Situation Comedy, Redux

To give you fair warning, this is a cranky post. It’s possible I’ll swear. Often. Loudly. You have been warned.

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One of the more interesting threads running through the comments on yesterday’s post, both here and over on Facebook, was this attitude that sitcoms are inherently limited and/or required to suck by virtue of the genre conventions they operate under.

To which I respond, no, fuck that, genres are as limited as we want them to be, pleas take your they-cater-to-the-masses-and-therefore-must-suck class-oriented modernist bullshit to someone else’s discussion. ‘Cause, you know, that kind of attitude is the reason we get bad science fiction, bad romance, bad action-adventure films, and pretty much everything else. You reap what you sow, in that respect, and unless you’re willing to ask for more it’s unlikely you’ll ever get it.

I no more accept the inevitable suckiness of sit-coms than I do the argument that Avatar needed to be a three-hour exercise in narrative tedium; it sucked because stupid choices were made, not because of some inherent fault of the  genre.

Take, for example, How I Met Your Mother. It’s not a show that’s without faults – I’d direct you to Cat Valente’s excellent take-down of the shows central premise – but for a considerable period of time it managed to be funny and geeky and not treat it’s audience like idiots. I can point you to precisely the moment it became a show I looked forward to, rather than this thing I happened to watch, which is right about the point in the second season where they closed an episode with Marshal slapping Barney well after the  Slap Bet episode where the joke was set-up. It was simple and beautifully done. Slap. “That’s two.” Done. No references to the Slap Bet to set things up, no flash-backs to the previous episode, just the show writers  trusting you to remember something that happened earlier in the seasons and get the joke.

Nothing appeals to me more than writers assuming I’m not an idiot. It’s the thing that, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie got wrong, because ever time they made that kind of reference the writer’s were sitting next to you, nudging you in the ribs, going “hey, we mentioned Phineas Fog, from Around the World in Eighty Days, get it? Get it? We’re being metatextual here.”

Metatext doesn’t work when you say you’re being metatextual. It just annoys the fuck out of people. In this respect, I can point to them moment when I realised How I Met Your Mother stopped being a show I really looked forward to, and became just another show I watch when it’s on. It’s called the second Slapsgiving episode (If they do a third Slapsgiving, the show will join the ranks of shows officially be dead to me, and I will be happy with the two enjoyable season, one okay season, and one sub-par season I’ve seen thus far).

There’s a sliding scale on all these things. I find Big Bang Theory‘s underlying narratives abhorrent, for example, but I’ll still watch it because it’s doing something mildly more interesting with the same core theme than, say, Everybody Loves Raymond or Two and a Half Men.

There are also different kinds of audiences – not everyone enjoys metatext as much as I do, nor do they sit there chanting interrogate your fucking theme, you fuckers when shows get particularly annoying. I have no problems with shows pitching to a particular audience, but I reserve the right to get annoyed when they start pandering to them.

There are no good sitcoms. Sitcoms are inherently limited by their format. These aren’t arguments, they’re an admission of defeat. They’re willing acknowledging that we expect so little from our entertainment that the only real response is to shrug and kill off a few more braincells in the hopes that one day we’ll see movies the same way whatever those mythical test-audiences who kill anything smart do.

I’d ask you to stop being part of the fucking problem and start engaging. Acknowledge the problems with individual narratives, individual shows, individual characters, instead of writing off entire genres. Find smart people who love the genre and ask their recommendations (this, coincidentally, is how I found romance writer Georgette Heyer, who is mindblowingly fucking awesome).

Quality is not mediated by genre, nor is the ability to create smart and interesting narrative. The *willingness* to pitch smart narrative, sure, but that’s the writer’s choice when faced with the audience, just as it’s mine to watch and say hey, man, this shit isn’t on, in the hopes that if enough people say it loudly enough, one day things will change.

To argue otherwise is to mire you in the kind of close-mindedness you’re trying to rail again when you condemn the genre as a whole.

  7 comments for “Situation Comedy, Redux

  1. Melinda
    17/03/2011 at 11:25 PM

    I think you would really enjoy "Arrested Development." Sadly, it got cancelled, but it lasted three seasons. It hit its stride very early too. It doesn't even have a sitcom feel to me, though that's the genre. Fortunately, I have the last season left to watch and savour. Smart writing and a great cast.

  2. 18/03/2011 at 12:32 AM

    Indeed. Dismissing [x] genre as trash not worth thinking about seems related to the phenomenon of saying "can't you just enjoy [thing] for what it is, rather than analysing it? (implicit: [thing] is not worth critiquing)" (countered by Moff's Law).

    I recently had a co-worker tell me she hates Joss Whedon because Buffy was "just another soap opera". There's no imperative to love Whedon, but I pretty much gave up on the conversation at that point because there was either nothing or too much to say in response, and I didn't have the spoons.

    Have you seen any of Community? They have a lot of metatextual fun, and I've enjoyed the first season.

  3. 18/03/2011 at 1:41 AM

    Ted Moseby is, two seasons in, indeed a douche. I still love the show at the moment, and I'm hoping I'm able to continue enjoying it despite the flaws ahead.

    One (slim) thing in Ted's defense – in comparison to JD from Scrubs, he looks like a goddamned saint.

  4. 18/03/2011 at 2:06 AM

    "There are no good sitcoms."

    Flight of the Conchords FTW!

    And what about South Park, Futurama and Malcolm in the Middle?

  5. 18/03/2011 at 5:14 AM

    I think there are a lot of good, smart sitcoms.

    I also have a problem with a lot of the set-up work of BBT. Some of what they do with it is good, funny. But probably not enough to justify the problems, for me.

    I think you could find ideological problems with most sitcoms (and well, most art if you look hard enough). But as you say, that doesn't mean that a sitcom can't be smart and at least attempt to be better than that.

  6. 18/03/2011 at 5:45 AM

    Fair call. My beef is not so much with the genre, per se, as with the fact that in all my years of watching tv (and I can barely count that high) I can't sit through more than half an episode of any sit-com you care to name. I've yet to meet a sit-com I can like – although Arrested Development comes closest and Mother and Son is very, very clever but too close to my reality. I don't watch sit-com for the same reason I don't watch Hollywood blockbusters – bitter experience tells me there's unlikely to be anything in it for me so I'm not prepared to put in the effort.

  7. Brin
    18/03/2011 at 6:23 AM

    I think you could argue that things are changing. Sure, there will always be single camera American sitcoms that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Hell, Two and a Half men was America's top-rated sitcom forever. That type of commercial success means the format will be repeated ad nauseum.

    Fortunately, there are a few signs of life in other areas. You just need to look beyond the typical single camera American middle of the road blub to find it.

    Wikipedia tells me "A situation comedy, often shortened to sitcom, is a genre of comedy that features recurring characters in a common environment such as a home or workplace, accompanied with jokes as part of the dialogue."

    If you want top notch sitcoms – while the US can deliver with Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development – look no further than the UK:

    The Thick of It

    The Royle Family

    I'm Alan Partridge

    The Office (I'd argue this is a sitcom)

    All magnificent in their own right, and all have achieved (varying) levels of commercial success.

    Just about all the shows I've mentioned above have taken up the challenge and broken the standard sitcom conventions. They've used different formats so there isn't an over-reliance on setups for jokes backed by canned laughter. I guess the question then becomes "are they really sitcoms then?"

    I guess if all else fails, you can just drag out an old VHS of "Hey Dad" and start tying the rope…

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