If comedy hasn’t exactly returned to the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, when NBC’s Thursday night lineup pulled so much weight that mediocrities such as Veronica’s Closet and Caroline in the City would draw upwards of 17 million viewers every week, the genre is healthier than it’s been in years.
Despite Charlie Sheen’s dogged efforts to drive the show off a cliff, the refurbished Two and a Half Men premiered Sept. 19 to a staggering 28.7 million viewers and a 10.7 rating among adults 18-49, making it the most-watched program of the new season. (Marking a rare instance when the NFL wasn’t top dog, Ashton Kutcher’s Men debut beat out NBC’s Sunday Night Football; the Sept. 25 Steelers-Colts showdown drew 20.4 million viewers and an 8.3 in the demo.)
If that weren’t vindication enough for CBS, the network also boasts the top-rated new show of the young season. Leading out of Men at 9:30 p.m., the hipster comedy 2 Broke Girls premiered to huge numbers on the Sept. 19, serving up 19.4 million viewers and a 7.1 in the demo. The following week, Girls moved into its 8:30 p.m. digs, drawing 11.8 million viewers and an 11.8 rating after the season premiere of How I Met Your Mother.
Also noteworthy is that the median age of the Girls audience is 47.6 years, almost infantile when compared to CBS’ new Friday show, A Gifted Man (60.7).
Fox last week ordered up an additional 11 installments of Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, making it the first freshman series of 2011-12 to land a full-season order. After opening Sept. 20 with an impressive 10.3 million viewers and a 4.8 rating in the demo, New Girl has shown little sign of slowing down. The second episode delivered 9.28 million viewers and a Tuesday-best 4.5 rating; as befits a Fox comedy, New Girl hit the sweet spot of the demo, with a median age of 34 years.
Still, comedy is a particularly subjective genre, one that tends to falter when it’s, um, not funny. Leading out of NBC’s new-baby sitcom Up All Night, Hank Azaria’s plunge into sad post-divorce sex with an even sadder Kathryn Hahn has left viewers scrambling for something a little more upbeat. On Sept. 28, the third installment of Azaria’s Free Agents drew just 3.07 million viewers and a 1.0 rating, making it ripe for cancellation.
Performing much better as the lead-in to Agents, Up All Night is averaging 7.42 million viewers and a 2.7 in the demo in its Wednesday night anchor slot. On Thursday night, Whitney is averaging 6.11 million viewers and a 2.9 rating—not a disaster by any means, but also not enough to beat out Person of Interest on CBS and Fox’s The X Factor, not to mention the final season of ABC’s Desperate Housewives. (Despite being freighted with gags about weddings, boyfriends, and Kegel exercises, Whitney is one of just two new shows that draws more males in the demo. The other is the big-budget Fox drama Terra Nova.)
Lest one be lulled into making any grand predictions about comedy’s survival—among the sitcoms that have yet to premiere are ABC’s Apartment 23, Last Man Standing, and Man Up—it’s instructive to recall one of the lessons of the 2010-11 season. “Last year in premiere week, the highest rated show in the demo was $#*! My Dad Says,” says Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate. “That about says it all.”