Not Dead Yet and the Future of Network Comedy

The latest comedy to join ABC’s prime-time lineup tells what is, in many ways, a familiar story. Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and both incarnations of One Day at a Time before it, Not Dead Yet follows a woman starting over after a big breakup. Journalist Nell Serrano, played by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, introduces herself by way of a headline: “Local Woman, 37, Ruins Own Life.” Fresh off a five-year stint in London that ended in a broken engagement, she’s back home in California, with a fussy roommate and a job writing obituaries for the local newspaper she left to chase romance. The twist? She meets the ghosts of her obit subjects.

Not Dead Yet and the Future of Network Comedy

With its mix of time-honored TV tropes and quirky, attention-grabbing flourishes, Not Dead Yet, premiering Feb. 8, epitomizes an emerging generation of network comedies. As recently as the fall of 2021, it looked as if Big 5 broadcasters had given up on the format, which thrives on the perhaps-outdated assumption that if the jokes are good enough, viewers of all demographics and political persuasions will come together to laugh at them. But a rapidly shifting TV landscape, and one that now allows most networks to efficiently monetize their programming on their own streaming platforms, seems to be encouraging networks to develop series that appeal to younger, more adventurous and progressive streaming audiences as well as—if not more than—the aging linear viewers who reliably flock to procedural franchises and game-show reboots.

Among hour-long dramas, this transition has made space for subtle updates to the ever popular crime genre, like Fox’s new episodic courtroom anthology, Accused. The evolution of the network comedy has been a more delicate balancing act. To gain traction in prime time, these shows need likable characters, jokes with punch lines clear enough to cue up a laugh track, and a comfortingly familiar format. At the same time, it can take an unconventional premise to attract the attention of a streaming audience that is inundated with content and accustomed to dark, high-concept half-hours like Netflix’s Dead to Me and FX on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs. Younger viewers, to their credit, also expect to see characters that represent a wide range of identities.

Hence the hybrid that is Not Dead Yet. Based on English author Alexandra Potter’s novel Confessions of a 40-Something F**k Up, the series relocates its action across the Atlantic, throws in some ghosts to zhuzh up the premise, and recasts a conspicuously younger Nell as a Latina writer in a postracial, LGBTQ-inclusive office. Her roommate, who turns out to be on the autism spectrum, is played by Rick Glassman, an autistic actor last seen in Amazon’s groundbreaking neurodiverse dramedy As We See It. The show has a weakness for inspirational platitudes (“We’re all a work in progress”), and its depiction of a newsroom might be even less authentic than its depiction of the afterlife. But Rodriguez makes an irresistible lead, backed by sharp performances from Glassman, Hannah Simone as Nell’s work wife, and Lauren Ash as the paper’s nepo-baby editor. It’s not a fantastic show, but it’s punchy enough to hold your attention.

It’s not alone, either, in coming off as a compromise between two very different sets of sensibilities. NBC’s American Auto, now in its second season, casts Ana Gasteyer as the clueless CEO of a car company, who reigns over a diverse, long-suffering staff of millennials. Like creator Justin Spitzer’s previous NBC sitcom, Superstore, the show flirts with critiquing capitalism. But its reluctance to risk the truly subversive Big Business satire most recently perfected by Comedy Central’s Corporate hobbles both its commentary and its humor. Eliza Coupe, Maggie Q, and Ginnifer Goodwin led the cast of last year’s Pivoting, an irreverent Fox comedy about three women re-evaluating their lives in the wake of a childhood friend’s death. An initially promising series that never quite struck a balance between conventional sitcom beats and a more morbid strain of humor, it was canceled after a single 10-episode season.

So far, this new school of broadcast comedy has yielded just one great show: Abbott Elementary. With the exception of CBS’s hit-or-miss Ghosts (a Britcom remake about a young couple who move into an old house overrun with apparitions that kind of bring to mind the occult elements of Not Dead Yet), Quinta Brunson‘s ABC sitcom about an underfunded Philadelphia public school is also the only title that can fairly be called a breakout hit. Like Not Dead Yet, it balances progressive values with old-school, hugging-and-learning sentimentality. But, midway through its second season and already renewed for a third, Abbott stands apart because its specific mix of political engagement and humanistic warmth feels organic, grounded as it is in Brunson’s own upbringing and her mother’s experiences as a teacher. An exceptional comedy, on any platform, does what even the most thoughtfully cast intergenerational compromise hashed out in a boardroom could not: it rings true.

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