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The Rise of the Millennial Sitcom

Mar 16, 2016

The sitcom world is rife with tropes: Love Interests of the Week, the Secret Relationship, the Yo-yo Plot Point (any story the writers just can’t stop going back to). These tropes have been defined and redefined for new generations of viewers. Characters striving to maintain the perfect nuclear family on Leave It to Beaver became characters looking to achieve a work-life balance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, became characters inept at both work and life on 30 Rock. That New Girl’s Jess Day and Nick Miller are subject to the same "will they, won’t they" mishegas as Cheers’s Sam Malone and Diane Chambers is a nice reminder of how little human behavior ever really changes.

But in the last few years, a new kind of sitcom has emerged on cable and streaming networks, complete with its own tropes. We now have "the cell-phone emergency" (Crazy Ex-GirlfriendBroad City, You’re the Worst), "the mid-afternoon brunch" (Girls, Broad City, You’re the Worst), the “dating-app disaster” (New Girl, Man Seeking Woman), the “wander-the-city walk-and-talk" (You’re the Worst, Girls, Love, Master of None, Broad City). Classic network sitcoms traded in the “will they, won’t they” sitcom staple; shows like Broad City and Girls have embraced the “are they or aren’t they” — that messy gray area between friends with benefits and friends with benefits who act like a couple without ever labeling it. Broad City’s Ilana and Lincoln, You’re the Worst’s Gretchen and Jimmy, Girls’s Hannah and Adam, and now Jessa and Adam, are all couples we’ve encountered (or been a part of), but I’m unaware of this kind of relationship having been addressed on TV more than five years ago, beyond the question of whether or not a certain couple were, indeed, “on a break.”

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Sitcoms of the '90s like Will & GraceFriendsCaroline in the CityThe Nanny, etc., were largely aspirational — even if their characters didn’t have the things they wanted, they seemed certain about the directions in which they were headed. They looked for love, marriage, and family; they climbed clear corporate ladders; they made firm decisions, even if they were difficult. This classic-style sitcom still exists, in high quality and quantity: The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, are also made for (and, to some extent, by) millennials, but their major goals are not attempting to reflect the specific concerns of a generation. By contrast, sitcoms like Broad City, Girls, Master of None, and, most recently, Love, seem destined to become time capsules of a highly specific moment in a generation’s development. While each of these shows is distinct in tone and humor, they share similar concerns: They star 20- or early-30-somethings in major cities and feature characters who are educated, have relative financial stability, the dubious luxury of being able to date around instead of settling down, the choice between passion and money, infinite time to wander the streets talking about life, and a more complicated relationship with sex.