This week, CBS pulled The McCarthys from its schedule. Instead of airing the rest of season one, they plan on airing re-runs of The Big Bang Theory. The sheer disappointment I felt at this announcement took me by surprise and it really hit me how much I’ve come to love The McCarthys.
My first impression of The McCarthys, back when the networks all put out first looks of all their shows, was that it would be a mediocre show that I would feel obligated to watch every episode of. The McCarthys was the only network show with a gay lead character. There were ensembles with gay characters in them, like How to Get Away with Murder and Jane the Virgin, but The McCarthys was the sole network show that dared to suggest gay people can be the stars of our own stories. So, like Sean Saves the World, Partners and The New Normal before it, I knew I’d be locked into watching it for better or for worse. And I was definitely cynically expecting it to be for the worse.
But, as it turned out, watching The McCarthys every week was the furthest thing from a chore or something to get through. It was joyful and comforting. First and foremost, The McCarthys is a firing-on-all-cylinders comedy. Sure, it doesn’t have the out-of-the-box cleverness of a Community, but it got its specific brand of snappy family comedy just right. Marjorie McCarthy, played by Laurie Metcalf, was a comedy powerhouse and the obvious strength of the show from the beginning. But, quickly everyone else started to shine and the ensemble developed a chemistry and quickness that made the show reliably funny every week.
The comedic aptitude of The McCarthys is enough to make it worth saving, but there’s more that made it special to me. Family sitcoms like this have an especially difficult job and need an incredible level of emotional savvy to be just right. The McCarthys had an incredible balance of realism and escapism– it’s a fantasy in disguise. The idea that a family can fight but love each other is the oldest cliche in the book, but it’s special when it’s done right. Often “family that’s dysfunctional but loves each other” really means a family with no significant problems or one that will brush their problems under the rug at the end of the episode with an uncomfortably fake resolution. The McCarthys felt beautifully real, from the naturalness of their interactions to the way the show incorporated things like Jackie’s pregnancy and Ronny’s sexuality into this world. There were many times the show hit emotional nerves that stunned me, without feeling emotionally manipulative or putting the comedy on pause. Marjorie’s panic about how the family would treat her when she was old felt raw without disrupting the sitcom tone. For the best example of The McCarthys hitting a perfect emotional beat, I’d like to revisit my review of the episode “The Good Coach”:
Arthur explains that seeing Ronny spending so much time studying basketball reminded him of Ronny’s youth, when he used to pretend to like sports and pretend to not be gay. He talks about how he never wants Ronny to feel like he did during that time again. Wow. I will never get over this moment. It’s not a parent coming around to accepting or tolerating their kid, which we’ve seen. It’s him actually understanding that Ronny doesn’t want to be straight, that Ronny’s problem is not– and was never –being gay, but only the expectation that he shouldn’t be. And it’s coming from a father like Arthur, who seems so old-fashioned and has trouble expressing love or emotions of any kind, but this concern was important enough for him to say it flat out. Because of Brian Gallivan’s writing, Pamela Fryman’s directing, and Jack McGee’s acting, it’s not some jarring out of character monologue. It’s just Arthur really and truly understanding something about his son and about queer existence. From the moment I first heard about The McCarthys while checking out the new crop of network sitcoms, I knew it would be an important show simply by virtue of being the only show with a queer lead, important by default. This scene is what made me feel like it was important by its own merit.
Moments like this are what made me love this sweet show and what made it become my weekly comfort show. Perhaps The McCarthys problem is that they went far enough to potentially isolate old-fashioned viewers without going far enough to actually bring in a fringe audience. It’s very telling that despite the attention you might expect the show to garner from being a gay-led show in the middle of CBS’s Thursday night lineup, it wasn’t one of the 10 shows to receive a GLAAD Award nomination for best comedy this year, nor did it receive extensive coverage from popular gay interest website The Backlot. As you can see from the shows that did receive GLAAD Award nominations, there are things out there more interesting than a safe portrayal of a white cis gay man.
The networks seem stuck in a perpetual cycle in which they hesitantly make the safest show possible (Partners, The New Normal and Sean Saves the World were also all about white cis gay men), queer audiences realize they have the option of flipping to Netflix or HBO for something more interesting and then the networks tell themselves that if they can’t succeed with even the most tame option, they definitely can’t venture out further.
CBS is at a crossroads. They can do what they did with Partners and cut a show that’s not actually performing poorly. Entertainment Weekly wrote of Partners‘s cancellation: “Though those numbers are comparably low to some of CBS’ other comedies, Partners is certainly one of the highest-rated new show to be axed this season…Partners’ ratings are even better than Ben & Kate, which, despite averaging around a 1.8 rating this season, has received a back six order from Fox.” The McCarthys is similarly not doing terrible in the ratings, with the last episode getting 7.11 million viewers. So, I suggest that instead of axing another show that’s doing alright just because it seems like a slight risk, they bring the show back and go further. They could keep The McCarthys wonderful feel good, low-stakes vibe while incorporating a more diverse roster of recurring queer characters. At least giving this approach a try might be the networks best shot at breaking out of the frustrating pattern they’ve become locked into when it comes to gay-led shows.