The State of the Sitcom

written by Sarah McLean

We all know there is an exorbitant amount of television constantly in production. This new ‘Golden Age’ is churning out more content than we can watch in a lifetime.

Television, as a new medium, was introduced to households in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when ‘TV’ as we know it came to be. Networks filled (some of) their hours with programming similar to what was already established, and proved to be working, in other mediums: interview shows, the news, live plays, short vignettes, and serialized crime dramas. All of it aired live.

Since TV’s birth, we’ve gradually been introduced to new formats (news magazine! reality!), genres (dramadies! 24 hour cable news!) and ways in which we watch (the VCR! streaming!). In the last 15-20 years it seems that the tectonic plates in TV land (the metaphorical world, not the network) are still shifting and settling. Television in 2016 has its own taxonomic rank of sub-categories where even those sub-categories intersect and overlap: scripted, unscripted, comedy, drama, news, educational, reality, dramadies, half hour, hour, etc. We shove whatever new or existing show that comes our way into our preconceived, yet ever expanding, boxes so we feel like we have some control over it. It often feels like we’re hammering a square peg into a round hole mainly because we don’t know what to do with it.

With so much changing over the last 70 years, for our purposes, let’s focus on how scripted comedies and sitcoms are different now than when they first started.

As the new-fangled TV needed more and more content to fill its empty hours, it was only a matter of time until a “new” format was created – the sitcom. I say “new” because sitcoms have their roots in Vaudeville: set ups, punch lines and physical comedy, all in front of a live audience. Its concept wasn’t new but translating it to television was.

I Love Lucy was one of the first and, arguably, most successful sitcoms. I recently saw an episode and, I know this is stating the obvious, the show holds up, almost 70 years later. And I’m not talking about one of the classic episodes but the fourth episode they filmed, where they were still working out camera movements, still figuring out this new genre and how to make it work for television. Since then, not much has changed in the multi-camera world. And, since then, the multi-camera sitcom has never gone away. There’s been an ebb and flow in its production and popularity but it’s always been a solid pillar of TV programming, even when it’s been uncool to do so. It’s our comfortable pair of sweats that make us feel at ease. Perhaps that’s why I Love Lucy has never left the air.

As everything new becomes old and everything old becomes new again, times change and ideas need a way to stay fresh and relevant by reinventing themselves. Multi-camera shows stay current through topical issues and current events while simultaneously maintaining true to their forefathers: a new take on an old idea. When we watch a multi-camera show, regardless of what decade it’s from, we know what to expect from it: a 3-4 act structure containing many jokes that heighten a conflict in a comedic way and will resolve by the show’s end. As formats evolve new shows emerge that push the boundaries of our traditional ideas: the single camera comedy; non-linear storytelling through time jumps, flashbacks and cut aways; or the innate characteristics of a show’s lead characters.

While we still have the good ol’ standbys of traditional multi-camera shows, what is now becoming the norm is a newer crop of single camera, super-real “comedies” that attempt to recreate and mimic every day life right down to its awkwardness and me-first attitude.

This reflection of societal changes (a lot’s happened between 1951 and 2016) mimics how narcissistic anti-heroes, first in real life, then slowly on TV, has become the norm; it has evolved in front of our eyes over the last 15 years.  Our heroes used to be loveable dreamers full of optimism, now they’re self-absorbed assholes. In our social media-driven world we’re constantly bombarded with information and overloaded with, frankly, a lot of useless crap. Fairly recently we’ve started seeing this reflected in the shows we watch and how that manifests itself into a new style of viewing entertainment. Togetherness, Difficult People, Casual, Catastrophe, Master of None, to name a few, all feel similar at their core (real, awkward, unapologetic) in that they reflect society today, but are still different in their own ways.

Not only is the content staying current with the times, but it also feels like the format itself is evolving. The boundaries are being pushed. Or perhaps a new comedy genre is being created. The aforementioned shows are all 30 minute comedies, but none resemble I Love Lucy, not that they’re supposed to. Most of their humor is based on circumstance and situations, not set ups and punch lines. There may not be a resolve at the end of each show. There is not necessarily a solid structure or storytelling in each episode. It is more like watching a slightly heightened reality, as if we were to look out our living room window and people watch.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Maybe there isn’t a need for such specific categories when talking about a show. It would cause less contention during awards’ season, however.

This is more of an open-ended discussion that I don’t think has an answer yet (or ever will).  Television, like many mediums, is ever-evolving as society changes. They symbiotically inform and change each other. It’s interesting to see how far television has come in such a short time and how drastically it’s been updated from what it once was. I’m also interested to see how TV keeps progressing, especially with streaming services pushing boundaries with their content, and in how a viewer consumes (or attempts to consume) it all.

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