If you browse around the internet or really any entertainment focused publication, chances are somewhere you’ll see the declaration that we are currently experiencing a “golden age” of Television. The storytelling on the small screen is getting more and more ambitious while production values continue to rise, the result being that the line between film and TV is getting blurrier by the day. With this rise in overall quality, comes a rise in expectations. We as viewers are demanding more from what we see on TV, so new shows have to work tremendously hard to break out from the increasingly crowded pack. That’s why we’re seeing unique shows like The Last Man On Earth and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt trying to do something brand new in order to get audiences to tune in. This is undeniably a good thing for the TV world as a whole, and I’m by no means complaining about this trend, but this innovation could cause the demise of the classic sitcom that has reigned supreme for decades.
Think of the great TV comedies. Shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, or Friends, and even more modern stuff like How I Met Your Mother. Multi-camera sitcoms, like those I listed above or the countless other greats like them, are a big part of TV history, and are still huge components of modern day pop-culture despite not making up a lot of the current comedy landscape outside of CBS*. Would these shows succeed today, given the push to be “Different” and “Innovative”? Probably. After all, there’s a reason they are all regarded as classics today. The more interesting question is what would happen to a show that tried to emulate the format and style of those programs.
Enter NBC’s Undateable. (Yes, the one with the weird posters and the guy with long hair from Whitney.)
Undateable is, as much as any show currently on the air, the long lost son of the great TV sitcoms of previous eras: Its effortlessly charming and consistently funny. The show’s premise and storyline are all but irrelevant, their only real purpose is to get a group of people in the same room at the same time and give them something joke around about. Undateable’s core group of performers work, not only individually, but as an ensemble. The show probably won’t ever win any awards, nor will it ever rise to the level of the all-time-greats I’m comparing it to, but Undateable is carrying the torch for a genre of comedy that the rest of TV is running away from as fast as it possibly can.
Before I get to that though, let’s take a quick step back. What the heck is a multi-camera (Or Multi-cam) comedy, anyway? Well, the answer has a lot to do with how a show is filmed and produced. Multi-cams (Like Undateable or Friends) are filmed like a stage play in front of live audiences, whereas singe camera comedies (Like Community or 30 Rock) are filmed more like movies. The easiest way to identify one is a laugh track, something that has been around TV for ages. If you hear people laughing who aren’t in the room with you, odds are you’re watching a multi cam, or you have a really loud neighbor.
Historically, multi-cams have been successful due to the format’s mass appeal, because the jokes are more “accessible” or traditional than the layered, more subtle, humor of shows like Arrested Development or Community. That’s not to say one format is better than the other, but that the audience for shows like The Big Bang Theory is historically much larger than the audience for shows like 30 Rock.
Got all that? Awesome. As I always say, the more useless knowledge a person has about TV production formats, the better!
So what does this all have to do with Undateable? Well, everything really. Undateable is a part NBC’s attempt to transition from the single camera comedies it’s been known for in recent years, to the more commercially successful, but less critically acclaimed, multi-camera shows. While almost every single one of the network’s attempts have failed (remember Guys With Kids? No? How About Are You There Chelsea? Still Nothing?), Undateable is currently on it’s second season and looks likely to earn a third (and become NBC’s longest running comedy in the process). All this from a show with no real star power that premiered with little promotion last summer. Undateable’s unlikely success comes down to one thing: The show’s understanding of the multi-camera format.
Undateable takes advantage the multi-camera format as much as any show on the air right now. At times, due to the staging and performances, the show can feel much more like a improv sketch than an actual TV show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Actors are constantly smiling and a lot of the dialogue seems to be made up on the spot, giving the audience the feeling they’re watching this play out in real time, rather than watching a scene that has already been scripted. The show is more concerned with getting to the punchline than character development or moving the plot forward. Basically, their goal is to make you laugh, plain and simple, everything else comes second. Take this clip for example, from Undateable‘s first episode back this year. This episode aired right after The Voice, one the of the most-watched shows on TV, and was a huge opportunity for the show to increase its fan base. What did they do to make a good impression? Well they crafted an entire episode built towards this moment, which they proceed to let play out for over four minutes in all of its ridiculous glory.
