Will COVID-19 put the workplace comedy TV series out of business?

If there’s one thing we call agree on in this divided, broken society we’re living in right now, it’s that the sooner the world goes back to the way it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, the better. For now, the best those of us still living in lockdown can do is live vicariously through movies and TV shows, which might explain the stellar streaming stats of The Office on NBC’s Peacock platform recently.

Despite its last episode airing in 2013, this classic workplace comedy drew more viewers than modern day juggernauts like The Mandalorian and Bridgerton – and part of that’s gotta be because it reminds us all of what life was like pre-coronavirus.

Sure, few of us have ever worked for a boss as idiosyncratically infuriating, ridiculous and endearing as Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott, but almost all of us know what it’s like to be part of the 9 to 5 grind. And while we might have moaned about it back then, after almost a year of working from home, those of us lucky enough to still have a job are now contemplating the once unthinkable: we actually miss going to work.

The upshot of this is that workplace comedy shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Scrubs, The IT Crowd, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Brooklyn 99, and Superstore have never seemed more appealing, simply because they feature colleagues occupying the same space!

But what about the future of workplace comedy TV shows? Experts are already predicting that the post-pandemic working environment is going to be markedly different for most of us, with dull office blocks soon becoming a thing of the past – so what happens to the sitcoms set in them? Is the workplace comedy in danger of dying out?

Understanding the appeal of workplace comedies

If this seems like a slightly hysterical reaction, remember what makes workplace comedies so popular in the first place: they’re relatable. Chances are that if you’re watching one of these shows, you have a job (or have had one before), and the fundamentals of any fictional workplace are the same as their real-life counterparts: there’s a boss and their subordinates, and there’s the place they all meet every working day so that together, they can deliver whatever product or service they’re employed to provide.

This means that as an audience, we have an uncommonly high degree of shared experience with the characters in workplace comedies than we do with other genres, which helps the comedy land that much easier. Even zanier shows can engineer amusing scenarios and engaging relationship dynamics that still resonate, simply by remaining anchored (however tenuously) to the near-universal relatability of the workplace environment.

And yet, therein lies the problem: if the power of workplace comedy TV shows is derived from viewers’ shared work experiences, what happens when that shared experience no longer exists?

Adaptation will be key to the workplace comedy’s survival

Of course, for workplace comedies centred around professions less affected by the shift towards remote working – shows set in restaurants, police and emergency services, factories, or even spaceships – it’ll be business as usual. They won’t have to reinvent themselves too radically, and they’ll still reflect the day-to-day experiences of a sizeable chunk of their audience. But there’s a limit to how many workplace sitcoms can mine the same settings before the genre risks becoming stale, so we need office-based sitcoms to stick around for variety’s sake, if nothing else!

It won’t be easy, though; many of the familiar formulas and tropes of the genre simply won’t work anymore in the context of hybrid working environments. Instead, the onus will be on showrunners of new and existing workplace comedies to experiment with different formats and reinvent established storytelling conventions if they want their sitcom to remain relevant.

Last year’s Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet quarantine special was a perfect example of this: writers Rob McElhenney, Megan Ganz and David Hornsby worked around real-life filming restrictions by staging the entire episode as a series of video conference calls. The end result was both hilarious and disarmingly heartfelt, tapping into the pandemic zeitgeist – the unexpected hilarity and inevitable isolation we all felt at some point during lockdown – in a way that a more traditional sitcom set-up wouldn’t be capable of doing.

What this ultimately proves, then, is that the future is still bright for workplace sitcoms, provided the creative teams involved learn to adapt their storytelling to reflect the new normal. Heck, it might even breathe new life into the genre! So, in that sense, the workplace comedy TV show is a lot like us: it’ll survive and maybe even thrive post-pandemic… just so long as it’s willing to adjust, that is.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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