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How CBS’ Comedy Strategy Got Shortchanged by ‘2 Broke Girls’

Eye network's hoped-for Monday anchor fizzled, throwing a wrench in sitcom expansion plan

If you think about it, TV comedy has long relied on what amounts to an apprenticeship program. An established hit helps nurture along a new companion show, which in turn is supposed to go stand on its own, helping the next generation prosper in a “circle of life” kind of way.

For CBS, the baton pass went to “2 Broke Girls,” the linchpin of its strategy to expand the network’s successful Monday comedy block to Thursday nights. But it turns out “Girls” wasn’t up to the task, leaving the network with some interesting questions as it seeks to revive the Monday lineup — or at least buck it up a bit — with the return of “Mike & Molly” on Nov. 4.

Although critics were sort of lukewarm about the show, the ratings for “Girls” were initially solid, thanks in part to its appealing leads, Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs. That emboldened CBS to make the show its Monday centerpiece while moving “Two and a Half Men” to join “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursdays.

Now, “Big Bang” has been an overwhelming success, the kind TV doesn’t see very often these days. And it makes considerable sense that CBS would seek to cash in Thursdays, a night where networks have long relied on last-minute movie marketing money — as well as other ad campaigns aimed at weekend shoppers — to maximize sales.

But that left “How I Met Your Mother” and “2 Broke Girls” as its Monday tentpoles, and the former was heading into the home stretch of its run. (Whether CBS’ discussions regarding a spinoff reflect a stroke of genius or desperation will have to be evaluated at a later date.)

“Girls,” however — which among other things failed to develop a top-flight supporting cast — simply wasn’t strong enough to hold up its end of the bargain. That will put “Mike & Molly” — and the appeal of its star Melissa McCarthy — to the test. Adding to the pressure, the latest addition to prolific producer Chuck Lorre’s quartet of CBS comedies, “Mom,” is actually pretty good — and always better when Allison Janney’s around, with her character getting ample screen time this week, as she reluctantly deals with menopause. So far, though, the new show has been mostly treading water ratings-wise, thanks to its so-so lead-in.

CBS is billing “Mike & Molly,” as “new,” since McCarthy’s character abruptly quits her teaching job and decides she wants to become a writer. It’s pleasant enough, with some genuinely funny moments, while adding a semi-serialized aspect that “Mom” shares. That said, it’s hard to imagine a mild direction change will bring in droves of viewers, even if there’s a good possibility of improving on “2 Broke Girls'” numbers.

CBS thus finds itself in an interesting predicament. The network would be crazy to retreat from the presence it has established Thursdays, with feeble sitcom competition from NBC. Yet that Thursday presence may come at the expense of being able to sustain a two-hour sitcom block Mondays, which gets down to one of those cost-benefit analyses that force people to actually pay attention to what minions in the research, sales and accounting departments have to say.

The lesson of “2 Broke Girls” is, perhaps, that viewers exhibit less patience than they did in the past. In the good old days, if you established a comedy hit it could often coast along on habit and goodwill until you reached five years and syndication. Here, a sort of nagging mediocrity (identified by critics faster than viewers) caught up with the show considerably faster.

Of course, CBS’ comedy challenge is all relative, but it’s hard to see “Two and a Half Men” hanging on too much longer, and “The Big Bang Theory’s” in-demand stars won’t be getting any less expensive. In that regard, CBS could find itself in the situation NBC faced back in its “Must-See TV” heyday — hanging on to its biggest hits while the clock ticks on coming up with something capable of carrying on.

CBS still has some time to find that show, but this much seems clear: Having once been viewed as the heir apparent for the job, “2 Broke Girls” looks too poor to qualify.

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