July 26, 2005

In the good old days, New York Times critics were never this clueless

"'Friends' did not have an obvious precedent when it made its debut in 1994; neither did 'Roseanne.'" — The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley dissing today's TV sitcoms, which "can be neatly summed up as hybrids of past hits," while "past breakthrough comedies do not fit any such mold."

Quick! To the Wayback Machine!

"Friends" on NBC, is one of this season's trendy young-urban-single comedies that are trying to duplicate the success of "Seinfeld," and "Ellen." —Chicago Sun-Times, September 2, 1994

Two years ago, comedies were imitating "Seinfeld." This season they are imitating "Ellen" (formerly "These Friends of Mine"), which itself is an imitation of "Seinfeld." This is an illustration of the carbon copy school of programing, in which each imitation gets weaker, until the next new idea comes along to steal. --Newsday, September 5, 1994

Like ABC's "Ellen," it's a "Seinfeld" wanna-be, but without a Jerry Seinfeld - or Ellen Degeneres, for that matter -- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 11, 1994

Don't we have enough friends on television in shows like "Seinfeld," "Ellen" and "Mad About You"? — Buffalo News (New York), September 11, 1994

The new ''Seinfeld'' wannabe — The Houston Chronicle, September 22, 1994,

Look what Seinfeld hath wrought: Yet another ensemble comedy built around young people trying to find their way in the world. —Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada), September 22, 1994,

Oh, no, you might well moan, not another group of pals sitting around whining and nursing their anxieties, getting up once in a while to test the passing Zeitgeist — The New York Times, September 29, 1994

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about Roseanne? She's right about Roseanne, isn't she? Um...

Barr's comedic bite is fast and refreshing, she's sort of a female Ralph Kramden for the 1980s. —The Toronto Star, October 9, 1988

To Ms. Barr's way of thinking, her show will be a New Wave ''Honeymooners'' —The New York Times, October 16, 1988

A blue-collar barrage of snappy rejoinders that tries to fall somewhere between "All in the Family" and Fox Broadcasting's "Married . . . with Children." —Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1988

A kind of feminist, working-class ''All in the Family.'' —The New York Times, October 30, 1988

"Hey, it's real, real revolutionary, huh?" sneers Barr, who fondly remembers a series called "The Honeymooners." The television press has swooned, but this critical mass thinks "The Cosby Show" reshaped the medium by recasting "Father Knows Best" with black people. —Newsweek, October 31, 1988

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I don't care that much about this, but I'll take up the devil's advocate position and defend the 'Roseanne' one. Note that the quotes about 'Friends' have to do with the show jumping on a bandwagon created by other shows that were still on the air. The 'Roseanne' ones are all standard attempts to describe it by comparing it to other, decades-old shows, something that will happen to a new show no matter how fresh or innovative a show is.

And while 'Roseanne' certainly owed a small debt to 'The Honeymooners' and more to 'All in the Family' (the 'Married with Children' cite is bogus - the texture of the latter was more vaudeville than sitcom), that's of an entirely different order than the carbon-copy similarity of 'Friends' to 'Ellen' and the other trendy young-yuppie ensemble sitcoms it was aping. Thus I would say this post immediately runs off the rails after "Yeah yeah yeah."

Hey, Devil, read the Times article. She's not complaining just about carbon-copies of recent shows, she objects to the whole idea of mixing and matching previously proven formulas, citing, as examples, "Golden Girls meets Gunsmoke" and "Cheers meets Northern Exposure," all shows that are decades old.

It's true that the critics quoted here were generally harshing on Friends and praising Roseanne, but that's irrelevent to Stanley's point, which is that neither show had "an obvious precedent," when clearly both had several. (Also, while you may personally disagree with the Married with Children cite, a number of critics at the time made it, possibly out of laziness).

(Also, while you may personally disagree with the Married with Children cite, a number of critics at the time made it, possibly out of laziness).

This gets directly to my point, which I stand by having (now) read the article: Critics always do this when describing new shows - as do, I suppose, the people pitching them to network producers. It's just like those Rolling Stone reviews that strive to come up with new verbiage to say a band's sound is a cross between this referrent and that referrent. Partially it's laziness and partially it's because that's the kind of description readers expect.

That practice, I'm saying, is of a different order than pointing out that a show is part of a bandwagon-jumping current trend. And whatever critics may have said, the key thing is that Roseanne was a new and different kind of show - I remember being surprised by this upon tuning in to the first one (only because John Goodman, who I had just seen in True Stories, was in it) and coming across something with a whole new tone, a new texture, to it than anything I'd seen before. The fact that its pitch, or its reviews, might have used the shorthand of "A meets B" doesn't detract from that.

What Stanley appears to be complaining about is not so much that there are no good sitcoms out there, but that the process used by NBC seems ill-designed to ever lead to any good new sitcoms. The fact that you see "Roseanne" as being a unique show does not mean that it had no "obvious precedent." It did, as did "Friends" and "Frasier." And even "Seinfeld," which had less of a precedent. But it only got on the air as a special; it didn't go through the regular pitch process. (The truly unprecedented shows tend to be the ones that are canceled after two weeks because the audience just doesn't get them.) All these shows (and pretty much any other sitcom) can be "neatly summed up as hybrids of past hits," at least in the pitch process.

Stanley has a better point in the closing paragraphs about the executives making their decisions without reading the scripts, but she undercuts it by implying the problem is the execs looking for simple descriptions in their pitches.

What's less understandable is why a woman who supposedly inserts all sorts of obscure references into her articles didn't mention either the opening scene of "The Player" (which mocks the same pitch process in Hollywood) or Dennis Leary's "Contest Searchlight" parody on Comedy Central.

I think it's because Alessandra Stanley is basically an idiot. (So is Virginia Heffernan, who writes most of the other Times TV reviews.)
The real problem is not that the process usually doesn't lead to original shows; it's that the process usually doesn't lead to funny shows. In the long run, having funny shows is what will save NBC, regardless of whether those shows start as original ideas or blatant rip-offs of other shows.

"Roseanne" was just the rich man's "Mama's Family."

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