Ah the sitcom. Such a tricky genre to do well, and yet one that has lasted through the history of television, changing and morphing to suit social mores and creative trends.
This week there's a flood of them in the network roll-out of new season shows. There's some interesting trends in this year's brood too, even if it often seems like a new season of old jokes.
Curiously, the vast majority of the new sitcoms centre around females. Perhaps it's a market research reaction to the success of Two And A Half Men. New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Are You There Chelsea?, Happily Divorced, and Suburgatory all have their own take on what it means to be a female in modern-day America. Airbrushed promo photos are compulsory, and the stereotyping runs wild.
Even the indie cred of actress Zooey Deschanel can't seem to save New Girl from falling into tired jokes. In the first episode her character Jess lies on the couch crying a lot and watching Dirty Dancing after a break-up, falls over in high heels, burns her hair with a curling iron and has to subvert her personality in order to get a date. Hilarious.
It's not that being quirky and confessional can't be funny (Brit show Miranda is the perfect example of a successfully bonkers, embarrassing and yet relatable woman), but Jess and her three male flatmates present nothing we haven't seen before. In fact the "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" dynamic of non-coupled males and females living together ("oh, look how different we are!") has been done in so many ways that it would be tricky not to repeat oneself.
Deschanel might be kooky, but she's no Grace or Elaine.
But it's not just the girls who aren't particularly funny, the blokes don't fare too much better with Tim Allen's Last Man Standing seeming like an attempt to re-do Home Improvement, and Man Up (about "three modern men trying to get in touch with their inner tough-guy") has already been axed in the States.
This year's report card for the American sitcom would say "not yet fulfilling its potential".
Irreverent single-camera style shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and 30 Rock, or the mockumentary direction of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family freshened things up over the past few years, but it seems 2012 won't be adding to that list.
Talking, of which thank goodness for the new season of Modern Family (starting on TV3, Monday February 13), which manages to subvert the American sitcom family while celebrating notions of what family is about. Characters are exaggerated but real, the writing predictable but the language smart, with everything from subtle wordplay to ham-it-up slapstick. And when Phil (Dad) tries to explain his behaviour in his monologues to camera, there's definitely no need for a laugh track.
It's not the only highlight on the comedy front though, with BBC sitcom Whites, starring Alan Davies as a depressed executive chef, turning up on Prime later in the year and promising the best of British black humour. And American post-modern sitcom-ism hasn't vanished altogether when Matt Le Blanc turns up playing himself in new TV One show Episodes. No, not in the way he played Joey in the Friends spin-off Joey (which was about as blandly traditional as you can get), but in a sort of Larry David-esque fashion, playing a version of himself as an actor, helping to ruin an American version of a British show. He did win a Golden Globe for his performance. Plus it also stars the excellent Tamsin Greig of Black Books fame.
A possible bright light among the repetition, and one for the true sitcom connoisseur, I hope.
-TimeOutBy Lydia Jenkin Email Lydia