Great article on sitcoms in Newsday that puts a finger on why the genre is ailing. I’ve always maintained the necessity for surprise in comedy, but when you have access to the highlights of four decades on TV Land, TBS and other cable outlets, surprise is gone. (And this doesn’t even include the insane amount of Classic TV on DVD…)
I think there’s quite a bit of truth that audiences have comedic literacy. There’s not just an awareness of the stock characters, plots and catchphrases, there’s also knowledge of rhythms of setup-punch-punch. With the obsession with reality, the artificiality of people who are always witty gets rather ridiculous.
Arrested Development, The Office (US) and Scrubs to a certain extent all shake up the format, not playing by the cheesy conventions many hate. But they aren’t burning up the ratings. If we’re so desperate for something fresh, why not?
I think the truth might be that most people never watched the sitcom for laughs, but for warmth. The sense that we are alright and the status quo was maintained. In almost every sitcom the collections of characters is either a family or a makeshift family, and relationship are played as such.
Reality TV owns warmth now. Sure there’s backstabbing and attention-seeking, but many reality shows use the diverse contestants to recreate that ragtag sense of family. Though it’s suspect how real it all is, the bonds are probably more sincere than any you’d see between two sitcom characters played by actors who may not care for one another. We don’t need to be uplifted by a simulation of a clueless dad just trying to raise his kids right because we can watch Extreme Makeover and see it for real.
As somebody who doesn’t want the TV to recreate his family, having other shows take over this function for sitcoms is great. Now that all the moments of gratuitous heart can be refined out, we can have more creations like Arrested and Office that just rely on structuring a good funny tale, knowing we don’t need to love the characters to love the show.