TV's drama renaissance owes debt to movie theaters

There’s a legitimate argument that TV’s drama renaissance owes a debt to what movie theaters aren’t providing in much abundance — namely, compelling characters and stories, developed in a meticulous way.

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might resemble “The Lord of the Rings” at first glance, but it bubbles over with scheming, intriguing characters and sex — elements for which there is scant time in the average summer tentpole. Similarly, “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Killing” represent familiar genres — the mob drama and murder mystery, respectively — told in serialized slow motion. Some enduring network hours offer variations on this theme.

What, then, can we infer regarding the state of TV comedy as the form embarks on a real-estate expansion this fall — with new hours on ABC, CBS and NBC — juxtaposed against the gaudy Memorial Day weekend delivered by “The Hangover” sequel?

The answer is probably not much, but it’s nevertheless worth considering.

While some will doubtless be tempted to link sociology and the public mood to the appetite for comedy, such theorizing is almost invariably overblown. People have always wanted to laugh, no matter where the stock market registers or unemployment rate stands. And while TV is doubtless more logistically nimble at reacting to the zeitgeist than long-gestating movies, thinking a show can tap into rapidly fluctuating cultural tides amounts to foolishly chasing a moving target.

Although it’s premature to draw any conclusions, the crop of new network comedy pilots seem to a bit dirtier than their predecessors, which seems equally misguided. Compared to R-rated fare like “The Hangover,” TV can indulge in only so much innuendo. So outside of pay cable, competing on that level feels like bringing a knife to a gunfight. (And, incidentally, experimenting with smuttiness didn’t do anything for HBO’s “Lucky Louie” or any number of Comedy Central’s misfires.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh suggested “Hangover” director Todd Phillips and prolific producer-director Judd Apatow have birthed a cinematic form he called the “jokeless comedy.”

So is the lesson for TV simply to write better jokes? Not quite.

The few successful sitcoms launched in the last few years (and “Glee” doesn’t qualify under this definition) certainly haven’t reinvented the wheel.

If there’s a singular thread to “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s that they feature amusing situations actually flowing out of genuinely funny (and in some instances quite exaggerated) characters.

Both programs also showcased generally fresh faces — or people with somewhat familiar ones who hadn’t found the perfect vehicle for them (“Family’s” Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara come to mind).

Finally, unlike so much comedy blasted into the outer confines of cable and the Web, neither show ever feels mean-spirited. The jokes and insults may be snide, but there’s always an underlying element of warmth — and in the case of “Modern Family,” a feel-good little moment at the end.

Tellingly, this is even true — much less overtly — in “Two and a Half Men.” Producer Chuck Lorre has said that whatever one might think of the boozing, womanizing Charlie Harper, he was never going to let his nephew sleep on the street. (At least, not until the potentially tragic accident we don’t know the details of yet.)

The main problem with comedy mirrors an old quote about pornography: You know a good one when you see it, but it’s usually hard to diagram the “why” of that on paper. Because what amuses people is so personal, moreover, the proliferation of options makes the sitcom especially vulnerable to fragmentation in a comedy-tailored-to-every-demographic way.

If there’s an encouraging sign lurking within “The Hangover’s” opening and the aforementioned sitcoms, it’s the reassurance that comedy can function as a mass-appeal experience — and even multitasking youths will enjoy a full-length experience, not just crotch kicks via YouTube.

So perhaps the best advice for those trying to stoke the sitcom’s modest spark into a true resurgence would be to make them, you know, better.

Oh, and not to ratchet up the pressure, but probably best to do that soon. Because unless those toiling in sitcom-land find their funny place, come mid-October or so TV could face a less lucrative kind of hangover.

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