The Dwindling Sitcom Lifespan?

Every year the number of options for TV time continue to grow. As on-demand options continue to grow, and DVRs become ubiquitous with consumption of TV, the lifespan of TV shows is going to continue to shrink. Just over two years ago, an article appeared on this blog calling Modern Family the funniest show on TV. Now in it’s 5th season though, it’s lost some steam, and is definitely not the funniest show on TV (that would appear to be Brooklyn 99 at this point). But more importantly it says something about the lifespan of sitcoms and how long they can hang on.

There are still exceptions to the rule. CBS just inked three more seasons for The Big Bang Theory, meaning it will run through the 2016–2017 season. Other shows on CBS seem to run forever (Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother come to mind), but that doesn’t mean they are still good. As good as 30 Rock was for a while, eventually it got too ridiculous and exaggerated (which happens to most sitcoms). More and more though, it seems like shows peak in their first 3–4 seasons and then just spin off their axis.

New Girl is in it’s third season and has made the Winston character so unbearable that he needs to just leave at this point. The Ross and Rachel-esque storyline of Nick and Jess got there too fast and now there isn’t anything big to keep people coming back. Modern Family was so great because it was so deep. But most of the characters were so over-the-top so early that there wasn’t anywhere to go. And despite starting to mature in age, all of the children appear to just be the same people they always were.

The very best dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) are pushing a trend where shows don’t outlive their quality by too much. Sitcoms don’t need as much continuity and can more easily throw together standalone episodes without people questioning it too much. That gives them the ability to run longer, but that doesn’t mean they should.

Brooklyn 99’s rookie season has been spectacular. It produces countless laugh out loud moments in the Hippo Household. But it feels too much like 30 Rock, where a lot of the laughs are achieved by dead-panned or perfectly timed ridiculousness. That only works for so long before a show needs more. Because sitcoms don’t have the same long-term hooks as dramas, they are much easier to give up on abruptly. And since Netflix and Amazon Prime create what is for all intents and purposes and infinite amount of content to view, sitcoms wear out their welcome much faster than in the past.