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PopEntertainment.com > Miscellaneous > Features A to E > Are Sitcoms Dying?

Are Sitcoms Dying?

by Jay S. Jacobs

NOTE FROM APRIL 4, 2011

 

We have updated this story periodically over the years since it was first written in 2000.  And honestly, we have been discussing doing an update for years now - but an amazing thing happened.  The problem is simply no longer completely relevant anymore.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of the sitcom's demise has been greatly exaggerated.  It turns out, quietly, the art of the sitcom has been revived on television. 

 

Starting in about 2006 or 2007, about the time we first started discussing updating the page again, a group of well-written and imagined sitcoms started gaining traction on television.  Titles like 30 Rock, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Entourage, Parks & Recreation, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and even Two and a Half Men have reinvigorated that sitcom as an art form.  Sure, there are still bad sitcoms out there, but the wonderful fact is that they no longer dominate the television landscape. 

 

Therefore we leave this story as it is, not necessarily as a current concern as much as a reminder and cautionary tale of how close we came to losing a vital and necessary television staple.  We are only a decade removed from A Guy, A Girl and a Pizza Place.  Those who forget bad sitcoms are doomed to relive them.

 

REVISION FOR THE 2003-2004 SEASON!

The situation comedy has been one of the great building blocks of television since the days after RCA stole the invention from true creator Philo Farnsworth.  Sitcoms even predated that, taking flight on radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly and Our Miss Brooks. 

In the year 2004, television drama has been at a record high level of quality.   Consider this, in the last five years you have had the chance to watch stimulating, intelligent fare like Law & Order, Once & Again, The Sopranos, Homicide: Life on the Street, Ed, Six Feet Under, NYPD Blue, Queer as Folk, Freaks & Geeks, High Incident and so many more. 

In these same five years, though, as drama has reached for the stars, the comedy is stuck in the gutter.  The 90s had been perhaps the greatest decade for the art form (even better than the 70s which were rightly lauded for All In the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, Sanford & Son and others.)  But the situation comedy has always been a notoriously up and down art form, remember as those landmark series were running we also had the likes of Laverne & Shirley, What's Happening? and Three's Company.

At about the time that Jerry Seinfeld decided he'd had enough and the world was being inundated by Friends clones (remember The Single Guy, Veronica's Closet, Union Square, Two Guys A Girl & A Pizza Place, etc.) an amazing thing happened.   The good shows, which have always balanced out the bad, were nowhere to be found.   In 1999, there were exactly four good sitcoms released all year.  In 2000, maybe one.  2001 was a bit of a rebound, with two or three.  There was not a single show that I could call good that came out in 2002, though I guess one or two were okay.  In 2003 again, you have to strain to find two.

So before the situation comedy goes the way of the western or the variety show, let’s take a look at some of the mistakes out there and see if the networks can find their way again. 

Best sitcoms on TV.  The sad thing is how hard it was to find five TV situation comedies that fit this category.  Five to ten years ago there would have been double, maybe triple that number.  But these shows give us faith that the art form can still be an intelligent, vibrant, viable source of entertainment.

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Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS) - The ultimate dysfunctional family comedy on TV (sorry, Malcolm In the Middle, you're more in-the-face but you've got a way to go to reach these heights).  Based on the standup comedy of Ray Romano, who plays Ray Barone, a New York sportswriter who lives with his wife (Patricia Heaton) and family in a house across the street from his squabbling parents (Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts) and brother (Brad Garrett).  Romano is very funny, but he's essentially just the straight man, the one that the insanity swirls around.  Heaton deserves the accolades she gets as wife Debra, who is constantly trying to balance the love she feels for her husband with the anger and contempt he brings out in her.  Boyle and Roberts are great as Ray's parents, who long ago let go of any mirage that love, or even like, plays a part in a marriage... and yet as much as they protest they hate each other they could never live apart.  The wild card though is Garrett as brother Robert, a gruff, self-doubting giant of a cop who envies Ray's life. 
The Simpsons (Fox) - A decade into the run of one of the funniest shows on TV history, it isn't as good as it once was but still is better than most shows on television.  Being a cartoon frees The Simpsons to do things that most comedies never could do.  The Simpsons is actually the most pointed satire on suburban life ever to grace the tube.  Everything is fair game for the crack staff of writers.  No sacred horse of suburbia is left standing.  But most importantly it is often laugh-out-loud funny.

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Sex & the City (HBO) - This show about four Gotham single women has grown and matured well over the years and deserved the hit status it has attained.  Now as we are heading into the final episodes, the show has a sure comic rhythm.  Always a frank exploration of women's mating habits (although frankly sometimes the women's dialogue sounds more like that of gay men than women), as the show and characters have gone on they have found a terrific balance between comedy and relationships.  Instead of the search for meaningless sex that the show started out with, in this final season, the women have all hit a place that they are settling in.  Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is tiring of her messed up relationships and wants to give up, though frankly, she probably knows her soulmate is still Mr. Big (Chris Noth).  Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has now been married twice with a WASP doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) and a Jewish divorce attorney (Evan Handler).  Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is a mother and married longtime on-again off-again beau Steve.  Even the most promiscuous friend Samantha (Kim Catrall) has been showing signs of looking to settle down, first with a long-term relationship with her boss (James Remar) and now with a young model.  It does have some problems as a show… it suffers from more than a bit of reverse sexism and its view of New York life is far from accurate (how does a newspaper sex columnist afford such a great apartment on the Upper East Side?)  They also sort of ignored the whole World Trade Center tragedy that so changed New York life.  I can sort of understand that it is a hard subject to handle on a sitcom, but there was one "I Love New York" episode and otherwise it's as if nothing changed.  But Sex & the City is one of the best ensembles on TV and still a terrifically fun viewing experience.  It will be missed.

