Photo by Paul Drinkwater

When they click, sitcoms can exert a grip on the TV-viewing consciousness that hourlong dramas just don’t have. It’s not as much fun to relive an ER in syndication as it is to come upon an old Seinfeld. You don’t even have to watch a whole episode. Jerry cracks wise, Elaine makes a face, George agitates, Kramer falls over. You get your laugh fix, then you switch over and Ross and Rachel are flirting or fighting crazily and you smile some more. Oh right, that one. That was funny. Night’s over.

But where’s the new Seinfeld? It’s when we realize that there’s nothing to replace the crack timing of the Friends cast, the tart farce of Frasier or even the slow-burn mastery that is the lifeblood of Everybody Loves Raymond, now in its ninth and final season, that it becomes obvious that classic sitcoms are curious alchemic mixtures that are harder to master than the umpteenth forensics mystery, medical drama or Law & Order spinoff. We’ll accept six new procedural dramas a season as time fillers, but viewers routinely ignored every Friends ripoff the networks threw up, because who wants to endure even 22 minutes that don’t make you laugh?

So now we’re in a sitcom drought. What’s fascinating is that all you hear is how the sitcom is dying, but what’s really going on is that discerning audiences are waiting for something to wow them again. In the early ’80s, eight of the top 10 Nielsen shows were one-hour dramas. By 1988, eight were sitcoms, thanks to The Cosby Show, Cheers and The Golden Girls. And then ER, Law & Order and CSI swung the pendulum back. It’ll happen again, and this month, three networks debut new comedies they hope will do the trick.

Right now, the big debate is whether the cure-all for the half-hour comedy series lies in the single-camera format: removing the soundtrack laughter, going on location and indulging in the freedom that comes with not being stuck setting everything on one or two sets in front of an audience (known as the three-camera setup). The argument goes that the award-winning single-camera shows Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development, with their satirically edgy attitude, are the water-cooler comedies right now, though together their viewership doesn’t approach even that of a processed studio-audience yawner like Two and a Half Men.

Love games
Photo by Carin Baer

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ABC’s much-hyped new entry, Jake in Progress, is aggressively single-camera, to the point of being slicker than Desperate Housewives, a show that feels like an hourlong sitcom anyway with its patently fake back-lot suburbia and rat-a-tat campy dialogue. On Jake, all of New York is the canvas as John Stamos’ titular public relations exec solves image problems for his clients — a chance for the show to lampoon show-biz types — while he tries to amend his own playboy persona by espousing the desire to commit to one girl, which is conveniently a chance for the show to cast a revolving door of hotties.

Created by Austin Winsberg, Jake in Progress is a show with its own image problem: It wants to be as fast-paced and observationally wacky as Seinfeld, but also as cutesily attuned to modern dating woes as Sex and the City. Too often it winds up neither, just broad and overstuffed. The show seems to be operating under the idea that not having canned yuks means that made-up joke reaction time can be filled with even more 100-mile-an-hour dialogue and zany incident. One begins to wonder if Winsberg’s original concept for the series, a 24-style season-long look at one bad date night in Jake’s life, might have yielded something more pleasurably focused and nuanced than another comedy built around girl-of-the-week romantic chaos.

But there are joys to be had, mostly from the cast. Stamos is a sympathetic reformed rake, a combination of puppy-dog affability and a catlike prowl. And he’s flanked by a TV-friendly support group in Wendie Malick as his pregnant boss, Ian Gomez as his kvetching dentist friend and Rick Hoffman as a bitter illusionist. This may not be as magic a foursome as Seinfeld or Sex and the City offered, but hey, this is a show with “in progress” in the title. I’m sure everyone involved would like to be given the chance to see where things lead, and it’s a fair assessment at this point.

I’m loath to say anything negative, on the other hand, about a series that will give us the seriously funny and fabulously inventive Daily Show alumnus Steve Carell week after week. But it isn’t exactly surprising to learn that NBC’s The Office can’t compare to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s lauded, mold-crushing, brilliant BBC original. (Gervais and Merchant are executive producers on this one, too, with King of the Hill vet Greg Daniels, who developed it for our airwaves.)

That said, it’s still a funny show, with Carell handily wringing wince-inducing laughs out of the American doppelgänger of Gervais’ David Brent, an energetic paper-company boss with a horrifically misguided notion of what’s funny, what’s tactless, when he should lead and when he should simply go away. For Carell’s Michael Scott, a daylong diversity seminar — sparked, of course, by his own inappropriate recitation of a Chris Rock routine — is a gold mine of opportunities to seem colorblind cool at the same time he comes off as ridiculously insensitive. When the African-American seminar leader introduces himself as Mr. Brown, Carell chortles, boasting, “First test, I won’t call you that!”

And it’s good that the mock documentary framing device — yes, single-camera — was kept, which eschews “laugh now!” music cues and instead treasures awkward silences. What’s missing, though, is the weirdly soulful pathos of the British program, the painful sting that accompanied each wrong word Gervais said and that turned the entire series into an exquisite character study of 21st-century insecurity. There are people who can’t watch the original The Office because for them such a realistic dramatization of a train-wreck personality isn’t funny, whereas for those who have been hankering for comedy to make a scarier leap, its mere 12-episode run (and a Christmas special) has been revisited over and over in the manner of Monty Python worship. Is it a criticism, then, that this new incarnation won’t have that going-too-far feeling, that it won’t bring out the accident gawker in the viewer, that it will just be a better-than-average comedy about kooky workplace types?

Fast-food rebellion
Photo by Justin Stephens
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What to make of the fact that the surprise find, then, is Fox’s Life on a Stick, which has the distinction of being a — gasp! — three-camera effort from a creator whose last show lacked an audience, literally. Victor Fresco’s late, lamented Andy Richter Controls the Universe from a few years ago was an original dose of Walter Mitty–esque out-there comedy, and a similar sensibility — mining those times in life when the doldrums and overimagination collide — enlivens this show as well.

The loose scenario involves high school grad Laz (Zachary Knighton), an idealistic layabout who makes a deal with his control-challenged parents (Matthew Glave and Amy Yasbeck) to help steer his 16-year-old stepsister Molly (Saige Thompson) from unchanneled teenage rage to social functionality, in return for not getting kicked out of the house. The title is a goof on the Hot Dog on a Stick–style food-court establishment where Laz, his affably one-step-behind best friend Fred (Charlie Finn) and girlfriend-in-crime Lily (Rachelle Lefevre) work and, naturally, brood wittily over their McJob-like existence.

Life on a Stick exposes the benefits of the taped-before-an-audience arrangement: When you cast well, as this show has, the repartee can feel electric. And based on the breezily funny pilot episode — a deadpan fast-food rebellion version of Spartacus — there is strong potential here for an infectious comedy about the simple absurdity in anybody having authority over anyone else. Fresco couldn’t make his point more humorously clear than in whom everyone in Laz’s extended family — even mom and dad — goes to for advice: Laz’s wisdom-spouting 8-year-old half-brother Gus (Frankie Ryan Manriquez). “You’re good at what you do,” Laz says with awe to Gus after an especially enlightening counseling session. So is Fresco, laugh track or not. Let’s hope Fox — notorious for taking risks with programming but giving up all too easily (Richter, Wonderfalls, and the teetering-on-the-abyss Arrested Development) — makes judicious use of its own authority and gives this agreeably loopy series a chance.

Life on a Stick | Fox | Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.
The Office | NBC | Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.

Jake in Progress | ABC | Thursdays, 8 p.m.

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