issues through the prism of comedy,” Burson says.
Setting “Hung” in Detroit, a city Burson calls “one of the serious ground zeroes for the economic wave sweeping America,” gave the show and its struggling characters an immediate sense of relevancy.
“Painful reality has always made for great comedy,” Lipkin says. “We just haven’t seen that type of comedy on television for awhile.”
And even if you’re not exactly reinventing the wheel with your approach, you can still stand out by surprising viewers. ABC’s first-year comedy “Cougar Town” changed course midseason by having its lead character, played by Courteney Cox, abandon dating younger men and settle down with a boyfriend roughly her own age.
“Viewers are so savvy nowadays,” co-creator Bill Lawrence says. “You have to avoid all the things they expect, which is kind of hard, but also kind of fun.”