Situation: Comedy

A bold challenge has been posted on Bravo’s website:

Friends has taken its final bow. We’ve seen the last of Sex and the City. Frasier has left the building. Where will television find its next great comedy hit?

From you.”

Uh, okay. Are you sure? I mean, I can try.

Lest you think the network sitcom couldn’t sink any lower, along comes Situation: Comedy, a reality show where NBC producers break the fourth wall, turn to us half-wit boobs and ask, “Got any ideas?” From what I’ve seen, executive producers Sean Hayes (Jack from Will & Grace) and Todd Milliner transfer Project Greenlight‘s little-guys-get-a-shot-at-the-big-time format to television, with intermittently entertaining, but mostly underwhelming results.

Fantasizing about being a sitcom creator is kind of a strange. It just doesn’t have the same appeal of being a film director, pop star, or Jerry Hall’s boy toy. Getting a sitcom on television requires a lot of money, experience, and big league connections. No one tells Horatio Alger stories about how Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner maxed out their credit cards and used guerilla-style shooting to get The Cosby Show on the air. So I was surprised to find out that Situation: Comedy received over 10,000 scripts.

As selected dreamers pitched their so-so ideas at the opening of the first episode, it soon becomes clear that the most promising sitcom material will come from the contestants’ personalities. Dale and Eddie are a late middle-aged comedy couple, throwbacks to a studio system style exemplified by Sally and Buddy from The Dick Van Dyke Show, and who could be perfectly played by Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard. Shoe and Mark are hyperactive, “We are the knights who say ni” comedy nerds so enthusiastically compatible that they transcend their begging-for-a-wedgie behavior. Twenty-one-year-old Sean has one of the better-sounding ideas, about two clueless post-college friends working in retail.

Unfortunately, most of these characters don’t stick around. In the first episode, Hayes, Milliner, NBC execs, and “show runners” Stan Zimmerman and Maxine Lapiduss winnow the contestants down to two writing teams: Shoe and Mark with The Sperm Donor and Andrew and David with Stephen’s Life. Each team will shoot a 15-minute mini-pilot, the audience will vote, and the winners get a cash prize and a contract with a talent agency (these shows aren’t even going into production). Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold’s a suit!) and Amanda Bearse (Marcy from Married… With Children) are brought in to direct the pilots.

Like Project Greenlight, the show’s tensions derive from putting creative talents and big egos in a high stress situation, with a somewhat predictable narrative arc (the steps of the production process) resulting in decent drama. There are some interesting insights into how a sitcom gets on the air, particularly how one can be reshaped around a cast and how different actors can radically alter its tenor.

However, where Project Greeenlight succeeded this past spring by always returning to one central storyline — the redemption of goofball director Jon Gulager, Situation: Comedy is unfocused in its purpose. Nobody emerges as a fascinating personality, too many faces get too much screen time, and the tale of the contest winners gets lost. What is the passion that drives these wannabe Norman Lears? Why should we pin our hopes on they’re becoming messiahs of the laugh track? Mostly they seem overwhelmed by their circumstances; only Andrew fights consistently for his vision.

Little dramas arise, but the suspense hangs slack. I saw no competition between the dueling pilots, and felt no curiosity about where they’re headed. Editing is the key to all reality shows, and the structuring of Situation: Comedy is as serviceably mediocre as the entire product. So much of the show concentrates on network discussions among Zimmerman and Lapiduss, NBC Comedy Development’s Renate Redford and Justin Levy, and President of NBC Entertainment Kevin Reilly that the show ends up working best as a documentary on why sitcoms are already bad, not a platform for reviving the genre.