Over the past decade, the sitcom has been overhauled, modernized and, above all else, energized. Sure, Mike and Molly still exists, but there are many other shows that are helping transform the genre. For all that innovation, though, the major networks are still committed to preserving the multicamera sitcom, filmed on a soundstage in front of a live studio audience.
In case anyone reading is unfamiliar with this format, a quick explanation: since the ‘50s, most sitcoms are staged like plays, with the actors performing on a set in front of couple hundred willing spectators. To keep things dynamic and allow the directors and editors to pick up the action from different angles, the shows are filmed using three cameras running simultaneously. Most of the sitcoms regularly landing great ratings right now are handled in this manner.
It’s an understandable decision. Beyond the familiarity of it all, making TV shows this way makes financial sense. It’s often much more cost-effective to build out the interior of a house or coffee shop on a soundstage than it would be to haul the entire cast and crew to a location requiring multiple setups and the possibility of extenuating circumstances (weather, unruly bystanders) causing production problems..
Yet, there’s a reason this format was called “comfort comedy” by longtime TV producer and Spin City creator Bill Lawrence. There’s a formula to it: a conflict between two or more of the characters on the show gets hashed out and resolved over the course of 22 minutes, while a second, often-unrelated plot runs parallel to it. It becomes comfortable because we get to see the same people week after week and either relate to their plight or feel superior to them because we’re so much more emotionally mature. But over the course of 20+ episodes each season, it runs the risk of turning the show into something mechanical and wholly unremarkable.
What the suits that run these networks might not realize is that it doesn’t take much to break out of that sitcom rut. How I Met Your Mother messed with the otherwise forward momentum of a traditional half-hour, employing flashbacks, flash-forwards and sprinkling Easter eggs throughout for eagle-eyed viewers. Seinfeld, of course, dared to craft entire episodes that took place solely in a parking garage or in the waiting area for a Chinese restaurant, and rarely resolved in a way that made us feel better about life. And It’s Garry Shandling’s Show went out of its way to show the artifice of it all. A little tweak to the template here and there and your sitcom could become buzzworthy.
That’s why I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about NBC’s Undateable, which starts its second season tonight. At its core, it sticks to the road most traveled: most of its scenes take place in an open, well-lit bar, giving plenty of space for its five male and one female protagonists to verbally (and sometimes physically) spar as they attempt to deal with all manner of romantic trials. It’s all well-meaning, warm and fuzzy stuff, but stick with the show long enough and the innate strangeness of the show floats more and more to the surface.
Much of that eccentricity comes by way of the actors. The show’s cast is made up almost entirely of stand up comics—Chris D’Elia, Brent Morin, Rick Glassman and Ron Funches—with the only wild card being the charming Brit, David Fynn. They all attack each episode as if they were a world class improv troupe and the plots were merely suggestions from the audience. Almost every big scene in the show has a slightly off-kilter energy to it, and the actors often spin their lines in surprising ways. So surprising at times that you can occasionally see other cast members getting ready to break up laughing.
A great example is this immensely ridiculous scene between Morin’s character Justin and his housemate and friend Danny (played by D’Elia). It’s a silly conceit with the former trying to extract the information about an apparently potent sexual “move” that turns transcendent as Danny insists that his friend address the “move” not only respectfully but in an Italian accent. There’s a decent chance that all of this was laid out in the script, but I would not be surprised if it all came to D’Elia seconds before the director yelled, “Action!”
Undateable also enjoys letting its actors be themselves, or at least bring out the amplified versions of themselves that they often present onstage. As he does during his standup gigs, D’Elia employs his rubbery physicality to great comedic effect, as in his pseudo-Mortal Kombat showdown with his angry pot dealing neighbor (played by fellow comic Rory Scovel). The producers are also apparently open to improv on the show, and that seems to come often by way of D’Elia and their secret weapon, Funches. The burly comedian uses the same laconic, blunted delivery that he does in his standup act and it gives such a weird zing to every line. And as this little tidbit from the show’s blooper reel proves, he and his castmates are allowed to get playful with the script.
There’s also something delightful about the way the producers and writers keep working Morin’s incredible singing voice into the series. It’s a weird choice but it’s one that fits in well with his naive character. I imagine Justin as someone who never grew out of his tween years, when breaking into a chorus of “I Want It That Way,” apropos of nothing, was a common activity. Season two should bring even more singing into the mix what with the introduction of former kid star and pop singer Bridgit Mendler into the cast.
I still can’t figure out what NBC’s plans for Undateable are at this point. Executives there felt comfortable enough with the show to toss it in the mid-season schedule starting this week, but they haven’t been doing the full court press of promotion that so many other shows receive. And, frankly, they could use all the weirdness i\n their schedule that they can get. With Parks & Recreation completed, Community moving to Yahoo and the silly decision to punt Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt over to Netflix, NBC’s comedy programming is fairly unadventurous and trying, as network shows often to, to replicate the success of other, better-known programs. Undateable isn’t trailblazing television, but it is trying to shake things up in small and surreal ways. And if it helps nudge NBC towards considering airing even more adventurous programming, all the more reason to welcome it to the airwaves this week.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.