The other thing that is highlighted in this clip, that is probably the biggest asset Undateable has going for it, is the show’s ensemble cast. Getting a cast that plays well off each other and has comedic chemistry is something that can make or break a sitcom. Undateable’s cast might not be the best actors on TV, but they might be the best comedic cast, top to bottom, on the big four networks (NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC). The cast is made up of almost entirely stand up comics, all of whom know how to perform for live audiences and play off each other during a scene. That’s part of the reason the show feels more like an improv sketch than TV show, because that’s the world where the cast comes from. Take the show’s co-leads, Chris D’Elia and Brent Morin, for example. Both are very funny stand ups, and they have an undeniable chemistry on screen. This scene, where Justin (Morin) asks Danny (D’Elia) for his patented bedroom “Move”, quickly evolves (or devolves, depending on your perspective on fun) into silly Italian accents and hand gestures, because that’s just how the world of Undateable works.
It’s stupid, I know. I don’t think anyone will try to argue it’s not. But, there is an underlying charm and sense of comfort within the wacky world of Undateable. It’s about this group of weirdos that hang out at a bar and do strange things (Like SLOW MOTION CELEBRATIONS or CREATING FAKE FRIENDS or THIS or THAT). The sheer ridiculousness of the world is part of what makes it so undeniably charming, and though the show might not be as sharp as the great comedies of old, it carries that sense of home and comfort that made them so special.
I wrote extensively on this topic HERE, but to put it simply: Where good sitcoms succeed, at least in my personal opinion, is when they can create a world that’s inviting and comforting to the viewer. If the audience, no matter what else is happening in their own lives, looks forward to jumping back into the world of the show and spending time with its characters, that’s a sign that the show has created something that people want to see. Cheers is the quintessential example of this concept, and Friends owes a lot of its success to this idea as well. Seinfeld took this idea and ran with it, creating a world that was a little darker and more cynical than that of Cheers or Friends, but still hinged on the fact that audiences wanted to spend time in that universe and with the characters inside it. Why else would we tune in and watch a show about nothing week after week? How I Met Your Mother also has this concept deeply engrained in the show’s DNA, although initially they disguised it behind the storytelling twist of Ted telling the story from the future, in order to truly hook audiences.
Undateable doesn’t have that hook, that attention grabbing twist that differentiates it from the pack. Which is why the show doesn’t receive the online buzz or critical acclaim enjoyed by plenty of other deserving comedies on TV today, and probably why you’ve never thought about tuning in. Its the type show that takes pride in the fact that its basic premise can be described a simply as “A group of lovable weirdos hang out at a bar.” Its the kind of show that would rather spend time letting actors do ridiculous Italian accents or act out a court room scene using pretzels and water glasses than do pretty much anything else. In the era of new shows going to extreme lengths to be different, to stand out from the crowd (I’m looking at you, whatever the heck the premise of The Comedians is supposed to be), there’s something commendable about doing things the way they’ve always been done, and by doing that Undateable is single handedly keeping the tradition of the classic multi-camera sitcom alive.
Undateable isn’t the best show on TV. It isn’t the most groundbreaking, most popular, or best written or acted. The show probably won’t ever win an Emmy for best comedy series, or ever receive the acclaim that its predecessors did. But, Undateable makes me laugh as hard as any show on TV right now, and that’s all that they really wanted to accomplish in the first place.
Season 2 Of Undateable Airs Tuesdays at 9 PM on NBC after The Voice.
*For the record, I tend to think that CBS’s comedy slate in general is painfully unfunny, and wastes a lot of good comedic talent in the process. Those shows are part of the reason that Multi-cams have gotten the cold shoulder from TV critics recently, they’re more of a boring chore to sit through, which as I said a lot in this piece is the exact opposite what makes a sitcom great. There are exceptions, of course. I haven’t seen a second of it myself, but I have heard good things about Mom. And while I definitely understand The Big Bang Theory‘s huge appeal, I just don’t think the show itself is all that funny.