Monday, April 30, 2012

Ratings Race

Are NBC’s comedy ratings woes because its shows are now too racially diverse?
Does CBS have TV’s #1 comedies because it isn’t?

To find out, we need to look at the respective comedy lineups and the composite of their casts.

NBC Thursdays:
Community—This show has taken its name to heart: a white guy, two white girls, a black lady, a black guy, an Indian guy, an old white guy, a pan-sexual guy and an Asian guy. In other words: a community. And the show treats each of its characters with respect.

30 Rock—Four of the five main characters (Liz, Jack, Jenna and Kenneth) are white. Unfortunately, the fifth character, Tracey, is a buffoonish African American who is consistently crazy, so it’s a mixed bag on whether or not this is a good thing.

The Office—Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the cast reflects what I assume is a rather accurate picture of the local population—A lot of white people with an African American gentleman and a Hispanic fellow to round out the office.

Parks & Recreation—Set in the fictional Midwestern town of Pawnee, Indiana, the cast consists of two white ladies, a mixed race lady, a black lady, an Indian guy and five white dudes. For TV or Indiana, that’s pretty “diverse”.

CBS Mondays:
How I Met Your Mother—I love this show, but there’s no arguing that its principle actors are all white. Once in a while a guest, like Kal Penn, will add a little diversity, but it’s primarily a show about five white New Yorkers.

2 Broke Girls—I watched this show for one and a half episodes. Beyond the two white main actresses, there is more diversity in the cast—an Asian, an African-American and a Pseudo-Middle Eastern-ish guy—but the characters are grounded in lazy racial stereotypes that would be more offensive if I wasn’t already greatly offended by the hackneyed writing.

Two and a Half Men—Two and a half white men. If you add Charlie Sheen back into the mix it’d be three and a half. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—the show started off with the premise that a brother and his son moved in with his rich brother. But the producers definitely had an opportunity to cast a different sort of brother at Mr. Sheen’s departure.

Mike & Molly—I’ve never seen this show, but the previews often only feature the two main characters, both white. Looking online, it looks like Mike, a police officer, has an African American partner on the force.

But wait. Maybe the success or failure of these shows has nothing to do with diversity at all! Maybe it’s the writing. And the acting. Maybe the CBS shows are just funnier?

Perhaps. But funny in what way? Comedy is subjective. Are we talking Louis CK funny or Larry the Cable Guy funny? Or both? Or neither?

Let’s explore:
Of the CBS shows, How I Met Your Mother is the most unconventional. It’s very much a character-driven romantic comedy at its core, but one that will play with flashbacks, gimmicks and all sorts of unique narrative structures. The other three shows, however, are pretty straightforward, meat-and-potatoes comedies with a clear set-up/punch line structure that’s easy for the casual viewer to follow, but Two and a Half Men is clearly the highest rated of all of the shows. If we look at that show as the benchmark, then we can assume that most viewers want a familiar structure with familiar characters that tell easy jokes that are sometimes a bit crass.

Of the NBC shows, The Office, which happens to be the most popular, and its spin-off, Parks & Recreation, are the two most conventional. They are shows that average Americans can relate to because, hey, who doesn’t have to work at a job or deal with government bureaucracy from time to time? 30 Rock started off as the story of a woman who tried to keep order in a crazy situation, but the show has devolved into farce and slapstick, which should actually make it MORE popular, but which has dropped it to the ratings basement. The show also currently has a plotline involving a woman marrying a man who dresses exactly like her—not the most conventional sitcom premise. Community is one of the most daring shows on TV, but it requires more of a commitment week to week to follow the larger story—it’s more like a drama than a typical comedy.

So what’s the verdict? Does having a more diverse cast matter? Or is it the subject matter of the jokes that matters most?

I suspect that a majority of viewers want shows they can relate to, which means characters and situations they can relate to. CBS offers up stories of people trying to find love, girls struggling find good paying jobs, men trying to raise boys and two overweight people living a happy life. NBC offers stories of community college students finding their ways in the world, office and government workers struggling to find humanity in the machine and a TV executive trying to deal with show business egos.

So depending on where you fall in the spectrum, maybe it’s a little of both.