'The Office': off the beaten (laugh) track
The Office (NBC Photo: Justin Lubin)
March 17, 2005
A week from today, NBC will debut the best new comedy to appear on a major broadcast network in, oh, about two years. "The Office" - based on the BBC hit of the same name - is funny, brilliantly cast, well written, original and accessible in a way that TV's most precocious comedy, Fox's "Arrested Development," isn't always.
Some critics will be rhapsodic, and all those dire ruminations about the sitcom - as in "dead and buried" - will be retired, at least for a few days.
And here, by way of a question, is the punch line: Will anybody watch?
It's not meant to be a cruel question, or a smarty-pants one. Seriously: Will people watch, or, for that matter, will you?
If not, too bad. But consider that "The Office," starring Steve Carell ("The Daily Show") as the boorish, dim-bulbed manager of a paper-supply firm in Scranton, Pa., is what's called a single-camera comedy.
"Single camera" - think "no studio audience or laugh track" - is just about the hardest mountain to scale in series television, partly because the networks have spent the past 50 years training audiences to watch multicamera shows, with their predictable rhythms, beats and canned laugh lines.
As a result, most single-camera shows belly flop, although when they don't ("Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "Malcolm in the Middle") the results can be quite satisfying.
So NBC, and its new entertainment chief, Kevin Reilly, will give "The Office" a whirl. (After a 9:30 p.m. preview next Thursday, it moves to its regular slot, Tuesday at 9:30, March 29.) But they're not stopping here. This morning in Burbank, NBC will hold its annual prime-time development meeting, when advertisers get to see the potential Edsels alongside the potential Caddies. The network has at least 19 sitcoms in the pipeline, many of which will never get on the air. However, that's nearly double the number that CBS has in its pipeline. And more than a third of these are single camera.
The single camera is on the ascendancy at NBC, and now - armed with an expertise in this subject - you may be wondering, is NBC nuts?
Well, yeah - sure! - but maybe "nuts" in the best sense of the word.
Bob Gumer, a partner with Kaplan Stahler Gumer Braun Agency, a leading Beverly Hills firm that represents TV writers, explains: "All of the networks realize that what has been going on the air hasn't been working, and I know Kevin has a history of trying to shake things up and make a little bit of noise. He's trying to diversify the portfolio and put different things into development, because no comedy really has worked in the last few years, except for [CBS'] 'Two and Half Men.'"
All that's needed to realize we are in the midst of a terrible stretch for the sitcom is a TV set and the slightest bit of discriminating taste. The sitcom, says Brad Adgate, research chief for the New York-based media buying firm, Horizon Media, "won't go the way of variety shows or westerns, but if a show like 'Arrested Development' can't find a [big] audience, then that doesn't bode well for the genre."
The ongoing nightmare has been especially brutal on NBC - which may be one reason the network shook up its top development team Monday, ostensibly to make the network more receptive to fresh ideas. "Father of the Pride" was a near-catastrophic failure, while "Friends" sub "Joey" has been merely an OK Nielsen performer. Even the single-camera "Scrubs" is fading.
In simple arithmetic, this means NBC could end the season in fourth place among viewers aged 18 to 49 after finishing last year in first. The result is that NBC now finds itself in the midst of a "rebuilding process."
Freshman boss Reilly is a smart guy who knows that most young viewers find the typical multicamera sitcom about as potable as swamp water. Meanwhile, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" is essentially a single-camera comedy writ large, which has given the whole genre a nice boost.
So NBC has gone offbeat and single camera. What's in the pipeline? Well, there's one show called "American Lives," with actors who pretend to be reporters, and another with Morris Chestnut ("Boyz n the Hood") titled "Dante," based on a Budweiser ad. There's also "NoTORIous," about Tori Spelling's life, post-"Beverly Hills 90210." "SNL's" Tina Fey has a single-camera comedy about a cable news network. Another one, titled "The Weekend" echoes "Housewives" (three families on a cul-de-sac.) And not to worry, all you multicamera fanatics. This form will be well represented, too, by: "Loved Ones (and Other People We Hate)," about families, and "Confessions of a Dog" (about a guy who acts like a pig).
By the way, most of these shows will be produced by NBC Universal Television Studios, which commonly goes by the acronym NUTS. A coincidence? You will be the judge.