Last week's official cancellation of According to Jim, which airs its final episode a week from tonight, robs TV writers of one of their most reliable punchlines. It was a show that literally no one ever admitted to watching, and yet managed to stay on the air for eight seasons -- as many seasons as The Cosby Show. But while no one will ever suggest that the 2000s belonged to Jim Belushi the way the 1990s were Jerry Seinfeld's, tribute must be paid nonetheless.
The According to Jim deathwatch had become one of the grand traditions of the business. The series was never a solid ratings success, and let's not even start on the subject of Emmy recognition. But it always seemed to do just enough to survive for one more year, to the point where series star Courtney Thorne-Smith ended up doing more episodes of According to Jim than of Melrose Place. Being kept off the air in the early part of the 2007-08 season also meant that it had episodes in the can for use during the writers' strike, which no doubt helped to give it a place on the winter replacement schedule again this year. What was funniest (if occasionally galling) about the persistence of the show was that it was on ABC, a network that, as fans of The Knights of Prosperity and Pushing Daisies would attest, is not known for its patience with shows that get off to slow starts.
According to Jim, at its core, was about a husband, his very attractive wife, their brood of children, and the husband's wacky best friend. An average episode would find Jim getting himself into some sort of trouble, only to eventually apologize to wife Cheryl. It's a premise that would not have looked out of place in the first decade of television, and the total conventionality of the approach was certainly what earned the series the scorn of critics.
Yet Americans like the conventional. We say we love Arrested Development, but in the soothing anonymity of the home, alone with just our Nielsen boxes, we watch According to Jim instead. And formula shows don't always or even often get criticized for doing exactly what's expected, as long as they deal with favored demographic groups (Gossip Girl). The CBS procedurals are certainly as predictable as According to Jim, but while none of them are major critical hits, none have been treated as utter jokes either.
While Jim had a job on the show, its focus was always on his family -- their little issues, and their reaction to his quirks. The domestic sitcom has been on the endangered list for some time, and even recent comedies centered on the home like Everybody Loves Raymond rarely had the children as the focus of an episode. The modern series, or at least the type that tends to get critical recognition, centers on single people or workplace situations.
Why has the domestic sitcom gone so far out of style? It wasn't that long ago that ABC aired Full House for a solid decade, and while that didn't score massive ratings either, it seemed to penetrate pop culture to a greater extent than According to Jim. (Quick: Name the kids on Full House. Now try it with According to Jim. See?). The easy explanation is that all "family" shows, not just sitcoms, went out of fashion around the same time that it became commonplace for every member of a household to have their own personal television, but I'm not certain that's the case. American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, to name two, are still able to bring families together. It will take just a good premise, and one actor the caliber of the young Michael J. Fox, to bring back the family sitcom.
But until that happens, even if you can't honestly mourn the impending end of According to Jim, at least have respect for its achievement. Almost everyone who works in television would kill to have such a "joke" on their resume.