The Weird and Wild Anatomy of the Netflix Original Sitcom

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The Weird and Wild Anatomy of the Netflix Original Sitcom

For the most part, the original sitcoms Netflix has been churning out in the years since Fuller House made its splashy streaming debut will feel familiar to anyone who’s turned on a television even once since I Love Lucy took its final bow.

Half-hour multicam format? Check. Bright, flat lighting? Check. Live studio audience (and/or laugh track)? Check (and/or check). Throw in some nostalgic stunt-casting here (hello, TV teens of the ‘90s!), a genuine Sitcom Hall of Famer there (that’s Mr. Norman Lear to you), and enough corny jokes to give Mitchell’s famous cereal grain palace a run for its money, and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for traditional sitcom greatness.

And yet, while it’s absolutely true that many Netflix sitcoms are great—a few, even, rising to the level of excellent—what almost none of them are, as a rule, is traditional. And how could they be? Just as the streamer’s rules-be-damned, flood-the-market production model has disrupted well-worn trends across the board (fully upending, in the process, how people even talk about TV), so too has it redefined not just what a modern multicam sitcom can do, but how it can go about doing it.

In the earliest days of the Netflix sitcom (e.g., like, 2016), this rule-breaking wasn’t always easy to parse. On the one hand, you had things like Fuller House and One Day at a Time, whose comedic premises (intergenerational hijinks, with heart) were straightforward, and whose sitcom pedigrees (95% of the original Full House cast; Norman Lear) were pure gold. So their episodes ran a little long, and their character arcs pushed a few boundaries—no problem, the classic sitcom vibe was still there. On the other hand, though, you had things like Disjointed (the Kathy Bates cannabis comedy) and The Ranch (depressed conservative cowboys who say “fuck” like it’s a punchline). Sure, thanks to the likes of Chuck Lorre and Ashton Kutcher, both came backed by similarly legit sitcom pedigrees, but as early reviews (and the quick cancellation of Disjointed) bore out, you’d have to have been high to think either one vibed as anything close to a classic sitcom.

At the time, these four titles (plus a charmless Richie Rich) sitting side-by-side in the Goofy TV Comedies queue made it seem like Netflix didn’t quite know what it wanted its chapter in the history of the sitcom to cover. Was it hoping to elevate a genre that time (and modern television-watching sensibilities) had burnished to dull—if efficient—perfection? Or was it trying to turn the traditional multicam into something altogether weirder, forging paths through comedic and narrative territory way beyond the well-lit paths network television has long been bound to?

The answer, it seems, is yes. Yes, with things like Fuller House and One Day at a Time—and, more recently, Mr. Iglesias, Family Reunion, and The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia—Netflix absolutely aims to take a formula generations of sitcom watchers know and love, and kick it up to 11. But also yes, with things like The Ranch, Alexa & Katie, and (to Paste’s eternally shocked delight) No Good Nick, the streamer just as absolutely aims to turn that formula way weird. Because here’s the thing: Freed from the limitations imposed on the traditional multicam by generations of both FCC regulation and audience expectation, the Netflix sitcom—no matter where on the spectrum of classic to WTF it starts out—has proven itself to have the gift of almost endless flexibility.

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Clockwise from top left: Fuller House (2016-2020), Family Reunion (2019-), No Good Nick (2019), Alexa & Katie (2017-2020), The Ranch (2016-2020), One Day at a Time (2017-2019*), Mr. Iglesias (2019-), The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia (2020-)

What does all that flexibility look like in practice? Well, after many long hours of very corny research, we’ve crunched the data, and have come up with the following list of things that make up the weird and ever-wilder anatomy of the Netflix original sitcom. Whether you’re a sitcom agnostic who’s never given Netflix’s stabs at the genre a single thought, or a sitcom fan who’s been put off by the way they seem to reflect the traditional sitcom model through a funhouse mirror, may this guide give you reason to give at least one of these cornball series a real shot.

1. The Nostalgia Factor

While it’s true that a nostalgia-driven reboot trend has also hit the linear sitcom landscape hard in the half-decade since Girl Meets World premiered—and it’s just as true that multicams across broadcast and cable television had been littered with sitcom pros long before that—the Netflix sitcom, as a rule, goes all in on nostalgia. Fuller House and One Day at a Time are the most obvious examples of this, but there’s been at least one Big Nostalgia play in every sitcom Netflix has released since.

