onsdag 17 februari 2016

TV-Month: The Sitcom

What kind of TV-shows did you watch growing up? Apart from children's programming, I, and many others, would have to answer that question with "sitcoms". Most commercial TV channels I had access to filled their afternoon schedule with reruns of American sitcoms and it became something of a weekday ritual to sit down and watch That '70s Show (1998-2006) and the like before dinner. I still enjoy the genre, even though I haven't added any new ones to my watch list in quite a while, and I today would like to discuss specific traits and tropes related to the sitcom format.

What is a sitcom?
Generally speaking, what distinguishes the sitcom, or "situation comedy", genre from other types of comedy is that the comedy is derived from character interactions in a specific setting, be it a home, a school or a workplace. However, for the purposes of this discussion I will use the term in a more narrow, television-specific sense, which I will call the theatre sitcom. I use this term because I think the typical sitcom format is very similar to theatre: few sets, limited camera movement (similar to how a stage play is viewed) and a studio audience. Don't misunderstand me. I actually prefer comedy shows that deviate from this format, such as the one-camera medical comedy Scrubs (2001-2010) or the mockumentary-style political comedy Parks and Recreation (2009-2015). I chose to narrow my focus to the theatre sitcom for a number of reasons: I couldn't possibly discuss all of television comedy in one post, this format has the most nostalgic value for me and, most importantly, this is what most people associate with the term "sitcom".

There is a good reason why this format has been and remains popular. It is perfect for television, as per the budgetary restrictions discussed in last week's post. Most or all scenes are shot in a studio, using a small number of sets. It uses a small ensemble cast and rarely introduces new characters for more than a few episodes. The episodes are short and scenes can be shot rapidly because of the small number of sets and locations.

Sitcoms are commonly thought of as family entertainment. This is partly because content restrictions favour family-friendly content, but also because of availability. The best way to ensure a steady viewership, which is what all TV-shows aim for, is to make the show appeal to as many demographics as possible. Many sitcoms feature a family, providing characters that both parents and children can identify with and allowing plots that all family members can relate to. Watching the latest episode of a particular sitcom can even be a family event!

As with any genre, there are particular tropes associated with sitcoms. Below, I will focus on a few that I think are interesting from an analytical point-of-view.

Firstly, sitcoms, like most forms of comedy, uses plenty of stock characters. Stock characters are character stereotypes, e.g. the strict father, the clueless mother, the weird neighbour or the nerdy friend. Stock characters are used for a number of reasons. The audience can immediately recognise the stereotype and therefore already knows a lot about the character, without the need to spend precious airtime on character development. It is also possible to surprise the audience, who expects a certain character to act a certain way, by having a character occasionally act contrary to their stereotype. Finally, stock characters interact with each other in specific comedic ways, making the writing process easier and faster, which might be necessary to accommodate the production schedule. So, yes, you could call it lazy writing.

To exemplify the use of stock characters in sitcoms, I will refer you to That '70s Show. The show uses plenty of stereotypical characters, some related to the era in which it is set. Eric Forman (Topher Grace), arguably the main protagonist, is a nerdy Star Wars fan, his best friend Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) is a counter-culture conspiracy criminal, and his love interest Donna Pinciotti (Laura Prepon) is a tomboy and, more prominently later in the series, second-wave feminist. Other teenaged main characters include the handsome but stupid Michael Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), the mean, shallow, upper-class brat Jackie Burkheart (Mila Kunis), and the foreign pervert Fez (Wilmer Valderama). Eric's parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), exemplify the strict father and the cheerful housewife mother respectively. In discussing stock characters, one must remember that the actual characters are show-specific variants of stereotypes and, as a show progresses, characters usually become more three-dimensional. However, stock characters are still useful as analytical tools, as they allow us to compare characters from different shows or films.

Secondly, as sitcoms are made to be accessible to anyone familiar with the premise of the particular show, they are often characterised by the status quo. While sitcoms may have season-long story arcs, they are often downplayed throughout most of the season and most episodes are quite formulaic and self-contained. A conflict is established, unfolds and is resolved by the end of the episode. Individual episodes rarely have a lasting effect on a show or its characters. Change, in the form of new characters and locations or changes in relationships between characters, is slow and carefully done to avoid upsetting the audience. If a change is perceived negatively, it can be undone using retroactive continuity.

In some sitcoms, however, change is inevitable. Child actors grow up and this can be used to explore other possibilities for the characters. Time is also a factor. In order for a show to be set in the current year, and deal with contemporary topics, some character evolution and aging is often necessary, unless the show employs a floating timeline - when the characters don't age and the show is always assumed to be set in the current year. This is more common in animated sitcoms, a distinct genre, such as The Simpsons (1989-) and Family Guy (1999-). That '70s Show uses a variation on this, as the eight seasons of the show takes place between 1976 and New Year's Eve 1979, with every season, for example, having its own Christmas episode.