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Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) Larry David created Seinfeld and was the inspiration for the character of George Costanza. He is a funny man and for the most part, his first series as an actor as well as writer has a lot of low-key fun. The problem is that this show is sometime every bit as handcuffed by its premise as Three’s Company was stuck with the idea "there has to be a misunderstanding" years ago. Each episode is just a long series of Larry David going out into the world on some menial errand, doing something thoughtless and being yelled at by someone. That is funny in small doses, but by the time the third or fourth person tells David off, you’re thinking that no one, ever in the world, has been screamed at this often. It just becomes oppressive, in your face and not just a bit annoying. It's too bad, because otherwise this show is brilliant.  If David would tone down the screeching, this show could become as funny as Seinfeld.

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Will & Grace (NBC) - Will & Grace deserves the high-flying spot it has as the lynchpin in NBC's signature night.  The story is supposed to be about the relationship of a gay man (Eric McCormick) and his best friend, a straight woman (Debra Messing), and they are funny, but not as funny as their friends.  The true humor in this show mostly derives from Jack (Sean Hayes), a proudly flamboyant gay man and Karen (Megan Mullally), an alcoholic gold-digging trophy wife.  The show has an adept way with a punch line and truly understands popular culture.  The characters are mostly likable even when they don't do likable things.  The only problem is that the show throws in occasional clunkers, particularly in the 2002 -2003 season where rate of the misses got worrying.  It sometimes looks like the show may be at the precipice of jumping the shark (i.e. the Harry Connick Jr. wedding, Jack's son, etc.), but the series seems to have regained its footing this year.  So far, it always rights itself with a nasty crack from Karen or an inspired flourish from Jack. Will & Grace is still bright and humorous and wonderfully un-PC.
Almost there.  These shows don't quite make the grade for the top of the line.  For the most part they can't fly quite that high, but they do show glimmers of hope that they can be as good as any show on television.  They just need to get more of those moments.

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The King of Queens (CBS) - This show is very, very close to the upper echelon.  In fact, still as I write this I wonder if I couldn't fit this one more show into the list of the best.  Kevin James is wonderful as Doug, a hefty blue-collar worker who shares his home with his beautiful wife and her father.  Leah Remini is a revelation as wife Carrie, a beautiful girl from the hood who is trying to move up socially but still loves her husband... her previous work on Fired Up and Saved By the Bell barely hinted at what a savvy comedienne she is.  Jerry Stiller is a hoot as Carrie's father Arthur, essentially just a variation of his role of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, but no one does it better.  If this show tempers its need to do silly flashback episodes and concentrates on the relationships it may still be great.

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Scrubs (NBC) - By far the best comedy of the 2001 season.  Scrubs is funny, heartfelt, surreal and smart.  Made up of a mostly unknown cast, this is a great ensemble.  Sort of like ER if it were directed by the guys who made Airplane!, this study of young doctors learning their craft while being on the zero error curve of hospital life is both sidesplitting and surprisingly heartfelt.  Zach Braff is a real find as J.D., a young doctor who is as brilliant as he is unsure of himself.  His best friend is a cocky surgeon, Turk (Donald Faison).  Sarah Chalke (the other Becky on Roseanne) is fantastic as Elliott, a beautiful but neurotic intern, as is Judy Reyes as Carla, a nurse whose natural distrust of doctors is being thawed by a relationship with Turk.  The best reason to watch though is John C. McGinley as the angry, bitter but brilliant Dr. Cox.  Every once in a while the post-Ally McBeal fantasy scenes get a little tired, but otherwise Scrubs is the best evidence this season that comedy can still be done right on TV.

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Malcolm In the Middle (Fox) When it first hit the airwaves, people crowned Malcolm In the Middle as the new hope for the situation comedy... a show that breaks all the rules.  To a certain extent, that is true.  In recent years, while it has faded from the pop culture spotlight, the show has muddled on with all the good and bad points it always has had.  Malcolm In the Middle is a subversive little show, much like its Fox ancestor Married With Children.  It is constantly stretching the limits, questioning people's ideas of what makes a sitcom.  One thing that has not ever been mentioned though is that while the show is usually somewhat amusing it is almost never truly funny.  The writers seem to be so jazzed to be able to subvert the form it gets to the point that the viewer feels they are just being outrageous for effect.  It almost never pushes the storyline (plot is not a great priority in this series anyway...) and the outrageous situations are usually not incredibly hysterical.   Pushing the envelope can't take the place of writing jokes, look at Seinfeld, or even the aforementioned Married With Children to see examples of pioneering shows that were still dead funny.  Malcolm almost never hits those high wire moments.  Still, good characters like Jane Kazmarek's mother and Frankie Muniz in the title role make the show consistently worth watching.  It just needs to stop worrying about outrageous moments and instead write some good jokes.

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Prime Time Glick (Comedy Central) Like most things that Martin Short does, Prime Time Glick is wildly uneven. When it is good, it can be spectacularly funny. When it is bad, it can be appalling. And sadly, the good is only just slightly outweighing the bad. This show looks behind the scenes and in front of the camera of a talk show. In Jiminy Glick, Short has created a wonderfully funny, clueless character. His interviews with celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Rob Lowe are hilarious, as are Jiminy’s monologues. The show is also a hoot in the way it gets work for ex-SCTV stars Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas and Eugene Levy. But the constant need for cheap laughs, mostly deriving from Jiminy’s gluttony and clumsiness, an unfunny old lady in the audience (also played by Short) and his relationship with his wife Dixie (Jan Hooks) have all gotten more and more tiring as the series have gone on. For the second season, Short should just drop all the extraneous stuff and just take care of the basics... a half-hour parody of talk shows.  Then Prime Time Glick will capture the wider audience it so clearly wants.

