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Attack of the Roommate Shows: Why Cohabitation Is Big This TV Season

Is it a reflection of the country’s hard times — or just Hollywood playing it safe?

Roommates have found a whole new way to hog the TV.

Of the 15 new, live-action network sitcoms this season, four are about young women in awkward roommate situations.

Strangers bound together by rent is a TV formula as familiar as "The Odd Couple," and it's tempting to say it's having its moment this season because of a bad economy and the breakdown of traditional families. Are writers and network executives reflecting a new world in which near-strangers are the new relatives?

Not exactly.

First, let’s look at the new shows:

>> “The New Girl,” about a newly single girl played by Zooey Deschanel who moves in with three guys, was one of the best received by writers at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour.

 >> "Two Broke Girls" (left), which CBS says is its best-testing pilot ever, finds a street-smart waitress (Kat Dennings) allowing a former rich girl (Beth Behrs) to move in with her after the rich girl's dad loses his fortune. It is co-created by "Whitney" star and creator Whitney Cumming.

>> ABC's midseason "Apartment 23" (below) follows a naïve Midwesterner, June (Dreama Walker), who moves in with the unscrupulous Chloe (Krysten Ritter). James Van Der Beek is along for the fun as himself.

>> NBC's midseason "Best Friends Forever" features a just-divorced woman (Jessica St. Clair) who moves in with her best friend (Lennon Parham) and her new boyfriend.

A fifth sitcom, NBC's "Whitney," is about a happily cohabitating, unmarried couple.

So what is behind the attack of the roommate shows (with apologies to G4)?

It’s not necessarily the economy. National Census data on roommates won't be released until next month, but numbers for California, Texas and New York — the three most populous states — show that the number of nonfamily households inched up just slightly between 2000 and 2010. So far, at least, the economy doesn't seem to be forcing large numbers of strangers together. Not even attractive, single strangers, from different worlds, who could have amused us for years with their will-they-or-won't-they flirtations.

Mitch Metcalf, NBC's former head of scheduling, says an increase in roommate shows corresponds to a drop in sitcoms about traditional families.

The rare modern family show that thrives — like "Modern Family" — does it by questioning traditional familial roles. The coming season includes several shows, including Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing," about men trying to find their place in a less paternalistic world.

Shows about so-called urban tribes, like "Friends" and "Seinfeld," began to boom in the 1990s, supplanting family hits like "The Cosby Show."

The trend has accelerated as cable options have carved up the TV audience into one where shows no longer have to appeal to children, teens and adults all at once. Children now have their own networks, leaving primetime shows to focus more on young adults, Metcalf said.

"Back in the '80s and '90s there were more traditional family units on television, and that was partly because teens and kids were an important contingency still for network viewing," he said. "But as niche viewing or kid viewing came along, those cable networks really commanded the viewing habits of kids.

"The networks just really got out of the kid and teen business, and look for an 18-plus or 25-plus grouping."

In an industry that thrives on "safe," roommate shows are an easy sell.

It doesn't hurt, when pitching a show about people sharing an electric bill, to note that the two most popular sitcoms on television — Chuck Lorre's "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," both on CBS — are about potentially loaded living situations.

"Men" forces an earnest single dad and his son to live with a freewheeling bachelor — though Charlie Sheen's off-screen shenanigans are about to create a vacancy. Ashton Kutcher will move into the CBS hit as a heartbroken Internet billionaire.

"Bang," meanwhile, follows the emotional entanglements of an attractive girl and her two nerdy neighbors. (Fans will attest that it's about so much more than that — friendship, physics, love — but it's all built around a living situation.)

The rise in roommate shows also reflects TV writers writing what they know.

"I was basically writing from my own experience which has been moving to L.A., not necessarily being ready to put roots down, and just moving from sublet to sublet to sublet," said Liz Meriwether, creator of "The New Girl," (left) in an interview with TheWrap.

"My friends made fun of me. I had a storage space, I had like two bags — I could flee at a moment's notice."

Finally, there's the fact that roommates can be hilarious — as anyone who's had to put a drunk one to bed can attest. Meriwether says the genre works just because it's funny.

"It lends itself to TV because it’s a contained space where there are different perspectives," she said. "Comedy obviously comes from conflict and you need different people's takes on the same thing. And if that thing is the debt ceiling, it's less accessible than, 'Who left the dishes in the sink?'"