Even before the nation's economy went south, the prime-time sitcom was mired in its own miserable slump. Ratings plunged, critics groused, shows fizzled and, throughout Hollywood, pink slips piled up.
"For a while there, we were looking worse than the auto industry," says Christopher Lloyd, co-executive producer of ABC's freshman comedy Modern Family. "A lot of my writer friends struggled. A lot of jobs were lost. It got really, really dismal."
But something funny is happening in prime time. TV comedy is showing signs of life, thanks largely to a crop of new shows brimming with artistic ambition, stellar casts and an ingredient that had become scarce in recent years: heart.
At the forefront of this recovery is Modern Family, a hilarious, feel-good series that offers a new take on the family sitcom with a "mockumentary" device and a three-tiered focus on an extended brood. And then there's Glee, Fox's hourlong musical comedy that dares to blend earnest dance numbers with satirical humor.
Other new shows feeling the love from critics and viewers include NBC's Community, a twisted sitcom about junior-college misfits, and two more ABC comedies: Cougar Town, which has Courteney Cox playing a love-starved single mom (and Lexington native Josh Hopkins as her acerbic neighbor); and The Middle, with Patricia Heaton as the frazzled matriarch of a kooky Indiana family.
Meanwhile, among established shows, The Big Bang Theory on CBS has seen its ratings soar since moving to a new time slot behind TV's most popular comedy, Two and a Half Men.
It all adds up to a fresh surge of optimism for a genre that had been pushed to the brink of extinction by dramas and reality shows.
If there's a unifying element to the new shows, it's a willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Indeed, the prevailing sitcom tone of the past few years has been ironic detachment, cynicism and even snideness. Leading practitioners of this style include Arrested Development, 30 Rock and The Office, shows that generally attract critics and Emmy voters but tend to alienate many viewers.
"I think snarky comedy is a little bit easier to do. Sweet and earnest is not what writers generally associate with sharp comedy," says Samie Kim Falvey, senior vice president of comedy for ABC. "But television is a medium where you welcome these people into your home on a weekly basis. You want characters you care about. You want to feel some warmth, not despair."
On the other hand, viewers didn't want the same old tired, predictable sitcom tropes. Collectively, the new shows appear to be succeeding because they maintain a creative edge while offering relatable, sympathetic characters who resonate with the audience.
Perhaps no new show has struck the balance as well as Modern Family. Created by Lloyd and Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me), it's the saga of a diverse collection of siblings, kids and in-laws. There's the patriarch, newly married to a young Colombian trophy wife; his daughter and her suburban family; and his son, half of a gay couple who have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. The stellar cast includes Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara.
"When we were kicking around ideas, we asked ourselves, 'What is the typical American family?'" Lloyd says. "We finally realized that we're never going to get just one (representation). They come in all shapes and sizes these days. That's when we hit on the idea of connecting the various parts of a large, extended family."
The setup allows the Modern Family writers to dabble in kid-friendly story lines and tackle socially relevant adult themes.
The result is a series with the kind of sharp wit that recalls Seinfeld and Arrested Development, while containing a brand of sweetness reminiscent of old-school family sitcoms like Cosby. It's no wonder Modern Family is averaging 10.6 million viewers a week — more than The Office and 30 Rock.