We’re nearing a high point in TV comedy, not least of all because now TV comedy can be ha-ha funny, darkly ironically twistedly funny, and straight-up sad, too. The half-hour genre has become beautifully elastic in the decades since “M*A*S*H” first bound up laughter with sorrow, and today comedies can embrace the very many emotional fluctuations of everyday life. On outstanding single-camera series such as “Louie,” “Transparent,” “Master of None,” “Girls,” and four recent favorites — “Better Things,” “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” and “Fleabag” — humor informs tragedy and vice versa, capturing feelings that don’t neatly fit at either end of the happy-sad spectrum.
And then there’s CBS’s Monday night comedy block, a two-ton chunk of lead dropped on the happy end of the spectrum, a sitcom four-fer of some of the worst scripted material on TV right now, a cacophony — emphasis on phony — of loud, juvenile one-liners and manufactured laughter that make your eardrums thrum glumly, challenging you to either erupt into a laugh riot over bad puns and sexual innuendo or else retreat into your own damn misery and twiddle your thumbs numbly.
A tip: If you ever need to force me to give up Mega-Major Super-Secret TV Spoilers or maybe sell my beloved mother down the river, you might want to sit me “Clockwork Orange”-style in front of a marathon of these dimwit-coms, strapped down with my eyelids clipped wide open, and wait for me to break. You won’t have to wait long. The names of the shows are “Kevin Can Wait,” “Man With a Plan,” “2 Broke Girls,” and “The Odd Couple,” and they live in the same neighborhood as “Yes, Dear,” “Joey,” “Whitney,” “Joanie Loves Chachi,” “Still Standing,” and the patron saint of mediocrity, “According to Jim.”
Actually, “2 Broke Girls,” with its schoolyard sex gags and menstrual humor, lives a little farther away, across the town line in Gnash-ville. With its breast-centric worldview, it is arguably the worst, most bankrupt sitcom on TV right now, unless you can’t get enough of crude, repetitive jokes involving ethnic and racial clichés and bad accents. If you watched the satirical comedy “The Comeback,” then you will understand what I mean when I say that “2 Broke Girls” makes “Room and Bored” look like a fun way to spend a half-hour. But I digress.
It’s not just that the CBS Four are guilty of the usual multi-camera offenses — overly bright lighting that belongs in a tanning booth, artificial stage sets that look like giant shelves, vaudevillian standup jokes that don’t fit in a story with characters, and, of course, viewer manipulation by laugh tracks that seem to become more loudly insistent the dumber the jokes are (as counterculture honcho Paul Krassner put it, “Canned laughter is the epitome of televised hypnotic suggestion”). It’s not just that these shows refuse to take creative risks that might jeopardize audience passivity, or that the actors all seem to be on automatic pilot, or that the comic beats are as predictable as Ringo, or that they give escapist, relaxing TV a bad name.
No, the problem is that they’re so culturally retrograde, particularly “Kevin Can Wait” and “Man With a Plan,” as they feed into the kind of domestic roles that have entrapped people for a long, long time. I have nothing against stars Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc, and I thought LeBlanc was slyly amusing in “Episodes,” but on CBS Mondays both of them play generic man-children with fragile egos and adolescent desires. They are incompetent and unreliable, of course. Their characters each married long-suffering women who put up with their hubbies’ teenage behavior, who may even withhold sex in order to get what they want.
It’s a male fantasy of sorts, with the wives baby-sitting the men, living by that hoary axiom that a woman should marry a less-attractive man so she won’t worry about him cheating.
“The Odd Couple” trafficks in the same moth-bitten gender tropes between the male and female characters — between Oscar’s agent and his wife, for example, as well as between Oscar (“more drinking, less thinking”) and Felix, who is his figurative wife. And “The Odd Couple” has the added negative of being another one of TV’s many, many useless reboots, a trend that itself represents some of TV’s least imaginative impulses. Sure, reboots can work — “Westworld,” for example, which isn’t a Xerox of the film it is based on so much as a reinvention of it. But most of them, including “Lethal Weapon,” “MacGyver,” “Uncle Buck,” and “The Odd Couple,” are commissioned because they arrive with market recognition already in place. The motive is commercial, not at all creative. It’s about the money, not the funny.
I’m not saying every comedy needs to be brilliant and groundbreaking. Look at ABC, another network churning out popular comedies such as “Black-ish” and “American Housewife.” Since “Modern Family,” ABC has found an inventive way to deliver sitcoms that don’t stretch boundaries like cable and streaming shows such as “Transparent” or “Atlanta,” but that are inventive and often forward-thinking nonetheless. They stick close enough to conventional sitcom formatting (without the laugh tracks), and they remain comfort TV viewing in many ways, but they push their more original subject matter beyond old-school marital mush.
I can already see the reader comments hanging like a kite tail on this article online. They will remind me that I’m in the bubble and failing to notice the many, many people out there who don’t live by my values and tastes. Millions of Americans, they’ll say, enjoy watching hubby and wifey play misogynistic verbal Ping-Pong “Honeymooners”-style, or seeing two beautiful women make ugly jokes, or submitting to yet another iteration of “The Odd Couple” conceit. I’m not ignoring the fact that these shows are fairly successful for CBS, with decent but not stellar ratings ranging between 5 million and 7 million viewers each per week. Still, good numbers do not equal good shows. Really, they don’t.