Usually, this play is aimed squarely at older Millennials, various stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s showing up both as parents of various teen characters—see: Sean Astin and Melissa Joan Hart on No Good Nick, Allison Munn and The Big Show on The Big Show Show, Tiffany Amber Thiessen on Alexa & Katie, Rev Run on All About the Washingtons, and Tia Mowry-Hardrict on Family Reunion—as well as other (less parental) adults—Gabriel Iglesias, Sherri Shepherd and Oscar Nuñez as public school employees on Mr. Iglesias, Ashley Tisdale and Bridgit Mendler as Dennis Quaid’s unhappy daughters on Merry Happy Whatever, Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson as downer brothers on The Ranch, Jaleel White… everywhere…, and Mario Lopez and Chelsea Kane as family friends on The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia. As often as it angles for Millennial attention, though, the Netflix sitcom also uses nostalgia to take aim at the Gen Z crowd, pulling in teen actors from fan-favorite Nickelodeon and Disney sitcoms to play the kids of all those ‘80s/’90s stars above—here, think Theodore Barnes on Prince of Peoria, Landry Bender and Isaak Presley on Fuller House, Cree Cicchino, Tucker Albrizzi and Coy Stewart on Mr. Iglesias, Paris Berelc, Emery Kelly, Nathaniel Potvin and Jack Griffo on Alexa & Katie, and Siena Agudong, Lauren Lindsey Donzis, Kalama Epstein and Kyla-Drew on No Good Nick.

On the one hand, while casting all those heavy-hitter adults makes cynically good sense, drawing so many names from the Nickelodeon/Disney pool feels a bit like cheating, Netflix cashing in on the casting talent both Disney and Nickelodeon have worked for decades to hone, rather than taking the opportunity to find all new funny, charming teens to call their own. On the other hand, making a cynical grab for known factors across the generations is just good business, because the next thing that defines the Netflix sitcom is…

2. The Ambiguous Audience

Back in the land of linear programming, every network that traffics in multicam sitcoms has a clearly defined lane: On the broadcast end of things, NBC specializes in the workplace comedy, CBS goes for put-upon parents/maladjusted singles, ABC does families, and FOX does animation. Cable, meanwhile, has Freeform in the messy twentysomethings lane, TBS (and, lately, Pop TV) in the weirdo adult one, and Nickelodeon and Disney cover all things aimed at precocious kids and/or goofy teens.

Netflix sitcoms have no lanes. Yes, The Ranch (f-bombs) and Disjointed (pot jokes) mostly skew adult, while Prince of Peoria (outdated ‘boy’ humor) and Team Kaylie (the less funny cousin to Bunk’d) mostly skew pre-teen. From Alexa & Katie to Mr. Iglesias, though, just about every other title in Netflix’s small-but-growing sitcom arsenal is set-up to appeal to adult and kid/teen audiences in more or less equal measure. On something like No Good Nick, this means the audience is invited to emotionally invest both in Disney-esque high school melodramas, and in Liz (Hart) and Ed’s (Astin) broadcast-level marital/professional problems. (And, to a slightly lesser extent, Nick’s dad’s more darkly-shaded criminal ones.) Family Reunion, meanwhile, gives as much time to the four McKellan kids—who themselves span at least three different Disney demographic groups—as it does to their parents (Mowry-Hardrict and Anthony Alabi) and grandparents (Loretta Devine and Richard Roundtree), while One Day at a Time not only covers the network-spanning sprawl of the Alvarez family’s narrative needs, but also brings in Schneider (Todd Grinnell), whose solo arc occasionally gets so prickly even TBS might hesitate to embrace it. (In that respect, especially, the fact that ODAAT ended up on Pop TV after being prematurely canceled by Netflix makes perfect sense.)

For audiences used to being able to turn on a network sitcom and know, based on context, more or less what to expect, this kind of demographic mash-up can feel disorienting—not for nothing did we deem No Good Nick the most confounding sitcom we’d ever seen! But taken in the “everything, for everyone, all the time” context Netflix has spent the last few years building, these sitcoms crafting stories that cater to such a broad, ambiguous audience isn’t confounding; it’s completely natural.

3. Diversity as a Feature, not a Token

In that same spirit, while many broadcast sitcoms have become notably more diverse in recent years—in terms of race, at least, if not always in other ways—the Netflix sitcom got to start with diversity as a guiding light. True, the streamer’s first three traditional sitcoms (Richie Rich in 2015, followed by Fuller House and The Ranch in 2016) were extremely (if not entirely) white. The majority of the series that followed, however—starting with One Day at a Time in 2017, then continuing with Alexa & Katie, Prince of Peoria and All About the Washingtons in 2018, No Good Nick, Mr. Iglesias, Family Reunion, and Team Kaylie in 2019, and now The Expanding Life of Ashley Garcia in 2020—have either featured, or have entirely centered, non-white characters and experiences, whose stories were created, written, or directed by similarly diverse teams.

