What’s Happening to the Comfort Sitcom?
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Entertainment Weekly – Source
It may not be what you expect, but it’s true. While the television sitcom’s primary purpose has always been to entertain, it has overtime become one of the best ways to study a society’s history and evolution of pop culture. Because the typical format of a sitcom follows a family, group of friends, or workplace and whatever quirky adventures they may find in present-day American society, most of them just can’t avoid reflecting the atmosphere of whatever time in history they were produced.
I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show famously both depicted their central couples sleeping in separate beds; Mike and Carol Brady’s single-bed situation in The Brady Bunch indicated the cultural ease around sexuality as America slowly emerged from the lingering conservative values of the 50s. The relentless contentment of Cheers was born from the economic boom of 1982; Friends likewise emphasized the freedom and lifestyle of Gen X youth. All this considered, looking at trends in the traditional television sitcom is going to tell you a lot about what’s happening in culture at the time, bringing us to a current pressing issue—the slow fadeout of comfort comedy in media.
Comfort television is probably pretty easy for most people to define: it’s the kind of show that you might put on during dinner after a long day at work. Comfort television is light in subject, high in entertainment, and never requires too much attention to be work—for a while, it’s what pretty much all American sitcoms were.
One of the more recent and well-known comfort television staples was New Girl, the Zooey Deschanel-led Fox comedy about a quirky female teacher who accidentally moves in with three male roommates that started airing in 2011. New Girl struggled a little in finding its voice in its debut season, but eventually hit its stride when it started leaning less solely on Deschanel and giving equally delightful oddities to the rest of its ensemble cast. Jake Johnson played Jess’s romantic interest Nick Miller to be an eccentric financial disaster who was irresistibly quotable (‘out of context nick miller’ on Twitter currently has over 260,000 followers), and fans loved the relationship between him and Max Greenfield’s hilariously dramatic Schmidt (whose performance of the line “a—a white man!? NO!” became an instant internet legend). Accompanied by Lamorne Morris’s Winston—an endearingly weird prankster and cat enthusiast—the ensemble evolved to be instantly lovable, and their wacky adventures soon formed one of the most pleasantly zany corners of sitcom television.
Eugene and Dan Levy’s Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek was another recent comfort show centered around the Rose family, a group of Kardashian-esque socialites who move to the podunk town of Schitt’s Creek after losing their fortune. Similarly to New Girl, Schitt’s Creek involved the same cast of charming characters running into low-stakes but entertaining situations every week. From Daniel Levy’s neurotic David Rose to Catherine O’Hara’s iconic matriarch Moira Rose, it felt near impossible to pick a favorite member of the Rose family. Mining more deeply into its feel-good tone with every season, Schitt’s Creek gained the exact kind of value that New Girl had. It was a familiar place with consistently funny people, and it was the perfect watch for people who wanted to enjoy a gentle, no-stress half-hour of television.
Considering how popular both of these shows were, it’s a little shocking to realize that they have almost come to represent the last of a dying breed—ever since New Girl’s wrap-up in 2018 and Schitt’s Creek 2020 series finale, there have been no real recent replacements for the warm glow these two shows offered to television. This likely has a lot to do with the increased prominence of streaming—why bother to create new comfort television when people are able to consume long-concluded shows like The Office, Friends, and Gilmore Girls at their leisure? But the increasing dark edge to current sitcom storytelling might point to a larger movement in American culture.
The success of New Girl and Schitt’s Creek was both born from a period of Obama-era optimism
that, while not that long ago, was a jarringly different time. As America underwent the radical shift into the Trump presidency and then straight into a pandemic, the sitcom—historically, the very definition of comfort television—became sharper in tone. The world was rapidly becoming an unpredictable place that the internet connected everyone to more than ever, and an exhausted America began diving into either the soothing familiarity of a Netflix sitcom rewatch or into darkly witty satires that took shots at the current atmosphere for their comedy fix.
The controversial humor of Veep and Broad City flourished in the late 2010s. And as well-received comfort sitcoms like Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and One Day at a Time quietly withdrew from the air, long-enduring edgy comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia continued to thrive. Slowly but surely, the gentle tone of the comfort sitcom' faded from the public eye. And, with the exceptions of breakthroughs like Ted Lasso, no shows in this vein have really been able to achieve the mainstream status of Schitt’s Creek or New Girl since.
While this trend in sitcoms doesn’t necessarily draw any conclusions about current television’s overall quality, it is something that will likely help define this turbulent time period for future historians. And while the American people might not be willing to expend energy on seeking out any new comfort shows, the streaming numbers for New Girl and Schitt’s Creek prove that there is still merit in stories characterized by fun, low stakes, and human connection.
In a world where media often seems determined to show us more and more reason to be pessimistic, we can only hope that television watchers and creators recognize the need to support more warm and tender spaces where people can laugh with their favorite characters and forget their fatigue, if only for half an hour.