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The Chris Isaak Show (Showtime) The Chris Isaak Show is not exactly a sitcom (for one thing, it’s almost an hour long.) But still, this show when the rock singer plays a highly fictionalized version of himself is as funny and quirky as any show on TV when it is on. Sadly, the show isn’t always hitting on all cylinders, and when it is bad it can be really bad. The best thing the show has going for it is of course, the likable star. Isaak is annoyingly handsome, but his low-key charm and his pretense of a total inability to start any relationship with women give him great heft as a character. Kristin Dattilo, who plays his manager, also has a wonderfully complex character, she is a beautiful woman who is completely in control in her business dealings but completely out of control in her personal life. Isaak’s band Silvertone (playing themselves), are also terrific fun, particularly drummer Kenney Dale Johnson who deserves to be a star from this too. A randy band member played by actor Jed Rees tends to be the weak link on the show, and all too often the show focuses on him. But when it sticks to its charming, quirky star, The Chris Isaak Show is fantastic entertainment.  The show will be going off the air after its third season (it was Isaak's choice, not Showtime's.)  The show still has enough comic juice that I'm really going to miss it.
Falling favorites Once terrific shows that are not quite the powerhouses they once were, but they still are worth checking out. Well, most of the time...

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Frasier (NBC) - Frasier was once one of the smartest, well-written shows on television.  But now it is comfortable, nice, but rarely challenging.  You watch because you essentially like these people and have known them for a long time.   They just don't have much to say anymore.  The resolution of the long term flirtation between Niles and Daphne seems to have sapped the show of what little surprise it had left.  Like most viewers, I was glad to see them finally get together, but once the two became a couple the characters, and thus the show, lost focus.  Now that the burning longing is gone Niles, always the show's secret weapon, has lost his raison d'etre, he has gained all he ever wanted and has little reason to be miserable anymore.  Too bad, it may be healthy for him as a man but it is death for him as a character.   Frasier tries to pick up the slack with his near constant episodes of dating humiliation, but there are only so many ways we can watch him get dumped before the audience thinks "been there, done that."  They brought back many of the original writers to try to pump up the final season of the show, but honestly it hasn't helped all that much.  When the show leaves the air after all these years in May, I think I won't be as devastated as I would have been if it went off four or five years ago.  Frasier's time has come.

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Friends (NBC) - Friends made a big comeback.  Ratings were plummeting and it was even getting regularly beaten by the silly reality show Survivor.   Since the tragedy of September 11th, viewers seem to want safer, more familiar programming.  Because of that, Friends has been on a roll.  So, the question is, does it deserve it?  Well, Friends is safe.  It is also familiar.  And it is genuinely, usually, kind of funny.   It's nowhere near as good as it was in its superlative first season, but then again it is much better than the show's nadir of a second season with all the Ross and Rachel hype.  The actors are to a man (or woman) incredibly likable.  Still, the show has become wildly predictable in recent years when it thinks it's being shocking (is there anyone in the world who didn't guess last season's cliffhanger... that, Rachel and Joey would not become a couple to leave open the possibility of her getting back with Ross.)  Besides, it's always a good sign when a sitcom starts having storylines about weddings and babies, isn't it?  Well, Friends is gearing up for its second wedding and second baby.  It's just as well this is the last year.
Almost lost causes - These shows were funny once upon a time.  How come they are so unwatchable now?  We'd like to think they still have the potential to turn it around and be good again.  The signs aren't good for it though.

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Drew Carey Show (ABC) - I do have to give the Drew Carey Show credit for one thing.  They are not afraid to take chances.  Live shows, improv, musical sequences, April Fools episodes, talking babies, talking zits... you don't see anything nearly like this anywhere else on TV.  But... and here's the rub... not a single one of these original ideas actually works.  They are certainly different, but they are not funny.  When the show started it was a very funny look at the mind-numbing boredom of the working world.  Over the years the show has become more and more bold and more willing to stretch boundaries, and as it has Carey has lost it's sense of humor.  In the Drew Carey Back To School Rock & Roll Special the show showed how cutting edge and relevant it was by having guest star Jenny McCarthy, musical guest Peter Frampton and they actually did parodies on a ten year old milk commercial (the one where the little girl tells a guy not to ignore her because she drinks milk and grows into a hot woman as a guy watchs) and a thirty year old "Schoolhouse Rock" (the bill one, but... get this, in order to pass a bill you have to get bribes from lobbyists... real cutting edge humor there.)  Unfortunately ABC put themselves in an awkward position, renewing the show for an unheard of three seasons right before the series' ratings tanked.  So now the show is in limbo, it's hardly ever on the air but it's not to my knowledge officially cancelled.  The show could still get back on track if it ever gets back on the air and reigns in its excesses and goes back to what it is best at, character comedy amongst working stiffs.  And, please Drew, no more musical productions, the first one (with the Vogue's "Five O'Clock World") was kind of cool but these have long ago turned old hat and now they just grind the show to a shuddering halt every single time. 
How did this ever get on the air?   I know there's a lot of jargon out there, but I think this subject is pretty self-explanatory.

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Yes Dear (CBS) Here's an idea.  Why don't you take four actors from remarkably unfunny sitcoms (or bad dramas) which were cancelled almost immediately (The Mike O'Malley Show, Boston Common, Jesse and Cold Feet) and put them all together on one show.  Mix in a few cute kids.  Stir half-heartedly. Sounds like a recipe for success. People will be lining up, right?  The show may last like five, six episodes. The most amazing thing is that through a fluke of a good timeslot (between The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond) this show has become a rather sizable hit.  In fact it's done so well that CBS farmed Queens out to Wednesday night and made Yes Dear the anchor show on Monday.  It still stinks, though.

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My Wife And Kids (ABC) - Damon Wayan's new series is trying so hard to be a new Cosby Show that Bill should be collecting residuals.  As a smart, professional (though he never seems to actually go to work) African-American father with a beautiful, hard-working wife and young precocious kids he more than occasionally likes to torture, Wayans has a subtle laid-back charm.  Too bad the jokes are so weak and the situations so clichéd that it makes a half-hour watching seem like eternity. 
The Rookie Class - New series that want to save us from mediocrity.  If only...