Corny as the broadcast-based multicam sitcom can be, this kind of representation is still important, and always worth fighting to improve. On Netflix, however—where neither the FCC nor politically squeamish commercial interests hold sway, and where all the ambiguous storytelling outlined above has rendered any expectations the audience might have moot—it has moved from important to productive. With something like Mr. Iglesias, this has meant getting to show the ways in which the American public education system treats black, brown and poor white students like they’re wholly expendable, without layering it in so many corny jokes the point gets lost. On One Day at a Time, meanwhile, it means Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) coming out arc not just being about her sexuality, but about her identity as a Puerto Rican woman, while on Family Reunion, it means getting to show Jade (Talia Jackson) confronting colorism and anti-interracial dating in her own community, and Cocoa and Moz (Mowry-Hardrict and Alabi) sitting Shaka (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) and Mazzi (Cameron J. Wright) down for The Talk, after two smugly racist white officers pull guns on the boys in front of their own home. Shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Living Single got to be frank about similar issues in their own time, but that’s been more the exception than the rule. On Netflix, it is starting out as the rule.

The freedom Netflix sitcoms have to take on diverse stories extends beyond race. Most gratingly, of course, there’s Kutcher’s deeply unpleasant conservative comedy, The Ranch, which uses its Netflix bonafides to layer stories about domestic abuse, substance abuse, abortion, miscarriage and suicide on top of the jokes about bull castration and economic depression it promises from the start. I’ll own the fact that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder when it comes to The Ranch (look, as a High Plains native, I resent the disdain they show for the kinds of folks I grew up with, who might be conservative but aren’t universally mean boors, while as a fan of comedic fluency, I resent that so many sitcom pros seem to have forgotten how to land a joke), but the fact that those topics are made the meat of a multicam sitcom at all is notable. Similarly notable, Alexa & Katie centering a teen (Paris Berelc) with cancer who starts the series actively undergoing chemo, and not shying away from the possibly mortal consequences of her diagnosis. See also: Jeremy (Kalama Epstein) having his first kiss with another boy and later coming out to his family on No Good Nick, Gabe (Iglesias) struggling with sobriety on Mr. Iglesias, and both Penny wrestling with her anxiety and Elena first coming out to her family, then starting a relationship with her non-binary partner Syd (Sheridan Pierce), on One Day at a Time.

It’s all so much! Which is why it’s so luck that the last thing that defines a Netflix sitcom is…

4. All Those Extra Minutes (and the Season-Long Arcs that Follow)

In not being weighed down by multiple long ad breaks, the Netflix sitcom enjoys meaningfully longer episodes than its commercial-laden cousins on broadcast and cable TV—the pilot of Family Reunion, for example, runs a full 34 minutes long, while the pilot of Marlon Wayans’ Marlon, which streams alongside Family Reunion but originates from NBC, tops out at a tight 20:04. The pilot of Fuller House, if you want an even sharper comparison, runs all the way to 36 minutes. The pilot of Full House, the Netflix reboot’s beloved predecessor? A trim 25.

For a genre as long-lived (read: finely tuned) as the multicam sitcom, these extra minutes can occasionally result in a shagginess you’d be hard pressed to find in shows developed for the traditional broadcast setting. For the most part, though, they work in the Netflix sitcom’s favor, making room for the kinds of big, ambitious stories described in more detail above. (Plus, obviously, more jokes.)

Similarly, the full-season drop signature to the Netflix model incentivizes serialized storytelling, even in something as inherently episodic as the multicam sitcom. No Good Nick, which uses its single season to follow a con artist foster kid through her entire scheme embedding with the family who ruined her dad’s life, is perhaps the best example of this trend towards serialization, but from Mr. Iglesias’s academic decathlon to Fuller House’s surrogacy arc to Merry Happy Whatever’s excruciatingly long family Christmas visit, serialization of at least some sort is present throughout, giving the wild and weird beast that is the Netflix original sitcom room to grow into whatever it might want to be—audience expectations be damned.

With so much production shut down for the pandemic, it’s a given that Netflix’s sitcom legacy will slow down for a time, too. But with Kevin James’ NASCAR sitcom and Jane Lynch and Cyndi Lauper’s mystery Golden Girls-esque project already greenlit, we’re just as certain that whenever it comes back, it will be as big and bold as ever.

Original multicam sitcoms (so many of them!) are available streaming now on Netflix. Presuming you’ve already loved One Day at a Time and binged Fuller House (whether you loved it or not), we suggest giving Family Reunion a shot next. But you do you!



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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