Commentary: Do Stars Make Sitcoms, Or Do Sitcoms Make Stars?

by | October 1, 2009 at 7:39 AM | 42-Inch Television, TV News

Elfman, Cox-Arquette, Heaton, Grammer (CBS/ABC)

Elfman, Cox-Arquette, Heaton, Grammer (CBS/ABC)

Here’s a classic chicken versus egg debate for the first day of October, one to ponder as you sit down to write that monthly rent check. Do television stars create successful sitcoms or do successful sitcoms create television stars?

Based on the litany of comedy veterans fronting new series this fall—Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Courtney Cox and Jenna Elfman (better known as Frasier Crane, Debra Barone, Monica Geller and Dharma Finklestein Montgomery)—networks are clearly hoping for the former. The underlying message they seem to be pushing to the audience is something along the lines of, “you liked them before, now like them again!”

But will you? Time after time, former stars have tried and failed to regain past glories with new ventures. Just take a peek at what happened to your favorite ‘Friends’ once that seminal series went off the air. From Matt LeBlanc (‘Joey’) to Lisa Kudrow (‘The Comeback’) to Matthew Perry (‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’) to even Courtney Cox once already (‘Dirt’), none of the cast members have ever caught television lightning in a bottle again.

(Obviously the most successful ‘Friend,’ Jennifer Aniston, eschewed the small screen for movie stardom and heartbreak. Weep.)

It’s gotten to the point that LeBlanc is actually lampooning his difficulties as a sit-com star for a new Showtime series that follows “Matt LeBlanc” as he tries to adapt a British comedy for American television. It’s ‘The Comeback’ mixed with ‘Studio 60,’ which means it’ll probably be canceled despite having a pretty fantastic sounding premise.

On the flipside, some of television’s biggest comedies were built from the ground up, without any big stars on which to rely. When ‘The Big Bang Theory’ started, Jim Parsons wasn’t a household name on his own block, yet now nearly 14 million people a week see his shenanigans. Ditto John Krasinski, who was a waiter before ‘The Office’ but now, gets “Entertainment Weekly” cover stories written about him.

It’s not just ratings either, but critical response. ‘Modern Family’ has gotten fantastic reviews from everyone—(awkward silence) I must be missing something—and, while it has some recognizable faces (Ed O’Neill, Sofia Veraga, Julie Bowen) amongst the cast, none of them qualify as major stars.

Meanwhile, ‘Hank,’ ‘The Middle,’ ‘Cougar Town,’ and ‘Accidentally on Purpose’ have been slapped around with varying degrees of vitriol. Even critics like their television comedies more organically grown.

There are exceptions of course—‘The New Adventures of Old Christine’ and ’30 Rock’ to name two—but otherwise, it looks like this isn’t really a debate at all. Television is a king maker, not the other way around. So next fall, when you’re faced with watching some random comedy with a bunch of no-names, or, the new series starring Kevin James, you’ll know which one to ignore. When in doubt, go with the chicken. Or is it the egg?

Three More Inches

Is there any chance that Fox doesn’t put ‘Glee’ on following ‘American Idol?’ If there were ever two shows that were more made for each other, I haven’t seen them.

Speaking of Fox, has the decision to move ‘Fringe’ to Thursday nights gone just about as bad as possible? The show finished fourth in the ratings last week amongst the networks and doesn’t show signs of breaking out of that spot any time soon. The worst part? That ‘Fringe’ has been as good as ever. Here’s hoping a schedule change is in the cards before a cancellation.

And finally, with ‘Criminal Minds’ joining ‘NCIS’ and ‘CSI’ in the CBS spin-off department, how much longer until the Eye network’s dramas only consist of procedural franchises? Maybe that’s why ‘The Good Wife’ has been so well received. It’s original!