Two and A Half Men (CBS) - I had such high hopes for this show.  More than any other show this season, I loved the cast.  It had Charlie Sheen, hot off Spin City. Jon Cryer used to be terrific in movies and did years ago and he did an underrated sitcom with The Famous Teddy Z.  Marin Hinkle was so wonderful on Once & Again and Holland Taylor has been working steadily on TV since Bosom Buddies in the early 80s.  The clichéd storyline gave me pause, though, two bachelors raising a young boy... hmmm, where have I heard that before?  Sheen is brilliant in the show, proving his chops in situation comedy are no fluke.  However, otherwise it's all  pretty disappointing.  Cryer's uptight podiatrist is a much less interesting character, though, the writers really need to open him up a bit.  If Cryer is a little underused, what they have done to Hinkle is criminal.  She was cute, funny and neurotic as Sela Ward's little sister on Once & Again, but this show has sapped her of all her charm.  Playing Cryer's ex-wife, who may or may not have turned lesbian, Hinkle is made out to be frigid, angry, terminally uptight and even made up to be less attractive.  She's like Lilith from Frasier without any good lines.  The kid is way too precocious when he should be cute -- he's a Hollywood kid, not a real one.  The storylines are old and hackneyed.  With all the talent in front of the camera, I still hope the show will find its way.  But I doubt it. 

Arrested Development (Fox) - Despite all the great reviews it's gotten, it took a few weeks for this show to grow on me.  It seemed a little self-satisfied to me, more amusing than actually funny.  But the show hooked me, and now I can't get enough.  The show is about the Bluth Family, a rich but amazingly dysfunctional family that loses their fortune when the patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) is thrown in jail.  This starts a battle for power over the family business between the hurtful catty mother (Jessica Walter) and the level- headed oldest son, Michael (Jason Bateman).  Bateman tries to keep the family from imploding despite the fact that the family has a group of useless, selfish members, including a womanizing wannabe magician brother Gob (pronounced Job and played by Will Arnett), the spoiled daughter (Portia DiRossi) and her struggling actress husband (David Cross) and rebellious daughter (Alia Shawkat), the mama's boy youngest brother (Tony Hale) and Michael's son, who is also responsible, but feels very guilty that he has a crush on his cousin.  The storylines and jokes are so quirky and offbeat that I couldn't do them justice in this brief story, just believe me the show rewards regular viewing.  Just give it a chance to grow on you, and you will be a fan, too.  The ratings on the show are low, but word is Fox is going to stand by it and let it build a following.  Finally, a show getting a chance that really  deserves it. 

Coupling (NBC) - This highly touted Friends clone was based on a favorite British import show on the BBC about six gorgeous friends who essentially sleep with each and every friend of the opposite sex (and they hinted that at least one of the gals was interested in crossing the line on her own sex, too).  Using the original show not just as a model, but using the same scripts, it somehow just didn't translate over the pond.  It's smirking sex talk and shallower than shallow characters were startlingly misjudged, particularly for prime-time network TV.  All the bar-hopping and bed-hopping was surprisingly uninvolving, if these people don't care who they're sleeping with, why should we?  Coupling disappointed me the most because it was yet another attempt to jump-start the sitcom career of Rena Sofer, a spectacularly beautiful and rather funny actress who has been in some fine movies (Traffic, Keeping the Faith) and done stellar guest work in series (Ed, Seinfeld, Spin City, Friends), but every time she gets a shot as a series regular it is on crappy series like this, Oh Grow Up and the final season of Just Shoot Me!  Also misused was Sonya Walger, who also has had her own bad luck on series... playing Mike Binder's long-suffering wife in The Mind of the Married Man.  The other cast members, particularly the guys, made no real impression.  They were generically attractive and all horribly dull.  Coupling was a startling bust, getting horrible reviews and bad ratings before being cancelled after just four episodes.  

I'm With Her (ABC) - Sort of like Notting Hill without the pretentious British accents, funny dialogue and depth of feeling, I'm With Her is the story of a humble school teacher (David Sutliffe) who starts dating the biggest movie star in the world, Alex Young (Teri Polo).  Actually, co-creator Chris Henchy swears that the show isn't based on the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts big screen comedy, but instead on his own life being an average guy married to Brooke Shields.  And, frankly, that is the problem.  Not for a second do we believe that Alex is the biggest star in the world.  She seems, instead, more like a B-level actress along the lines of... oh, Brooke Shields.  It isn't Polo's fault, she's cute and charming in the role, though she doesn't get to touch on the level of acting she had previously shown on TV in her recurring role in Sports Night.  Maybe the problem is that they do a running gag of introducing the episodes with short vignettes of Alex acting in amazingly cheesy looking cheap productions.  She seems to be doing a different bad movie every week, which hardly seems like the schedule an A-List Hollywood star would have (it might actually take her several months to finish the leads in these films.)  Also, she is made to be so down-to-earth you know she's never been pampered and paid millions to act.  She even lives in a kind-of-nice upper middle class ranch house, not the kind of palace the biggest star in the world would live in.  So, the show has a major premise problem right off the bat.  Second dilemma with the idea... her love Patrick is a nice, kind of handsome but pretty bland guy.  So, no matter how much they try to convince us they work as a couple, we really don't understand what's in it for Alex.  However,  at least if these two aren't groundbreaking characters, they are nice and good people.  The same can't be said for the two main supporting roles.  Patrick's best friend (Danny Comden) is a single-minded, unrepentant and completely slimy horndog.  (And he's playing a high school teacher!  Parents, lock up your daughters!)  Alex' sister (Rhea Seehorn) is the exact same type of character, except that she's a woman, a little more cynical and not a teacher.  I would cross the street to avoid running into either of these two, why would I watch them on TV?

