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James Burrows Marks Directing Milestone as Sitcoms Lose ‘Must See’ Label

NBC is commemorating director James Burrows’ 1,000th episode with a two-hour tribute, which seems appropriate for a guy who added as many bricks as anyone to the edifice that was Must-See TV, working on shows like “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Will & Grace.” Yet given the multicamera sitcom’s current state, it’s hard to tell if recognizing this milestone is a celebration — or something closer to a wake.

While Burrows is deserving of the accolades, it’s hard not to see the special as a bit of pining for lost glory. Scheduled for Feb. 21, “Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows” will assemble all sorts of talent who passed through the director’s orbit — and not incidentally, moved into higher tax brackets — including the cast of “The Big Bang Theory,” which has become the last reigning titan of the network sitcom game, at least in its traditional form. And that show, inevitably, has reached the stage where there’s muttering and speculation about how long CBS can keep the gang together.

Burrows has remained extraordinarily prolific and in demand, especially in regard to pilots, where his imprimatur is as good a guarantee of winning a series order as exists in the sitcom world.

Nevertheless, the quality of the product bearing his name in recent years (see “The Millers,” or “Sean Saves the World”) hasn’t kept pace with those aforementioned classics — a failing that feels like a referendum on the current lot of multicamera comedies. Once TV’s most lucrative and commercially dominant genre, it’s a category whose shelf space has dwindled considerably from its peak in the 1990s. And while Burrows has a mantle’s worth of Emmys, more recently, most kudos have gone to single-camera fare.

“Once TV’s most lucrative and commercially dominant genre, multicamera comedy is a category whose shelf space has dwindled considerably from its peak in the 1990s.”
@blowryontv on Twitter

Nobody has really diagnosed the problem, although purveyors of the craft — among them “Big Bang” co-creator Chuck Lorre, an increasingly lonely beacon of multicamera success —have insisted the problem isn’t structural. If true, that suggests the deficiencies are a matter of poor execution and choices.

What does seem clear is that nobody has had an answer lately. Even CBS went with single-camera comedies this fall, while others have resorted to gimmicks to garner attention, such as NBC presenting “Undateable” live, or tried a more topical approach — in a throwback to Norman Lear’s heyday — with “The Carmichael Show.”

Netflix, meanwhile, dipped more directly into the way-back machine with its revival “Fuller House,” another instance of seeking to leverage nostalgia for a simpler time.

Certainly, single-camera comedies have contributed to TV’s creative renaissance, but most of the best possess a bittersweet quality, treating laughs as an afterthought. Given that, one would think there’s still room for shows that unabashedly put comedy first, in the “Seinfeld” “No hugging, no learning” mold.

Burrows possesses a renowned eye for talent — he’s the guy who famously took the entire “Friends” cast out just before the series premiered, telling them to brace themselves because their lives were about to change — but the defining aspect of his storied career is his ear. Specifically, the director is known for listening to scenes with his eyes closed, a habit he picked up from his father, playwright Abe Burrows.

“To me, it’s radio,” he explained during a 2009 round-table discussion organized by DGA Quarterly. “Any good script, any good sitcom, can be read on the radio and you’d get big laughs. So to me it’s about (hearing) those rhythms, and I’ve been doing it so long, I can.”

For Burrows, it’s a matter of style. For virtually everyone else with an investment, financial or merely emotional, in this uniquely American art form, it might be — barring a reversal of fortune this current development cycle — that they simply can’t bear to look.

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