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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lacking character

Diane Werts Newsday

I love Nick at Nite and TV Land. I hate Nick at Nite and TV Land. It’s a complicated relationship.

I live for old TV – oops, “vintage TV.” Gotta like “Lucy.” Can’t get enough “Dick Van Dyke.” Please bring back “Barney Miller.” Sometimes I think I could subsist on sitcom classics alone.

But we’re seeing the results of that diet on TV today, and it’s wreaking havoc on the continued life of the venerable situation comedy genre.

Think of it as eating too much junk food. The consequences aren’t pretty, and, in excess, it just might kill you.

Problem is, “classic” sitcoms are all over the place. TBS, Lifetime, local TV. They dominate the lineups of both Nick at Nite – marking its 20th anniversary of celebrating “our TV heritage” – and its TV Land cable offspring.

All night long, and 24 hours on TV Land, viewers can gorge themselves on “Three’s Company,” “Full House” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Sitcoms all the time, anytime.

Like having a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart on every corner, the long-term effect is to run distinctive handcrafting out of the business by readjusting expectations toward the most familiar, cheapest, slickest goods.

Which is running new sitcoms into the ground. Last season’s new shows, such as NBC’s “Joey,” CBS’ “Listen Up!” and ABC’s “Rodney,” all play like sitcoms you and I could have written in our sleep.

To some extent, we did. TV’s constant comedy reruns have immersed us all in a standard rhythm of sitcom humor. Ba-dum-bum: set-up. Ba-dum-bum: punch line. Ba-dum-bum: laugh track howl. Everybody knows how character types act, how the plot breaks down, even how the sets look.

The young writers of today’s sitcoms grew up on Nick at Nite. And TBS. They were glued to the tube. Their life experience is sitcoms. Their comedic references are sitcoms. Know how they say writers should “write what you know”? That’s what they’re doing.

It’s like a fun-house mirror showing us slightly different angles of the very same thing. If sitcoms used to reflect real situations and reactions – “Dick Van Dyke” being the sterling example – the writers had a real life to base it on.

Today, they’ve had a TV life.

So we get metronome rhythms, pop culture “jokes” and cliche characters: the dumb blonde, the mousy brainiac, the sexy stud, the dateless geek, the long-suffering babe wife, the goofy, chubbo husband. Oh, and clueless parents. If you’re as craven as Fox’s “Quints” last season, you can cram ‘em all into one family.

It’s not the form’s fault. Gems from “I Love Lucy” to “Everybody Loves Raymond” prove that. The problem is a play-it-safe reliance on the quick joke at the expense of character, character types at the expense of emotional truth, being “funny” to a beat instead of witty when it’s called for.

With rare exceptions, such as “Raymond,” that let humor play as it may, most sitcoms are now so hopscotchingly cross-cut and tightly edited that they feel force-fed. They’re condescendingly pushy. Laugh, darn it, laugh!

And the media-raised kids of today push back – by not watching. Especially not a genre that seems unchanged since their parents and grandparents watched way back when. The “classics” might be fine as quaint evocations, but they’ve been done, right? Why keep trying?

Well, because people like to laugh, for one thing. And they like laughing together. We’ll rediscover that fact at some point, the way “The Cosby Show” revitalized sitcoms in 1984.

Coming at a time of stagnant “insult” comedy, Cosby’s NBC hit was a fresh-air find with its real-life warmth and character-driven humor. There was once again keen observation to the comedy, and craft behind the writing and production – attributes seemingly overlooked in the previous years’ spate of manipulative shows that patronized viewers as lame-brained lemmings.

Sound familiar? All it takes is some individual thinking. Even something as silly as the original 1960s “Bewitched” has a goofy glee, arch attitude and charming characterization. It’s its own animal.

So was “Raymond.” Its makers always talked about having Nick at Nite in mind while crafting it – not to ape the shows or the styles there, but to be enduring enough to join the lineup one day.

It will get there. But how many of today’s laugh-track copycats will?

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