Whoopi (NBC) - Probably the only thing in the world more inexplicable than how Ted Danson's series Becker has lasted on TV for so many years is why someone, anyone, would make a series that seems to aspire to be Becker... just a few short months after that series was cancelled and then given a surprise reprieve.  Whoopi Goldberg, Danson's ex (hmm... I wonder what that means) plays Mavis Rae, a former one-hit wonder singer who now owns a run-down Manhattan hotel.  Mavis is liberal, aggressively opinionated and bullies all around her into her thoughts and beliefs.  She smokes, drinks, eats foods that are bad for her and she doesn't care.  She lives in her hotel with her brother... uh-oh get this for a complication... who is an African-American Republican!  And his girlfriend is a white girl who acts hip hop!  Finally throw in an Arab hotel clerk and you have an anti-PC grudge match.  Honestly, I have been sometimes pleasantly surprised by some of the jokes.  I don't hate Whoopi as much as I had expected to, but I don't particularly like it either.  It's occasionally funny, but more often it's something you've already seen, done much better.

Happy Family (NBC) - Another series I want to like a lot more than I do.  John Larroquette and Christine Baranski are consummate comedy pros, but they deserve better material than this.  Playing the Brennans, a long-married couple dealing with their eccentric grown children, the two give their all and the laughs do come, just not as freely or as often as you'd like or expect.  The problem, I think, is that the show feels that they have to bolster their young audience with their three children, all sort of cute but completely screwed up Generation X "types."  There is the one son (Jeff B. Davis) who works as a dentist in dad's practice, but who is completely commitment-phobic, very angry and just a little cowardly.  There is the slacker son (Tyler Francavilla) who won't get a job or move out of the house and who dates the divorcee next door who is twice his age.  Finally, the daughter (Melanie Paxson, the pixie from all those Glad commercials) is a smart businesswoman, but a complete washout in her personal life.  To pull in the young guys even more, they brought in Jaime Pressley in the middle of the season to play the dental hygienist for Dr. Brennan Sr. and Jr.  Pressley is cute and pretty funny, but the sexual tension they are trying to spark between her and Davis just isn't catching.  The story lines seem to meander, all variations on how overprotective the parents are of the kids at the same time that the kids embarrass their parents.  Everything about the how seems a little haphazard... the series is supposed to be set in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but the makers seem to have little knowledge of the actual city, for example they mention the children are going to the Chestnut Cabaret, a club that has been closed for about a decade.  I really want to like this show, but I can't quite make it.

A Minute With Stan Hooper (Fox) -  I hated Norm McDonald's last series, The Norm Show.  So, I am shocked, SHOCKED, that this show has by far has made me laugh harder than any show on TV in recent seasons.  Created by some of the minds behind Newhart, this show is almost an exact copy of that show, but the premise still works.  McDonald plays Hooper, a big city television commentator (essentially a younger, slightly edgier Charles Kuralt) who decides to chuck the rat race and buy a house in a small town.  Expecting a bucolic, folksy existence, he is instead sucked into a group of confounding eccentrics.  There is a gay couple that owns the local diner (Daniel Roebuck and Garret Dillahunt).  The house they bought comes with its own butler (Brian Howe), who won't leave although the Hoopers have told him they don't need a butler.  Eric Lively plays a local kid with dreams of cinematography and Reagan Dale Neis is his cute waitress girlfriend.  Funniest of all is Fred Willard as the millionaire that runs the town.  Willard mixes his normal slightly loopy character with a surprisingly angry and shrewd streak.  Even Penelope Ann Miller, an actress who has always rubbed me the wrong way, is wonderfully funny as Hooper's wife.  The two best new sitcoms on TV this season are on Fox.  Who'd have ever thought?  Sadly, A Minute with Stan Hooper's ratings were even worse than Arrested Development's.  Word is at this writing that the chance of the show coming back on the air are almost nil.  It's a shame.
The ones that got away - These shows were everything we are looking for in a sitcom, funny, smart, well-written and acted.  So how did they get cancelled when Two Guys & A Girl kept getting renewed?

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It’s Like, You Know… (ABC) - Quite simply, this was the funniest sitcom of the nineties that wasn't named SeinfeldIn fact, I would even go so far as to say that It's Like You Know... may have even been funnier.  Created by one of the geniuses behind Seinfeld, Peter Mehlman, It's Like, You Know...(despite it's silly title) was the smartest, funniest, bravest show on television.  It turned the same jaded eye of the old series on what is possibly the strangest city in the world, Los Angeles.  It's Like, You Know... took a look at young producers (Steven Eckholt), actresses (Jennifer Grey as herself in wonderfully funny post-modern casting), directors (A.J. Langer), writers (Chris Eigeman) and a rich trust fund heir (Evan Holder in the funniest character this side of George Costanza.)  But these artistic pursuits and pretentions were not the raison d'etre for the show, in fact these characters fully recognized how superficial their world is. It instead was a stinging and hilarious indictment of a city and a lifestyle.  The show could be whithering and yet was always humorous (while watching one of LA's regular high speed chases on TV, Langer suggests that the driver should have kidnapped someone so he could have used the carpool lane.)   The jokes respected the audience's intelligence to a point where the jokes could be even considered a little over some people's heads.  (They had a cameo by George Plimpton threatening Eigeman by saying "If you don't get out of town, Tama Janowitz is going to get barbaric on your ass.")   Smart, funny, with attractive characters.  A formula for success, right?  Okay, maybe it was a little too inside to play in Peoria, but I still don't know how this show didn't catch on like Seinfeld Each time I watch a new episode of My Wife And Kids or Yes Dear I mourn for the loss of this show. 

