The Plans to Save the Sitcom: How Pilot Season is Shaping the Next Round of TV Comedy

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Remember Selfie? Manhattan Love Story? A to Z? Probably not, as most of last fall’s romantic comedies were canceled by Christmas. (Marry Me is also unlikely to return.) Viewers’ early rejection of ensemble sitcoms about flirtatious young people gave producers and network executives time to rethink what makes a successful comedy.

It’s now pilot season–the time of year when networks assemble programs for the fall. Scripts are in, casting is almost complete, and most will be shot in the next several weeks. By early May, executives will decide which pilots to turn into series. The priority for most is to find a few potential sitcom hits. “I would love to have more comedy,” says Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. “It’s the hardest thing [to develop].” Demonstrating the difficulty in figuring out what audiences want, Greenblatt, whose network aired A to Z and Marry Me, sold Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix after realizing the Tina Fey-produced comedy would be tough to market on NBC.

The recent launches of Fresh Off the Boat (ABC), The Last Man on Earth (Fox), and The Odd Couple (CBS) offer some hope. (These midseason successes debuted too late to have an impact on the current slate of pilots, but if they continue to do well and are renewed, they could inspire what’s developed next year.) But as long-running sitcoms come to an end–Two and a Half Men and Parks and Recreation bowed out last month–few solid hits remain. So far, only seven current comedies are guaranteed to return next season (ABC hasn’t yet announced any renewals, although Modern Family and black-ish seem likely to be back).

“If we could just get Modern Family 2, we’d be in good shape,” says Fox Television Group chairman Gary Newman, whose studio produces that Emmy winner. This spring, producers and executives are getting back to basics, looking at formulas that have worked in the past.

Family Matters

The success of both ABC’s Wednesday comedy lineup, which includes black-ish, and the network’s Tuesday hit Fresh Off the Boat suggests that viewers can relate to a quality family sitcom. Multiple attempts to launch a post-Friends ensemble about young singles navigating life and love have failed. Sure, producer Chuck Lorre succeeded with The Big Bang Theory in 2007, but even his most recent sitcom, Mom, focuses on domestic issues. “Ensemble shows weren’t saying anything,” says Jonathan Davis, 20th Century Fox creative affairs president. “They weren’t challenging [viewers’] assumptions on family or love.”

The family sitcom can take many forms, and, notes Universal TV executive vice president Bela Bajaria, this year’s pilots run the gamut (single and multi-camera) and tackle a wide range of subjects. Her company is producing an NBC comedy starring Patrick Warburton and Carrie Preston as empty nesters whose adult daughters move back in; Problem Child, based on the 1990 film, about parents (Matthew Lillard and Erinn Hayes) with a mischievous kid, also at NBC; and Fox’s 48 Hours ‘Til Monday, starring Rob Riggle as a husband looking to make the most out of his weekends.

Eleven of ABC’s 13 comedy pilots deal with families, including one starring Melanie Griffith as the grandmother of extraordinarily intelligent kids; Family of the Year, loosely based on the life of gay activist and journalist Dan Savage; and an untitled show starring Smash‘s Megan Hilty as the mother of a budding athlete. CBS has Life in Pieces, the story of one family told from the perspectives of various members, and The Mistake, about parents with grown kids who discover they’re about to have another child. Jenna Elfman stars in an untitled pilot for Fox in which she plays a working mom.

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Young Hollywood Gets Put on Hold

Veteran actors are in high demand, thanks in part to the surge in family projects. With so many roles for parents and grandparents but a limited pool of actors, casting directors were lucky that many familiar faces were eager to return to TV. Even former Wonder Years star Fred Savage, who has been focusing on a directing career, signed on for a role in Fox’s The Grinder, opposite Rob Lowe, who plays an actor moving back to his hometown. “We had a table-read that just knocked your socks off,” says Davis, whose studio produces the show. “We pulled Fred out of a directing gig to do it.”

Also eyeing a comeback: John Stamos, as a man who learns he’s both a father and grandfather in Fox’s Grandpa; and National Lampoon’s Vacation costars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, who reunite on ABC’s Chev & Bev.

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Personality Counts

When executives take a gamble on an unproven TV talent, he or she had better have a strong story to tell. NBC already ordered six episodes of a series starring stand-up comedian Jerrod Carmichael, based on his own relationships. ABC’s Delores & Jermaine comes from comedian Jermaine Fowler, who as a young adult moved in with his grandmother (played by Whoopi Goldberg). Comedian Fortune Feimster draws on her experience coming out to her Southern kin in ABC’s Family Fortune. “When somebody says, ‘This is my upbringing’ or ‘This is my family,’ it has an authentic, specific point of view,” Bajaria says. “That’s gold.”

Welcome to Diverse City

The success of black-ish, Cristela, and Fresh Off the Boat is compelling evidence that reflecting the true makeup of America is good for business. Ken Jeong plays a physician on ABC’s Dr. Ken, in a pilot inspired by his pre-acting career; John Leguizamo stars in CBS’s adaptation of French Canadian hit Taxi-22; Mike Epps heads ABC’s spinoff of the movie Uncle Buck, this time with an African-American cast; Vanessa Williams plays a programming exec at a sports network in Fox’s Fantasy Life; and Eva Longoria stars in the parody Telenovela, which already has a 13-episode commitment from NBC. “Diversity is something we sought out,” Davis says. “It isn’t a mandate; it’s a necessity.”