tv

Why they might just make it after all

The new sitcoms are dark like Seinfeld but they've hung on to something that show rejected

JAIME J. WEINMAN December 5 2005
tv

Why they might just make it after all

The new sitcoms are dark like Seinfeld but they've hung on to something that show rejected

JAIME J. WEINMAN December 5 2005

Why they might just make it after all

tv

The new sitcoms are dark like Seinfeld but they've hung on to something that show rejected

JAIME J. WEINMAN

This is a period of adjustment for television critics. Just a year ago, most articles about sitcoms asked: is the sitcom dead? But this season, the big TV-related story is about a new crop of sitcoms that have come along, all at once, to find critical praise and promising ratings. With shows like My Name is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, How I Met Your Mother, and the American adaptation of Britain’s The Office, as well as the soonto-be-cancelled but tremendously influential Arrested Development, the story has abruptly changed from the death of the sitcom to its rebirth. It’s tough for critics to keep up.

But if the sitcom is making a comeback, what has it come back as? Today’s sitcoms don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the hits that went off the air just a couple of years ago; you won’t see the deliberately paced, broadly theatrical style of Everybody Loves Raymond. The new sitcoms are faster, more fragmented, darker—and, oddly enough, also more sentimental and sweet. Most of these shows are shot without a studio audience. Most use voice-over narration to clarify confusing story points and set a quirky tone. They borrow the storytelling grammar of reality shows and independent films, jumping around in time and incorporating quasi-documentary techniques. Even How I Met Your Mother, the most traditional of the new shows, uses voice-over narration, flashbacks and other time jumps.

These techniques would have been verboten a few years ago, when sitcoms were usually written and shot like miniature stage plays. But the new sitcoms don’t just use these devices as gimmicks; they use them as a source of jokes that wouldn’t be possible. At one point in the pilot of My Name is Earl, we see the main character’s brother run out of a house, followed by a flashback to a few minutes earlier, showing what caused him to be chased out. Showing the punchline before the setup: it’s a way

of turning an old gag (a character does something stupid and has to run away) into something almost new.

Some of these experiments can be traced back to Seinfeld, which established itself in the ’90s as the sitcom for people who thought sitcoms were uncool. Also like Seinfeld, the new sitcoms often have darker storylines than traditional shows: The lead character of My Name is Earl is a crook and lowlife, albeit one who is trying to turn his life around by helping the people he once hurt. Everybody Hates Chris deals with subjects, like poverty and racism, that traditional sitcoms tackled only

The most beloved sitcoms convey the sense the characters are trying to grow

in Very Special Episodes. But most of the new sitcoms break with the Seinfeld formula by including something Seinfeld rejected: the heartwarming moment.

The creators of today’s sitcoms are always looking for ways to indicate there’s sweetness and light amidst the dark jokes and funny flashbacks.The first episode of My Name is Earl ended with a hugely sentimental speech in which a character thanked Earl for boosting his self-esteem. Even Arrested Development, with its stories of mutilation and drugging, always has a scene where two characters

learn a lesson and make an emotional connection—the creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, calls it the “hug at the end.” (In one episode, the lead character tells his son “there’s nobody I love more than you in this whole world,” a line that would never have survived the edit at Friends, let alone Seinfeld.) The new sitcoms want to be hip and experimental, but they also want to make us love the characters and root for them to make those connections.

These tender moments sometimes seem contrived, but they’re part of an attempt to create something most successful sitcoms have: characters who are on a quest to improve their lives. The rap against a bad sitcom, like According to Jim (fat, sexist guy with sexy blond wife) or Still Standing (fat, sexist guy with sexy brunette wife), is that the characters never change. The most beloved sitcoms usually convey the sense that the characters are trying to grow, whether it’s Mary Richards trying to make it after all, or Archie Bunker struggling to deal with social changes he doesn’t understand. The characters on a good sitcom may not change much—if they did, the show would be over—but they give the impression of striving toward self-improvement, just as we strive in our own not-so-funny lives.

Will the public come to recognize itself in Earl’s quest for better karma, or Chris’s attempts to make it through childhood? It’s possible. And if not, then at least TV critics will be able to dust off their “death of the sitcom” articles again. M

U.S. THANKSGIVING...ACCORDING TO TV

Last week’s American holiday informed much of U.S. programming. The Late Show’s David Letterman said his mother counteracts the soporific qualities of the big meal by marinating her turkey in Red Bull. And a turkey expert shared with Today show host Matt Lauer some of the 100,000 questions the Butterball turkey hotline receives. Meanwhile, a CSI plot centred on a man found in a dumpster behind a restaurant on Thanksgiving Day—dead and covered in food.