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Sports Night (ABC) - If you like The West Wing, then this show is the one that got away.  Created by West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night took a hard look at life on a TV cable sports broadcast.  A brilliant, theater-trained cast included Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), Felicity Huffman (Out of Order, Frasier) and Josh Charles (Threesome)The three leads spit out the spinetingling dialogue at the pace of a Noel Coward farce.  The supporting cast is also amazing, particularly Robert Guillaume as Isaac Jaffe, an aging executive, in a role that takes you totally by surprise after his previous work in shallower fare like BensonThe jokes come at you at a blitzkrieg pace, respecting the audience's intelligence and stimulating the heart.  The show was really not about sports per se, it was about relationships and the workplace.  Sports Night was written as well as any show ever on television.  Unfortunately, Sorkin's refusing to release any of the authority on writing both this show and The West Wing led to a bit of burn-out on his part, and when a chance came up of the show continuing on HBO or Showtime, Sorkin decided to refuse.  But you can still see what you missed on Comedy Central, which shows Sports Night in reruns, or on the DVD box set.

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Spin City (ABC) - When I originally wrote this article in 2000, I was as surprised as everyone to realize that Spin City was the best situation comedy on television.  Of course, that meant it would be cancelled later that season, because lord knows we can't have too much good comedy.  Always a well above average series with Michael J. Fox the great surprise was that when Fox retired Charlie Sheen was able to fill his shoes so ably.  Sheen was terrific as a sly parody of his image, but the real strength of this show had always been in the star's interaction with a wonderful ensemble.   Heather Locklear was the most visible of the group, and she is very good as a light comedienne, also a nice surprise after a long career in pot boiling dramas.  Barry Bostwick was superlative as the Mayor of New York, an absent-minded, somewhat elitist, and yet basically brilliant politician.  Alan Ruck was funny as a terminally sleazy office worker.  Michael Boatman took a potentially dangerous role of an uptight African-American homosexual and misses all the potential pitfalls.  Funniest of them all is Richard Kind as Paul, a cheap, angry, brown-noser.  Kind always seemed kind of weak in his previous big role in Mad About You, but with the strong writing he was a jewel.  Don't just believe me, check it out yourself in reruns and syndicationTo this day, you will not find better laughs in a show than you did in Spin City.

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The Job (ABC) - Denis Leary's quirky cop comedy was sort of like NYPD Blue with punchlines.  Not content with the normal sitcom rhythm of setup-joke-setup-joke, The Job was a strange bird in comedy, but all the more likable for it.  Leary's character was a complete scoundrel, he was an alcoholic, drug abuser, junk food junkie, chronic womanizer... and a cop.  The stories revolved around him and his equally degenerate fellow cops as they tried to to solve crimes and their complicated personal lives.  Much of the show was filmed on location and there was no laugh track, further making it seem more like a drama than a comedy.  But it was as amusing as any show on the air.

Welcome To New York (CBS) - This workplace sitcom came and went with a whimper a couple of seasons ago, but it was actually a very good workplace comedy.  Jim Gaffigan played a folksy weatherman from the heartland who got a plum job on a network news show in New York.  The good-tempered country boy was thrown into a sharks pool of hardened New York show biz-types, a tough as nails producer (the always reliable Christine Baranski from Cybill), a vain anchor (Rocky Carroll of Chicago Hope) and a jaded intern (Sara Gilbert from Roseanne.).  Well, this fish-out-of-water story has been done to death before, but Gaffigan found an interesting twist, because his character (named, strangely, Jim Gaffigan) was not just a stupid hayseed, he was actually as smart as the New York pros.  He also had a disarming charisma and charming naïveté.  Besides, any show savvy enough to hire Eric Bogosian to play a network executive deserved a better shot. 
Not horrible, but it was probably time for it to go... Shows that have been cancelled, and while they could be kind of interesting, the world isn't going to mourn their loss.

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Sabrina the Teenaged Witch (WB) - This show was for so long been saddled with the unfair write-off of just bring a "kiddie show" that most people didn’t even notice that for the first few years it was on the air, Sabrina was the freshest, smartest and hippest comedy on television. Well, okay, second to Seinfeld. The series lost some of its luster when it moved from ABC to the WB. The writing noticeably fell off, but the series could still pull off the odd gems. The show didn’t quite taken enough advantage of it's new college setting, but some of the new cast, particularly Soliel-Moon Frye as Roxie, were very likable. The final season, in which Sabrina graduated and went into the working world at a hip rock mag actually started off as a promising step back up in quality, but soon the show got mired in a stupid will-she-or-won't-she-get-married plot and a series that once was so good limped and wheezed into the finishing line.

Do Over (UPN) - I loved the idea of Do Over.  This show had one of the best premises in recent years, too bad they were so sloppy with it.  It was brilliant in its simplicity.  A man in his thirties who has a miserable life is able to go back to 1980 in high school to change everything in his life.  It's a brilliant premise, one that is ripe with opportunity.  Very often the show even lived up to its promise, it was humorous and quirky and touching.  Too bad that they kept constantly bugging me with a serial case of anachronism.  The show is supposed to take place in late 1980, and yet one of the characters is a girl who is trying to be Cyndi Lauper (who didn't start having hits until 1984), there are stories about going to Def Leppard's Pyromania tour (1983), jokes about Rick Springfield (who didn't start having hits until 1981) and the kids listen to music by bands like the Pet Shop Boys (1986) and Katrina and the Waves (1985).  This amazing sloppiness even spills over into the filming of the show.  In one show, our hero is reliving one of his greatest life traumas, a baseball game where he struck out for the final out and disgraced himself in front of his friends, parents and Grandfather.  He stands in the batting cage and talks to his best friend about his worries, and the friend tells him to look at their faces, they all love him no matter what.  The camera pans over the bleachers and the friend is sitting with the family.  Then it cuts back and he is back by the plate.  That isn't just sloppy, that's inexcusable.  I so wanted to love Do Over, but I just can't overlook the fact that the makers didn't care enough to do it right.

