Why Ghosts Deserves to be Network TV's Number One Comedy

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If you've seen Rose McIver or Utkarsh Ambudkar on Stephen Colbert, CBS Mornings, or various other stops on the press circuit lately, it's because they are now the stars of a big TV show in Ghosts.

Adapted from a British TV show by Joe Port, many viewers might not have had a lot of hope for the show considering the mixed history of British TV spin-offs and the fact that it was dumped onto network TV rather than an edgier network.

However, the show was network television's highest-rated new comedy last year.

Behind The Camera - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 7

It has also continued to build its audience after its first season success: Variety reported that Ghosts was the network's top comedy on both live viewing and the Paramount Plus streaming site, and the show has helped lift the slate of CBS sitcoms above the competition.

But why has this show broken through from such a disadvantaged start?

Hetty's Past - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 5

Let's catch you up on what this show's about and why its comic premise is so strong. Ghosts follows a young couple who move from the city into a mansion to open up a bed and breakfast, only to find that eight different generations of past inhabitants haunt it.

To further complicate matters, wife Sam (McIver) can see the ghosts, while husband Jay (Ambudkar) has to live with the discomfort of constantly being watched by a coterie of American history while he showers, among other things.

He's also kind of lonely and misses out on the fun of his wife interacting with revolutionary war soldiers, Vikings, and Guilded Age aristocrats. Oh my!

If that sounds like a horror film or a children's cartoon, it very well could be if the show's writers didn't do such a good job at maintaining a light tone. It also helps that the octet of ghosts wasn't such a loveable group of buffoons.

Interviews - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 7

Ghosts is a show chock-full of memorable quotes from writers milking the full potential of nearly every angle.

The show plays on character beats, with characters like Hetty, Flower, and Isaac bringing their brand of character to their lines.

Alberta: Sam, if Trevor saying even the hot one has to go, we have to take him seriously.
Sam: That is alarming, but I’m sure there is an innocent explanation.
Hetty: Samantha, if Jay truly is being offered a snake oil opportunity, one must at least entertain the notion.

There is also a lot of humor that plays on the irony of the sitcom's premise itself. Samantha is often trapped between a rock and a hard place, and the show rarely misses an opportunity to exploit that awkwardness.

Most importantly, the show plays on the potential differences between characters trapped in different historic mindsets. One running gag is Isaac's frustration that his bitter rival Alexander Hamilton made it to fame. Another is Pete's devastation at learning travel agents are obsolete.

Pete: Look, I may not have had the perfect marriage. And at work, I was a good travel agent, but I was no Brent Flanagan.
[Awkward silence]
Pete: Famous travel agent.
Sam: There are no famous travel agents.

Thorfinn's Crush - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 4

The Changing Face of Prime Time TV

If you were to look at television 20 years ago, the TV season that ran from 2002-2003 produced ten comedies that ranked in the top 30 on Broadcast TV: Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace, Scrubs, Still Standing, Good Morning Miami, Yes Dear, The King of Queens, Frasier, and My Big Fat Greek Life.

During that decade, broadcast TV would host edgy comedies like Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, My Name is Earl, The Office, and Parks and Recreation, but those weren't rating hits except The Office.

Many creative forces behind these shows, like Tina Fey, Mitch Hurwitz, Greg Daniels, Robert Carlock, and Greg Garcia, would migrate to cable and streaming over the next decade.

In the interim, fares like Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Mom, According to Jim, The Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family would be the rare shows that would make a splash.

Garth's Filibuster - Parks and Recreation

Broad TV

A lot of what is said to succeed on broadcast TV is often given the adjective "broad." Due to the nature of their time slot, these shows have to bring in a large audience. That, in turn, affects the way these shows are made.

Is this a good or bad thing? It depends. I wouldn't be caught dead watching something like Two and a Half Men, but there are familiar elements to many of the shows mentioned above that work for many other viewers and me.

The difference is that many shows cling to traditional elements while providing something novel.

Mom is the rare network show to focus primarily on female relationships and the slow arc of recovery. How I Met Your Mother boasts a clever premise of a narrator framing the sitcom as a bedtime story for his kids (even if it got strained out to an ungodly tiring nine seasons).

Bonnie In Her Therapist's Office - Mom Season 7 Episode 8

Big Bang Theory popularized nerd culture when it premiered in 2007: A time when nerd was almost a derogatory term. But these shows all had laugh tracks.

On the other end of the spectrum, Modern Family and some of the NBC comedies of the era, like Superstore, have shown innovation in creating comic climates without resorting to multi-camera.

But at the same time, they are very traditional sitcoms in topic and structure. Modern Family is pretty much like every 80s and 90s family TV show with a more updated understanding of what a family is. 

For comparison, one can see Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan's new show Reboot on Hulu to see him pushing the boundaries of TV content-wise. But the best element about all of these shows is that they have heart.

Feel Good TV

Last-Minute Party - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 5

Comedies that have a dreary (Louie), sarcastic (Curb Your Enthusiasm), aimless (Dollface), whiny (Girls), or nihilistic (The End of the F***ing World) tone don't really fit in with network television. The vast majority of broad television makes you feel good in a TGIF way.

And the best shows -- the ones that win the ratings -- make you feel really good.

That is the kind of show Ghosts is. Yes, there is the lovey-dovey nature of Sam and Jay's marriage and the way they solve problems together, but I'd argue it's more than that.

Look at the friendship and camaraderie between the eight primary ghosts. Even with the occasional sitcom-sized squabble, there is rarely a conflict that threatens the friendship of anyone in this octet.

It's a rare fight to write eight characters as comically strong as these eight, but it's even rarer to preserve a balance between characters where it feels like the camaraderie is spread so evenly.

A Happy Flower - Ghosts Season 2 Episode 7

To the extent that shows can be relevant to our times, this is all the more curative when we consider how polarized our society is.

The show has a clear bigot in Hetty, a self-absorbed Isaac (who could be a stand-in for today's coastal elite), and a d-bag in Trevor, but these edges are significantly sanded, so they're nowhere near as bad as how they might seem on paper.

The irony of Hetty's character is that her hatred is irrationally directed at the Irish, but she coexists perfectly with a Black character.

Hetty: So, the harlot just remains?!
Molly: Well, I may have been a harlot, but what about you?! You were a cruel and vindictive boss!
Hetty: It’s too late for flattery.

From our modern perspective, she's harmless, which allows her to be loveable. Likewise, the image-conscious Trevor is seen hugging the dorky scoutmaster in the pilot episode, which immediately shows he's gentle on the inside.

Feel-good TV is about characters coming together. It's what our society needs now, and it's what the ratings have shown that viewers can't get enough of right now.

If you are finally on board, please watch Ghosts online right here via TV Fanatic!

Orrin Konheim is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and his personal blog at Medium.

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Ghosts Quotes

Welcome to the Woodstone B and B!


Jay: Oh my God, Pete?!
Pete: Jay? You can see me?! Gadzukes, Jay, say yes.
Jay: I don’t believe it.
Pete: I don’t either. Bring it in big fella!
[Jay passes through Pete’s ghost form]