For about the last year, I have been on a mission to watch (or catch up on) as many TV shows as I can fit into my schedule before I return to the 9-to-5 grind. As much as I love TV, it was impossible to keep up with any shows while I was in grad school. While it may sound silly, TV has always been an immensely important part of my life. It’s acted as my babysitter, teacher, friend, parent, and bad influence throughout my formative years. After two years of being almost completely separated from it, I’ve returned to it feeling overwhelmed and decidedly out of the loop.
Knowing that I couldn’t possibly watch all the shows I was being recommended or that I had missed out on, I dipped back into the TV universe by watching the shows that I knew would give me comfort. After two years of stress, anxiety, intense learning, and grading papers submitted by cranky 19-year-olds, I knew that the most intense interrogation room scene that I could handle would be on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And that’s exactly where I went: the Mike Schur TV empire of Feel Good TV.
If you’re unfamiliar with Schur, he’s the writer, producer, and creator of some of the best, most heartwarming, and innovative sitcoms in the last decade, including The Office (US version), Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place. The guy is a machine. He pumps out gem after gem without missing a beat. What he’s done, in my opinion, is give broadcast television a fighting chance for becoming the home of the Feel Good TV genre.
There’s no doubt that broadcast TV cannot compete with streaming services and specialty channels to create cream-of-the-crop series. It just can’t. The constraints on broadcast channels in the US are simply far too tight. From having to deal with the FCC, to the demands of advertisers still relying on (woefully inaccurate) Nielsen ratings to decide which show is a success, to the preference of the majority of viewers for formulaic shows, broadcast TV series simply cannot air a Breaking Bad or a Game of Thrones or a Handmaid’s Tale. And it shouldn’t keep trying to fight a war it cannot win.
I think its future is in accepting the things it’s good at, which Mike Schur does so, so well. Why did people watch broadcast television at its height? Probably because it was like another family member or a welcome guest: always there with something to say, but never making too much of a ruckus. It brought comfort in the form of series where everything ultimately turns out okay, where the good guys always win, where laughs are shared, and where a strict schedule and episode formulas provide predictability that the real world rarely offers us. And that’s what Mike Schur’s shows do. They’re warm, optimistic, and comforting, while operating within the familiar sitcom formula and genre. His shows hug you like a new, yet cozy blanket. And to me, that’s broadcast television at its very finest.
Audiences never really tire of Feel Good TV, as it’s remained popular despite the same formula being used. After all, how many shows can one name where we meet a lovable group of oddballs who get into squabbles or high jinks and by the end of the 30 minutes, we (and they) learn that they all love each other and everything will be okay? Be they families (Leave it to Beaver, Everybody Loves Raymond), or friends (Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace), or co-workers (The Office, 30 Rock, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), the premise is always the same. We know the drill. The stories are new, but not that new. And we like it that way.
Undoubtedly, the formula works. While HBO and Netflix and the like play around with new concepts and ideas about what a TV series can look like or how they can tell new stories in new ways, broadcast TV continues to give us the stuff that we know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—we will never tire of. It’s the difference between trying the cool new restaurant and coming home to eat your mother’s home cooking. One may be the best meal of your life, but the latter will always be something comforting that you know and love and want to come back to.
There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with playing it safe. And by that I don’t mean having the same group of white people complain about their middle class problems. I mean with accepting that certain TV series templates and formulas and story arcs—the kinds that broadcast TV has done a million times over—will remain popular because they provide nostalgic, predictable comfort in 21 or 43 minutes, with pre-designated breaks and always-welcome story resolutions . That’s broadcast TV at its best.
I’m not a person who believes that broadcast television will disappear because Millennials and Gen Z’ers don’t own TVs. The problem isn’t us not owning TVs (although cable prices are another topic altogether); the problem is broadcast networks failing to tap into that thing that makes their shows magical, which would motivate us to keep those TVs. In attempting to emulate specialty channels and streaming services within broadcast TV confines, networks play a losing game of giving us the lite version of the best TV shows out there.
As we know, TV is a mixture of business and art. The streaming service/specialty channel business models of delivering their services have allowed for the creation of shows that are—absolutely—art. Yes, the best TV shows are art and we appreciate them being so. But art doesn’t necessarily make us feel good; it has a different purpose. Broadcast television is a business first, art second. Which means that it needs to be predictable, accessible, and to make its audiences feel good, so they return to watch next week. No, it’s not art, but making people feel good is also important.
It’s the difference between Veep and Parks and Recreation. Veep satirizes the personalities that are drawn to and engage in politics. It shows fumbling, bumbling, narcissistic, ambition-and-glory-driven public servants whose absolute last thought is the best interests of the people they serve. Veep doesn’t comfort us—it makes us laugh despite our discomfort. Parks and Recreation, although having a broadly similar premise and setup, accomplishes the opposite. It comforts us, it puts our faith back into a our public servants (because maybe, maybe our leader is a Knope rather than a Meyer), it spreads optimism for our collective (and governmental) future. I watch and love both for—clearly—different reasons. But both need to exist. And the latter could not exist without the unique affordances and constraints of broadcast television.
Until now, Feel Good TV has been exclusively the territory of broadcast networks. This may not remain true for long, however. Netflix has already come close with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt by essentially copying (or staying true to) the broadcast TV formula. And Netflix did it not only really well, but also recognized people’s demand for the genre. Netflix has extensively promoted the show, making sure that audiences and critics alike would not miss it. Why broadcast networks don’t give their own Feel Good TV gems (like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, Superstore, and the like) the same kind of attention, promotion, and dedication can only be explained by broadcast network execs not recognizing that what they have are gems. And this failure to recognize what you have, is what may very well soon bite the broadcasters. Because while they may be the “home” of Feel Good TV now, there is little stopping television creators from finding greener pastures.