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KICKING TELEVISION: Re-imagining the Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: Re-imagining the Sitcom

The sitcom is dead. Though we’re
continually told we’re living in the New Golden Age of Television, a quick
survey of the situational comedy landscape suggests that this is not the case.
After The Sopranos gave television
permission to tell stories in more cinematic and innovative ways, we have been
blessed with unparalleled artistry and achievement on its dramatic side. Breaking Bad, Lost, Mad Men, True Detective, The Walking Dead, Friday
Night Lights
and their brethren have treated audiences to heretofore-unseen
storytelling and production on the small screen. And yet on the comedy side,
we’re left with The Big Bang Theory,
capable if uninspiring television that is forgotten moments after the credits
roll.

It wasn’t that long ago that the
sitcom ruled the airwaves. In the ‘90s, Seinfeld
and Friends were not just the most
watched shows on TV—they were part of the cultural zeitgeist. Before that, Cheers and Roseanne reveled in blue-collar settings with grace and humour.
Their predecessors, like Maude and All in the Family, contributed to the
greater discourse, addressing societal change and issues beyond what TV had
discussed previously. The sitcom wasn’t just entertainment time-filler. It was
art.

And then came Chuck Lorre.

I’m certainly not blaming the
creator of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory for the demise of
the medium, but rather pointing to these productions as indicators of the
critical flaws in the sitcom. These shows lack ambition. The writing is
borrowed from episodes we’ve seen ad infintum. The characters are stock. The
format is flat. Consider the new sitcoms cancelled already this fall season: Bad Judge, A to Z, Manhattan Love Story,
and Selfie. There was nothing
memorable or exciting about them. There was nothing we haven’t seen before.
Bland versions of those same four shows have been rolled out each season,
pillaged from the pile of pilot season dreck. And even more bland versions will
be rolled out midseason.

There is some hope. In the
instances of a post-Seinfeld TV-scape
where the industry was ambitious, there has been success. The Office in its first few seasons was as funny and clever as
anything that has ever fit beneath the sitcom umbrella. Arrested Development was punished for its ingenuity, a victim of
poor scheduling and a network that failed to see its burgeoning cult status. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was Seinfeld on crack, before it became It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on
crack and lost its way. Party Down
was imaginative and inventive, and yet its location on the upstart Starz network
and its micro-budget couldn’t maintain its momentum nor cast. Louie is more original than most, but it
limits itself and fails to step to far beyond the confines of the genre,
despite the overwhelming sensation that it wants to. Community was the one great hope. A show that satirized the genre,
that defied the tropes. But NBC did its best to kill it, and now its left with
a fraction of its original cast in the unknown wasteland of Yahoo TV, whatever
that is. But what we’re left with, what the industry trumpets as successful, is
Modern Family, a fading Parks and Rec, a middling Mindy Project, and a sea of forgettable
offerings that don’t resonate with the audience and don’t challenge the medium.

(You’re the Worst, as I
have previously written
, is absolute genius and exempt from this tirade.)

And that’s it, other than a few
episodes here and there and a cancelled-too-early show that had promise that
we’ll never see realized. Is Modern
Family
really the best sitcom the industry can offer, as the Emmy voters
would contend, or is it simply the most not incompetent? It’s overly celebrated
in a manner that proves my thesis: It is the best of a genre that doesn’t try;
it is inoffensive and forgettable. In reality, it’s a milquetoast offering that
offends no one and takes up twenty-two minutes of twelve million people’s
Wednesday night. It is not appointment viewing. It is not Must See TV. Quite
simply, it’s all that’s on.

So is the sitcom really dead, or
is it just on life support, in desperate need of a shot of adrenaline or
whiskey or Wes Anderson?

Writing, in any of its
incarnations, is simply about telling a story. At its best, it’s telling
stories in ways that are interesting. I don’t know if the Vassar MFA grads that
currently make up 80% of the sitcom writer pool are afraid to be progressive or
are just cursed with moderate talents, but it’s time the industry looked past a
writer’s room that couldn’t get an honest guffaw without a bag of shrooms and a
laugh track.