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Undeclared (Fox) - Created by Judd Apatow, the former Larry Sanders Show writer who helmed 2000's pretty good, but a little overrated Freaks and Geeks, his second series Undeclared was... well... pretty good, but a little overrated.   Actually, Undeclared was very much like Freaks & Geeks, just taken from high school and transplanted into the first year of college.  The writing is mostly very good, the acting is terrific, but the storylines tend to meander and lead nowhere.  Which, some might say, is pretty much like the first year of college itself. My biggest problems with Undeclared are the exact same ones I had with Apatow's earlier series, though.  Apatow seems to believe that his stories are wonderful little nuggets of truth that everyone should recognize.  Well, these people act very little like anyone I knew in college.  Oh sure, all the superficial similarities are there; wanting to get drunk, wanting to get laid, not wanting to study...  But these characters mostly seem a little unlikable.  I don't mind watching them on TV, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to share a dorm room with any of them. 

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Titus (Fox) - Titus had the same exact problem as fellow Fox hit Malcolm in the Middle.  It was kind of funny, it has insanely dysfunctional characters, but in the end they were just trying too hard.  Outrageousness can only take a show so far.  Titus got to that spot in stride, but it usually wasn't funny enough.  You wanted to like this show more than you didHad it lived up to it's potential, it could have really been something though.

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The Ellen Show (CBS) - Ellen DeGeneres' second show was slighty amusing, but it was so desperate not to be offensive that it turned out to be as bland as tapioca.  Sadly, she still seemed to be under the misconception that her previous sitcom Ellen was cancelled because of the furor over her coming out as a lesbian on the show.  The cold hard fact is that Ellen was taken off the air because it was no longer funny.  In fact, it hadn't been funny for about two seasons before the famous "Coming Out" episode and the press generated by that storyline kept the show on at least a season or two longer than it should have been.  DeGeneres' newer character was still vaguely lesbian (she made a few wisecracks that alert us to the fact, but she actually seemed strangely asexual), an internet exec who moved home to her small town when her latest dot-com collapses.  And you know what?  It was nice to see her again.  DeGeneres still had a terrific, likable delivery.  Sadly, the town was filled with big-name "eccentrics" who fill her world but are given nothing to do.  Jim Gaffigan, Martin Mull and particularly Cloris Leachman are way too talented to have to say the lines they are given.  The Ellen Show was sort of harmless fun because of DeGeneres, but even she was not worth watching this dull show regularly for...  Her talent is much better served in her current talk show or her voice-overs in Finding Nemo.
Don’t Let The Door Hit You On the Way Off the Air - Horrible shows that have been cancelled. Proof that good things sometimes do happen to people who have to watch bad sitcoms.

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Arli$$ (HBO) There is a lot of truth to the idea out there that HBO is making some of the riskiest, most artistic series on television. Strangely, though, the longest running series on the cable channel was this tired and tiring glamour vehicle for comedian Robert Wuhl. The idea was a good one; Wuhl plays a high-powered sports agent. This premise lends itself to many fascinating story ideas.  There were many sports icons playing themselves. Unfortunately Wuhl (and most of his co-stars) are smug, can’t act and the stories are horribly weak. The cast member who is the most mistreated is Michael Boatman, who was so funny on Spin City but got nothing at all to do on this show. Thankfully the writing was on the wall after the way that Arli$$ nearly destroyed the ratings of Six Feet Under before HBO got wise and moved Arli$$ out of the way from the double feature of Sex & the City and Six Feet Under.  For some reason, they brought it back for one more season, and then finally unceremoniously dumped it.

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Three Sisters (NBC) I thought at first that maybe I just didn't get this series because it was a chick show.  The story of three sisters in an insanely close family and their new bond when one has a baby seemed like more of a show that women would appreciate than men.  But I checked with some women I know, and most of them didn't really like it either.  The shame is the cast was very promising.  A.J. Langer is very likable as the youngest sister, a flighty devil-may-care-type who just floats through life, but it was difficult to watch her without thinking how much better the writing was on her last series It's Like, You Know...  Sadly, Vicki Lewis, who was very funny on News Radio, played her character in such a labored, hammy way that it spoiled the few jokes that may have worked for her.  Third sister Katherine LaNasa is fine but pretty bland, as is her husband (Edward Kerr) who really is just there to open jars and fix plumbing (or at least get a plumber).  Seasoned pros Dyan Cannon and Peter Bonerz were given lines that are way below their stature.  In all a big waste of talent.  Good riddance.

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Dharma & Greg (ABC) The problem with meeting someone who is totally uninhibited and kooky is that what is originally adorable quickly becomes annoying.  This is the quandary that the title couple has been trying to avoid in the storylines of this show, and unfortunately it is the obstacle with Dharma & Greg in general.  The show is about a very straight lawyer (Thomas Gibson) who meets a crazy hippie chick (Jenna Elfman) and ends up marrying her after a wonderful all-day first date.  So far so good, right?  This oil and water love comedy was very funny at first, with their parents' differences, a rich, uptight WASP couple (Susan Sullivan and Mitchell Ryan) and a pair of aging hippies (Mimi Kennedy and Alan Rachins) making the brew even more potent.   It was charming for a while, but as the show tried to get more and more eccentric, it instead became more and more labored.  By the end of the second season, the show was running on fumes, and it didn't gas back up before getting its walking papers

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Inside Schwartz (NBC) - The pilot episode was mildly funny.   Okay, enough of the love-in for Inside Schwartz.  This was just one of a series of bad shows that get lucky enough to get the plum time slot of 8:30 on NBC's Thursday night dynasty.  And shows like this have allowed CBS to chip away the once unbeatable night's ratings with crap like Survivor.  Schwartz was a concept show, and it's not a horrible concept.  A sports anchor wannabe fantasizes of different sports and broadcasting celebs doing play-by-play on his life.   Unfortunately, this show, created by Stephen Engel, who wrote for the similarly smirky Just Shoot Me, thought that it was funny to have a color commentator say of Schwartz's break-up with his true love, "That means no more freaky ill na na."   That gives you an idea of the subtle wordsmanship in this show.  The talented cast (even Richard Kline, who looked even more lost than he did in Three's Company all those years ago) deserves better.