The Big Bang Theory (2007-) is a good example of how change often works in sitcoms. The show is about Caltech scientists Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Howard (Simon Hellberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and how their lives change when they meet Leonard and Sheldon's new neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco). The early seasons deal mostly with Leonard's crush on Penny and their subsequent attempts at a relationship, before they finally get together and eventually marry. Along the way, new female main characters are introduced in Howard's girlfriend and later wife Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Sheldon's girlfriend Amy (Mayim Bialik). Over the course of the series, the five original main characters each change noticeably: the shy Leonard becomes more confident; the irresponsible Penny becomes more responsible and abandons her struggling acting career for a more secure profession; the social oblivious and anal retentive Sheldon grows up and becomes more considerate and socially open; the childish and perverted Howard matures; and Raj, who in the early seasons was unable to speak to women when sober, gets over most of his insecurities. However, the characters are still recognisable as their counterparts from the first few seasons.

Thirdly, another common trope in sitcoms, as well as television in general, is the "will-they-won't-they" couple. There are usually two main characters who throughout the series pursue each other romantically without ever establishing a stable relationship for more than a season at a time. They do however often end up together at the end of the series. One reason this trope has become so conventional is because it allows for a number of plots and conflicts: pursuing one another, getting together, breaking up and dealing with the consequences.

How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) is a sitcom that, in a way, attempts to subvert the trope. The show is framed as "Future Ted" (Bob Saget) telling his children in 2030 how he met their mother. In the first episode, we are told that main character Ted's (Josh Radnor) new love interest Robin (Cobie Smulders) is not the titular mother. Over the course of the show, we see Ted pursuing Robin, the two of them dating and breaking up, and both characters meeting other people - in Robin's case, other main character Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). In a controversial twist ending, Ted and Robin get together at the end of the series finale, set in 2030. Even if we ignore the ending, the show still fails to subvert the trope. Ted and Robin's relationship is the focus of the series and a problem in many of their romantic relationships with other people.

Values and ideology
I would like to finish this discussion with a reflection on what sitcoms, consciously or not, teach us about life. There are values and ideologies to be uncovered in any genre or work of fiction and I will now attempt an ideological analysis on the sitcom as a genre.

Most sitcoms emphasize what I like to call "extended family values". Sitcoms deal with conflict between family and friends and these conflicts are often resolved by the characters realising that family/friendship is more important than whatever the conflict may be about. The main characters learn to see beyond each other's differences and bad sides and focus on what really matters. They have to put up with each other, because defection is never ethically acceptable.

Another common theme is "true love and destiny". Related to the "will-they-won't-they" trope, love usually conquers all. The unstable couple cannot give up on each other because they are soul mates. They are expected to keep trying until it works, regardless of how hopeless it seems. Because all's fair in love and war, attempts to hinder the other person from pursuing other romantic relationships are not only morally defensible, but also imperative. When s/he finally realises that the two of you are meant to be, all will be forgiven. In the real world, this kind of romantic behaviour is usually referred to as harassment or stalking. Another important aspect of sitcom love is that it is almost always heterosexual. Homosexual characters may occasionally be featured, but are rarely written as main characters. They may be used as comic relief (e.g. as silly, sassy or for the purpose of a "gay panic" joke), as a way for the show to comment on LGBT issues or for the sake of diversity. Nowadays, gay characters are more common than before, but I cannot recall a single gay character ever being featured on The Big Bang Theory, arguably the most popular sitcom right now.

Many sitcoms try to be socially progressive, but often find it to difficult because of the status quo. Let me explain what I mean. All In The Family (1971-1979) is famous for its dealing with social and political issues, through the conservative main character Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and his liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner). The show dealt with controversial issues like racism, feminism, homophobia and the Vietnam War, and episodes usually ended with Archie being proven wrong. While the show was progressive in that it did not shy away from taking a stand on social issues, the problem is that Archie never learns or changes and most issues are only episode-specific. Because of the sitcom format, it is not even possible. If episodes dealing with important issues can't have any impact on the show as a whole, how much can the show be said to care about those issues? In the defense of the show, it was actually quite ground-breaking for a sitcom in the 1970s to actually adress controversial topics.

For some reason, I, and many others, are still drawn to the sitcom genre, even though it is predictable, formulaic and ideologically suspect. The process of writing this analysis has been strange - why would you overthink something so thoughtless? Well, to be honest, because critical thinking is important and, often, self-reflecting. I realise now why I, and so many others, love sitcoms. They are unchallenging. They are safe. And that is why it is important to analyse them. What makes us feel safe says just as much about us as what feels threatening, maybe even more.

And some of them are quite entertaining.

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