Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Mighty Embattled Sitcom

Oh, the embattled, unique situation comedy.

I have long been a fan of sitcoms. But it's an art form that is often considered common or lacking in depth. We often hold up sitcoms, in fact, as art for the average Joe precisely because they often hold mass appeal. Though they can often be appallingly bad, when they are good they capture something unique about life that combines both humour and insight. It's not an easy art form to write in but it's a very uniquely American one.

Miami, you've got style
First the bad: most sitcoms are badly written. The jokes are obvious, the acting is bad, the situations become ludicrous or downright silly. The pacing doesn't work or is uneven. Nine times out of then, a sitcom is totally unnecessary. And even in good sitcoms, not all episodes or seasons are good.

But when a sitcom can overcome these issues, they can sparkle and capture a truth in the same way a sonnet can. I choose the word sonnet very deliberately because there are many similarities between the strictures that require certain formalities in a sonnet  (the rhyme, the couplet, the rhythm) and the formalities in a sitcom (the rhythm, the A/B plots, the exaggerations). But the sheer act of writing with these limitations means a writer must be even more creative and clever in order to balance his or her vision with the technical or formal necessities.

Mr Graaaaaant
A unique thing about sitcoms: while dramas tend to be about ordinary people in unusual circumstances (stock characters struck by disease, war, alien abduction, zombie invasions, historical anomalies, etc.), sitcoms tend to be about unusual characters in ordinary circumstances (stupid people in families, sarcastic people at the office, etc.). This is where the humour enters into the picture: it's precisely these unusual characters reacting in every day normal circumstances that make us laugh and see our own ways of reacting. Think about Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory or Rose in The Golden Girls.

It could be argued that most comedy operates in this dynamic - unusual people in usual settings - but sitcoms exaggerate. The stupid people are unrealistically stupid, the oversexualized people are over the top, the vain people have no sense of living in any kind of reality. And that's where the danger lies and when sitcoms cross over into being silly or vapid or badly written. It's a delicate balance between creating funny, unusual characters and creating characters in which we can see few true human qualities. And the interaction between the "straight" characters (Mary Tyler Moore, Will Truman, Leonard Hofstetter) and the quirky characters (Ted Baxter, Grace Adler, Amy Farafowler) is where the beauty and comedy can be found.

The A/B plots are another hallmark of sitcoms: there is a main A plot which drives the conflict of every episode, and then there is a minor B plot that operates on the periphery, often relating to the minor characters. Sometimes the plots are related, often they are not. But the key is that both plot points must be worked out and resolved in 22 minutes, ideally with a "lesson-learning" scene whereby characters talk about what they have learned. Again, another minefield for critical alarm bells to go off since writes must walk a very delicate line here (can't be too trite but also has to be a lesson most people can relate to).

Soft kitty
Another complication for sitcom writers is the staging and this is where many sitcoms fail: there are too many characters and awkwardness ensues since the action generally only involves two or three of them at any one time. When there are too many characters, they stand around with nothing to do and the entire scene gets awkward (Newhart often has this problem). A good sitcom keeps characters moving.

Sitcoms are only one way to communicate and can't speak to us in the same way a drama or a long series-arc that lasts nine months can. In the sitcom universe, generally we start fresh every episode and it's not so necessary to watch them in order (as a general rule though this has somewhat changed in recent years). But we also grow to love sitcom characters in a way that we love a familiar neighbour or family friend.

Classically dated
Again there are many bad sitcoms. Most, in fact (sitcoms for "the family" are the worst: Webster, Silver Spoons, most of them, in fact: that new one Broke Girls is dreadful). Then there sitcoms which are pretty good but have frequent bad episodes or even entire seasons that are terrible (Will & Grace, The Golden Girls, Rhoda, Friends). Some sitcoms are classics and represent a vanished time (Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, Seinfeld, All in the Family). In general, I'd say the 80s was a low point for sitcoms (and TV generally) but perhaps it's a dying art. They are very much a network kind of show and as fewer and fewer people tune into the big networks and watch more cable shows (I can't think of very many cable sitcoms).

So maybe sitcoms are dying a slow death. There are some new ones out each year but with the exception of The Big Bang Theory, most are terrible and it's been a long time since a sitcom really "caught" the public's imagination (like Friends or Seinfeld or several others). Maybe they don't speak to us in the same way any more. Maybe we all prefer seeing shows about meth or pot dealers or advertising cads or OCD CIA agents. We want more flawed protagonists now perhaps and sitcoms seem to represent a more innocent time when a character's biggest flaw was that he was a womanizer or that she was too vain or he lacked social charms. Quirky is definitely out.


  1. Last week's Modern Family may have been the funniest half hour I ever spent watching TV. So there.

    1. Ah, I should check that one. Never seen it though a couple people I know have said it's good...