Television comedies have come a long way from the multi-camera sitcoms of the 1950s. The streaming era has given writers the ability to explore different ways to tell their stories beyond the traditional structure of network comedies. Shows like The Bear, Barry, Russian Doll, WandaVision, and Ted Lasso blur the lines between drama and comedy with their runtimes and plotlines and show us how necessary it is for TV to be a flexible and adaptable artform. But for all of the great shows that this era of television has given us, the push for shows to be shorter and more bingeable has also made studios lose sight of what has been drawing people to comedies for decades.
Even in the streaming era, network comedies can regularly be found in the trending section on streaming services, and these companies know that people are drawn to these longer comedy series. When New Girl left Netflix for Hulu and Peacock earlier this year, it was a big deal. Hulu marketed the hell out of being the new home for the show knowing that it’s a big comfort watch for people. Peacock similarly celebrates the fact that they are the only U.S. streaming home for the American version of The Office and uses that to try to draw in subscribers. Before the rebrand from HBO Max to Max, Warner Bros. Discovery touted shows like Friends, Sex and the City, and The Big Bang Theory as “iconic series” and an important part of their global brand during a quarterly earnings call in Aug. 2022.
While it’s easy for many of these studios to brush off the continued desire to watch these shows as pure nostalgia, it’s so much more than that. People continue to watch comedies like New Girl, The Office, and Friends years after they’ve aired because they encourage us to spend time with these characters across multiple 15-20+ episode seasons. Writers have more room to explore different character dynamics and storylines, and we get to feel more connected to these casts of characters because of the time we spend with them. And it’s not just off-air comedies that are pulling in a large number of viewers either. Current network sitcoms like Abbott Elementary and the American version of Ghosts have garnered large fan bases over the last couple of years and further prove that people still have an appetite for full season comedies.
Many comedy series have made the lower episode counts of the streaming era work, but there’s only so much character exploration and world building that can be done in 8-13 episodes. It’s hard not to crave more time with shows like Survival of the Thickest, XO, Kitty and The Sex Lives of College Girls when we don’t get to just hang out with these characters and every episode has to move the plot along to the writers’ end goal. There are a few streaming series that have dipped their toe into full-season orders over the years, such as season 2 of Hulu’s How I Met Your Father, the final season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, and seasons 3 and 5 of Fuller House, but it still feels like these companies don’t really want to invest in shows like this long-term.
The one good thing about the streaming era is that it has shown us how flexible television can be as an artistic medium. Writers who want to tell a story in only 8-13 episodes per season should be allowed to do so, but those who want to be able to dive deeper into the worlds and characters they’ve created shouldn’t be limited by the studios’ ideas of what the episode count of a streaming series should look like. We deserve holiday episodes and zany one-off adventures that have little to do with the overarching plot but let us see a different pairing of characters spend time together.
Instead of just banking on licensed network comedies to bring in subscribers, they should give writers the chance to create their own 20+ episode comedies (and compensate them fairly for their work!) Writers deserve the opportunity to take risks and create something that people want to spend hours of their lives revisiting over and over again. Network comedies have been around for decades for a reason, and it’s time for streaming services to give full-season orders a second chance.