The news today that Enlisted star Geoff Stults has been cast in a CBS sitcom pilot does not mean death for the show, although it’s not a good sign. But it does highlight just how difficult it’s become for a comedy to launch at midseason in the current network climate. With so few shows earning the kind of ratings to really serve as a springboard for midseason replacements, almost everything withers and dies on the vine these days. To give a sense of how hard it is? The last live-action mid-season comedy to get more than two seasons was Parks & Recreation, and that launched out of The Office at that show’s peak.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was not too unusual to get a big comedy hit from a midseason debut. Moonlighting, Perfect Strangers, Married With Children, The Wonder Years, Coach, Blossom, Ellen, Third Rock from the Sun, Just Shoot Me! and Moesha (don’t laugh—it was the anchor of UPN’s schedule) all debuted between January and March. Such successes got fewer and further between in the early ‘00s, but you still have Malcolm in the Middle, My Wife and Kids (it lasted five years) and, of course, The Office to point to.
Since the merger of The WB and UPN into The CW, coupled with the slow but steady drop-off in network television’s dominance, it’s basically a death sentence for a midseason comedy to launch after the fall. Dramas have it a little easier—Grey’s Anatomy, Castle, Parenthood and Scandal are recent successes—but sitcoms are rationed out more sparingly across the network schedule, and there’s so few spots for them to launch where they aren’t going up against another network’s ratings juggernaut. Since the launch of the CW, here are the midseason comedies that have survived to a second season:
Rules of Engagement (first aired Feb. 5, 2007) – This cockroach of a multi-camera comedy refused to die, year after year, even when CBS mulled airing the show on Saturdays in 2011. That never actually happened, since that year CBS used the David Spade/Patrick Warburton starrer as it always did—to plug gaps in its schedule after new sitcoms flopped. The show always got decent enough ratings to survive year after year, airing seven seasons in all (but just 100 episodes). It’d probably be the biggest midseason success story if not for:
Parks & Recreation (first aired April 9, 2009) – Remember, this was initially going to be a straight Office spinoff, and much like that show, its initial six episodes debuted to mixed reviews and ratings but got a second season anyway because of the clear potential on display. Parks has never been a ratings juggernaut, but it’s attracted a consistent audience, Emmy nominations, and consistent critical raves. It’s basically been guaranteed a seventh season already.
Better Off Ted (first aired March 18, 2009) – ABC likes giving its comedies a chance. Better Off Ted was a good, funny show, and even though nobody watched it, it got a shocking second-season renewal, probably because it displayed the same kind of potential NBC saw in Parks. But its super-arch tone and weird scheduling (ABC ended up cramming most of the second season into back-to-back airings) doomed it to the “critically beloved two-season wonder” junkpile, along with creator Victor Fresco’s earlier show Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
Happy Endings (first aired April 13, 2011) – Yes, there’s a recurring theme here. Happy Endings is the only ABC sitcom on this list that made it to a third season, but like its brethren, it never found the audience it truly deserved. The minute ABC moved it out of the Modern Family lead-out timeslot, its slow death was sealed. Remember, Damon Wayans Jr. shot his role in the New Girl pilot (and Adam Pally lined up Best Friends Forever) because they assumed Happy Endings would die. Credit to ABC for keeping it around, but if only it had lived longer.
Breaking In (first aired April 6, 2011) – Never forget that Breaking In was renewed for a second season by Fox. It aired five of its 13-episode second season, btw, although it had a full run in Portugal. And people say Christian Slater’s shows don’t do well!
Bob’s Burgers (first aired January 9, 2011) – This doesn’t totally count, because Fox launches animated shows in its Sunday block all the time. It’s one of the few time-slots that is still guaranteed decent numbers. But still, this and Parks are the only mid-season comedies that are still with us.
Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 (first aired April 11, 2012) – Much like Happy Endings, this got a surprise second season after a warm critical reaction. It’s the last mid-season comedy to make it, and it barely made it, lasting 13 episodes in its second season and not even airing the last seven. ABC doomed Apartment 23 and Happy Endings by pairing them and airing episodes out of order, but at the same time, that Modern Family lead-out is pretty much all it’s got to debut new shows. At some point, it has to hope that mid-season debuts will fly on their own. But in recent years, that just hasn’t been the case.