Friday, April 20, 2007

Are sitcoms dead?

A brief article about sitcoms.

Is the sitcom dead? Has it stopped innovating like a species destined for extinction? I can’t really say. Like many Americans, I’m only watching one-hour dramas. We as a people can’t get enough of ER doctors forensically solving crimes on a mysterious desert island while fighting off the Cylon mafia – in a court of law.

Obviously sitcoms haven’t gone away, but they’re not the innovative shows that get the praise and the viewers. Not any more. There hasn’t been another “All In The Family” or “M.A.S.H.” for a long time.

Maybe because of war and bad news, but maybe society has tired of comedy? Most people will get their occasional chuckle solely from their favorite drama’s dramedy elements, like when CSI investigators find a particularly humorously arranged corpse, but that’s a thin gruel for amusement to live off of.

It might not be that sitcoms are so bad now, but just that dramas are so good. The best ones are episodic, but also cohesive week after week. Deadwood hooks us with swearing cowboys, but keeps us with the classic plot structure of Westerns remixed with Shakespeare.

I think of the drama season as a long, long movie that lets you get up and pee. Like Sopranos Season 1 did what the Godfather Part 1,2 and 3 tried to do and make something long-form but still let you come back and check up on how your favorite characters are doing: who they love; who they hate; and who they strangled with piano wire this week.

But what makes a good sit-com? From the above article: premise; character; writing; timing.

Jokes like Norm [Cheers] hiding from his wife Vera at the bar or Klinger [M.A.S.H.] being a cross-dressing soldier are born out of their premises. "Seinfeld" and "Friends" both are often cited with having no strong premise, with "Seinfeld" classically being described as a show about nothing. But that's not true - it was a show about four assholes.

I really never thought about the late, great Seinfeld like that, but it’s true. It really was about something. And Homer Simpson is an asshole of the naïf variety. He's unusual in that he gets to be the jerk and then react off himself because he’s the naïve one too. Cartman is a much purer asshole and he drives the conflict in almost every single South Park script. Even though he’s not funny, Marmaduke is supposed to be the asshole. Supposedly hi-jinx just flow from that alone, but they don’t.

But more assholes doesn’t necessarily mean more comedy. Case in point, the author is right on about “The War at Home”, it’s not just repulsive, but a boring repulsive. And one reason is that every character is the shallow jerk that spends their 22 sit-com minutes bouncing jerk-waves off each other. The result: many unsubtle penis insults traded back and forth. The show’s writers forgot it’s the deep multi-faceted jerks and the not-a-jerk people around them that fascinate us.

Sitcoms have gone stale. As a whole, they don’t take chances anymore and fail to give the viewing public what it really needs: original, truly groundbreaking penis insults that we’ll be talking about at the office water-cooler. A penis insult that enters the pop culture and stands the test of time; one we’ll hand down to our children and our grandchildren so they can belittle their own small-genitaled grandchildren. It’s a shame, and our culture is poorer for it.

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