‘Squad Goals?’ Why TV Doesn’t Need ’20-Something’ Characters Anymore

(Photo: Variety)

Friends.

Ryan Seacrest, best known as the magician who made a TV show disappear in record time, has his next project already set up. Variety reports the American Idol host will executive-produce the multi-camera sitcom Squad Goals for CBS. The pilot, written by Lindsey Rosin and Aaron Karo, will revolve around “a group of late 20-something friends who met in college and realize it’s time to finally grow up.”

That’s right, sitcom fans. Finally, finally, you’re getting a story about how post-college life is harder than expected. Do you think it will be set in a big city, possibly an inexplicably well-furnished apartment? Do you think one of them works in publishing? Or as an architect? Oh, if someone had just told these poor characters life was gonna’ be this way (clapclapclapclap).

Listen, TV is weird right now. There’s no arguing what was once film’s ugly step-cousin has become an artists playground, with ten times the amount of quality shows to watch and about a million times more networks to watch them on. But, at the same time, television has an originality problem. This Fall season we are currently smack-dab in the middle of is chock-full of remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations. Even then, anything “original” is just another take on a tired trope — a hospital drama, a detective show, a family sitcom. Any interest in seeing what succeeds is overshadowed by seeing what fails, as a measuring stick for themes the general public still wants to watch.

You know what trope is basically dead in the water? “A group of late 20-something friends” that “realize it’s time to finally grow up.”

At the risk of scaring away any readers of this fine publication, I’ll admit I myself am a 20-something. And what a strange time this is to be that age, when there isn’t a buzzier buzz-word than “millennial,” a label that holds about a thousand different connotations to a million different people. Are we “lazy, entitled narcissists?” Are we geniuses? Are we both? Neither? Generalizing an entire age group aside, I can tell you this: the majority of us just aren’t that interesting, and neither is any show about us.

“But…Friends!” you are probably screaming. It’s true, Friends is the prototype of the 20-somethings in the city sitcom, as well as a ratings and cultural juggernaut. Friends is the exception, not the rule. And it’s a huge exception. The list of sitcoms the Big Four greenlit to replace Friends is long and deep, and mostly filled with names you wouldn’t remember (Coupling, anyone?) The reason? Friends existed in a different time, both on-screen and off. New York City was still a shining beacon for young Americans, its bright lights offering nothing but chances for friendships, casual hookups and adventure. A lot of this spilled over into Sex and the City (1998-2004), where our main characters weren’t 20-somethings but they definitely acted like they were. Friends and Sex and The City worked because they were both glamorous in their own way, yet both somehow seemed attainable.

Nowadays, we have GIRLS on HBO. GIRLS is a show perfect for the New York of today, which isn’t so much a fantasy-land but an impossibility, where paying ridiculous rent is some weird badge of honor, and Brooklyn is a brand more than a neighborhood. It’s also far more bitter and unpleasant a show than Friends ever was, and I’m saying that as a person who doesn’t even enjoy Friends. Much like the millennials the show works to portray, GIRLS is more discussed than it is actually payed attention to: the Lena Dunham vehicle consistently pulls in far less than a million viewers and shockingly low numbers in the key demo.

Over on the major cable networks….where to even begin? ABC (Selfie, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), Fox (New Girl, to a lesser extent The Mindy Project) ) NBC (Quarterlife, Perfect Couples) CBS (Friends with Better Lives, $#*! My Dad Says) have all, in recent years, thrown their eggs into the 20-something basket and failed.

Selfie and $#*! My Dad Says were both, like Squad Goals, marketed around popular internet slang. Both were also swiftly cancelled (Selfie was miles ahead in quality from $#*! My Dad Says, but its name alone killed it before it even started). Quarterlife, Perfect Couples, and Friends with Better Lives were all blatant attempts to recreate the Friends dynamic. Quarterlife and Perfect Couples were both cancelled after less than three episodes, FWBL after only five. Don’t Trust the B—, New Girl, The Mindy Project were series, I would say, that strived to be more than “millennials learning lessons,” but still fell short of successABC cancelled Don’t Trust in its first season, and New Girl is floundering in the ratings while The Mindy Project was forced to make the jump to Hulu.

There’s an argument to be made for CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, because of its nine-season run and massive finale ratings. But speaking critically, How I Met Your Mother was sustained by a great cast now more famous than their sitcom roots and an underlying conceit that strung audiences along to an awful resolution). Without that, it was a show running in circles for four seasons, and clearly knew it by the end. Did anyone enjoy watching the writers attempt to string out the events of one day over 23 episodes?

The problem with going to the 20-something well is it’s a shallow well to begin with, and by now it’s already been run dry. There’s no room for it in the modern TV landscape. Audiences are smarter, they need higher stakes that “the perils of modern dating” and “paying rent on time” won’t reach. If you look at today’s TV leaders, you’ll see diversity, you’ll see high concepts, you’ll see comedic characters of all ages or even a mixture of all these components. Shows like Squad Goals were successful in a time when those components were few and far between on the small screen. But now we have Empire and Orange is the New Black. We have Transparent, and Modern Family. We have The Walking Dead, or Game of Thrones. Some of these shows might be marketed to millennials, but they’re definitely not about millennials.

Most importantly, we have options, options that are constantly evolving. That is what makes TV fascinating and incredible right now, the fact we have figured this weird, beautiful little art form and it can only get better from here. Because there is nothing worse than seeing something stuck in a rut, like a 20-something in an apartment building, figuring out it’s time to grow up. Fortunately, television grew up a long time ago.

‘Squad Goals?’ Why TV Doesn’t Need ’20-Something’ Characters Anymore