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That 80s Show (Fox) In a development unheard of even on the originality-challenged world of TV, here is a show that is spun off of another show’s name. That 80s Show has nothing to do with That 70s Show other than a similar title, writing staff and nostalgic setting. But while That 70s Show has fallen somewhat on hard times, it has been funny in the past and still can be in the odd scene. That 80s Show fumbled the ball constantly from the very beginning. The prime difference is that the old series played off of characters and the nostalgia was just a seasoning. In That 80s Show it was the whole ball of wax. They even seemed to have balled up the 80s so that it didn’t have separate sections and styles; it is just one huge monument to the writer’s snickering humor. For example, they followed a 1982 Mr. T reference with a 1985 Miami Vice reference. Then there was a 1977 Sex Pistols reference followed up by a 1986 Honeydrippers reference, then a late 80s portable phone reference. Now, there is nothing intrinsically funny about a portable phone, but the writers seemed to be nudging us and winking, "Look how big it is." Even the references were jumbled; the father who dresses like Don Johnson on Miami Vice wears the pastel shirts of that show’s first season together with the muted charcoal jackets the series favored in its last season. The writers are also trying to add their 21st Century preconceptions on the period. It may have been cool to make fun of Duran Duran today but they were considered cutting edge back then, and the punk girl… while a clever character… is about a decade too late, because punk was pretty much dead through the eighties.  Also, never in my life have I seen a show where so many people referred to the decade they live in ("I love the 80s," etc.)  That is just lazy writing… Screenwriting 101 -- show us we’re in the 80s, don’t tell us. I will give them credit that they have not yet stooped to giving a character a Flock of Seagulls haircut (but it would have come had the show lasted, you can tell this as inevitably as night follows day.) It’s a given that fashions and technology change with time. That doesn’t necessarily make something humorous, though. If it did, people wouldn’t need TV; they’d just laugh at old pictures of what they used to wear in junior high school.

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Just Shoot Me (NBC) - Maybe it was just because this show debuted hot on the heels of the similarly plotted but totally horrendous Veronica's Closet, but the first season or so of Just Shoot Me seemed to be rather funny.  It seems a long time ago now, the show quickly became progressively more and more unwatchable.  It is not the fault of the cast, there were some very talented people in front of the camera (then again, there were on Veronica's Closet, too, so I guess that isn't a deciding factor.)  But this show became completely, totally, unhackable.   It was just a long series of smirky, gratuitous sex jokes with the lead actors looking more and more desperate to get the hell out of there.  They couldn't get away for several years apparently, but I was out of there long before it finally got cancelled.

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The Weber Show (NBC) - This show had a terrific cast with Steven Weber (Wings), Chris Elliot (Get A Life), Amy Pietz (Caroline In the City) and Paula Marshall (Cupid) Despite all that talent before the camera, it was one of the most excruciatingly bad shows to make the air in years.  It was originally called Cursed and was supposedly about a shlub who has a curse placed on his head by an irate date, but they dropped this silly premise within a few weeks.  Sadly they never replaced it with anything.  It just became a dull workplace comedy, a stupid Friends rip-off and finally... too late to save the show... a kind-of-not-horrible romantic comedy.  Further proof that NBC thought it could just stick anything on Thursday night and get ratings.  Weber deserves special notice though, because it was the show that finally allowed CBS to overtake the network's once unstoppable night with CBS's strange phenomenon Survivor.

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The Norm Show (ABC) - Never in my life have I seen a TV show with so many irretrievably slimy characters.  I don't believe that a show needs to have good people as stars... in fact the friends in Seinfeld were pretty terrible humans if you get down to it.  But every time I saw The Norm Show, I felt like I needed to take a shower afterwards.  A starring vehicle set up for Norm MacDonald, the former Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" host who was fired by NBC because he wasn't funny.  That was not fair, MacDonald can be very humorous.  What he can't do is act.  Again, this is not necessaily a deathblow to a sitcom starring a comedian, it took a while for Jerry Seinfeld to get comfortable as an actor and Roseanne Barr (Roseanne) and Brett Butler (Grace Under Fire) never quite got the hang of it but still had long, successful runs.  They surrounded MacDonald with old pros like Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and Max Wright (ALF).  It didn't help though, the people in the show were gamblers, alcoholics, violent, angry and just plain mean.  Worse than that, they couldn't tell a joke.

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Jesse (NBC) - The second straight show to prove that Friends was a happy fluke, not the brainchild of a marriage of talents of creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman.  Apparently the two blew their creative wad on their trademark show (as well as their pretty good HBO sitcom Dream On) because since becoming huge, they have squandered their opportunity on Veronica's Closet and this silly show.  The show couldn't decide if it wanted to be a warm family comedy or a (needlessly) quirky character study (one of Jesse's brothers had taken a vow of silence for some reason... well, really for no reason other than to make him "different.")  Christina Applegate was the glue that almost held the show together, she had a natural charm born of a decade in Married... With Children.  Newcomer Bruno Campos wasn't bad either, but everyone else on the show was completely stranded in a morass of weak gags and absurd situations.  Particularly let down was veteran character actor George Dzundza, who was given such a clichéd character as Jesse's father that he was happy to abandon ship as soon as possible.  The rest of the actors should have followed suit.

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Two Guys & A Girl (ABC) In the midst of what is quite possibly the weakest slate of sitcoms since the 1960s, it takes real effort to be the worst show on television. So take a bow, Two Guys and a Girl. This show is so embarrassingly bad that even the "pizza place" begged to get off the show after only one season. The show had an okay pedigree to start; it was created by Danny Jacobson, who created Mad About You, which was very good for its first few seasons. But this new series was stuck with three of the most unlikable characters and the most generic actors in television history (I dare you, just try to differentiate between the two guys). The writing wasn’t funny, the acting wasn’t good and the only really interesting thing about the show was wondering how it was able to keep a place on ABC’s schedule for so long when so many better shows were cancelled.

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Revised: February 17, 2017.