While television dramas have
mined external resources for auteurship, the sitcom has stayed with the
tried-and-tired formula of an unambitious rotation of series creators with
pilots directed by James Burrows. David Fincher (House of Cards), Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead), and Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) are just a few of the prominent filmmakers who
have made successful forays into serial storytelling on the small screen during
the unprecedented rise of the drama in the past decade or so. Nic Pizzolatto
was a celebrated novelist, a finalist for the Edgar and National Magazine awards,
an honourable mention for the Pushcart Prize, and the winner of the Prix du Premier Roman étranger, as well
as a creative writing professor, before True
Detective
took him out of the classroom and Barnes & Noble discount
bin.

And yet, in the sitcom world,
we’re still saddled with shows “from the creators of Suburgatory and According to
Jim
.” In an industry that loves to attempt to Xerox success, why has the
comedy side of television refused to learn from its drama cousins? Would we not
be interested to see what interesting and progressive comedic filmmakers could
do with a television comedy? This trend may be slowly beginning, with TV
projects forthcoming from Mark and Jay Duplass (Togetherness) and Jason Reitman (Casual). Wouldn’t you love to see what Anderson could do with the
medium? Nicholas Stoller? Lorene Scafaria? Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris?

And why be so shortsighted as to
stay within the Hollywood bubble? Did HBO’s moderate success with Bored to Death, from the celebrated
novelist Jonathan Ames, not prove that literary quality has a place on
television? I’d love to see a sitcom born of the mind of George Saunders, or Jennifer
Egan, or Irvine Welsh, or Chuck Klosterman, or Sam Lipsyte, or Sloane Crosley,
or Elna Baker, or… the list borders on infinite. At least their adaptation of Pygmalion (ahem, Selfie) would come from people who had actually read the book.

The limits of the contemporary in
TV are not confined to its writing. The entire production has become stale. Let’s
put up the fourth wall once and for all, and be done with the live studio
audience, shall we? I suppose the multi-camera sitcom was supposed to be the television
version of a play, but the genre has become tired. What was the last
multi-camera sitcom to be interesting or innovative? (And if your answer in any
way suggests a Chuck Lorre production, your punishment is to watch Mom and only Mom for eternity.) The last multi-cam sitcom of any significant cultural
value was likely Seinfeld, and it
went off the air in 1998. Since then, every September and February, networks
march out a slew of carbon copy multi-camera endeavours that are rarely funny,
never innovative, and suffer tremendously at the will of their tropes.

And the laugh track? How in the
name of the Charles brothers does the laugh track still exist? I think an
audience knows when to laugh without 240 tourists on the Warner Brothers lot
telling us for twenty-two minutes.

Twenty-two excruciating minutes.

Does anyone know why the sitcom
is only a half-hour (with commercials)? Why is comedy limited and tragedy
open-ended? Would you rather laugh for an hour or cry for an hour? And from a
purely budgetary standpoint, why do Mark Harmon and Jon Cryer make the same
amount of money per episode for the same mediocre and unimaginative drivel? If
comedic and dramatic films can be of similar length, who is to say that the
same can’t be done on television?

Beyond the temporal structure of
the sitcom, its aesthetic structure is in need of contemporization and
ambition. The industry has limited the genre to two options: multi-camera and
single camera. The worlds of sitcoms are confined, insulated. They exist on
three to five sets. They are painted in the same colours, shot with the same
filters, and staged as they were three generations ago.

The incredible six-minute-long
take from the episode “Who Goes There” of True Detective is an example of what the talents of an innovative
director like Cary Fukunaga can bring to the medium. Why can’t sitcoms be
visually inventive? We have seen glimpses of such inventiveness in Pushing Daisies and to a certain extent
in the aesthetic of Community, but
their absence elsewhere in television are tenable. Why the reluctance to push
boundaries and challenge formula the way dramatic television has?

The answer to most of these
questions is that the television industry is remarkably stubborn and unimaginative,
for a business that requires creative minds. But the ability of dramatic
television to evolve in the past decade suggests that comedic television could
do the same, if just given the chance. Cable and streaming television have
reinvigorated an industry once limited by the whims of the four major networks.
The exodus of talent from film to TV has proved that the small screen is not
limiting to artistic or material aspirations among the Hollywood elite.
Removing the antiquated reins from the sitcom would certainly produce a
defining new era of the medium, and no doubt reduce the amount of half-hours of
our lives ruled by Chuck Lorre.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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