Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Le Morte de Sitcom

I've always loved television. When I was a kid, I'd tune in religiously for Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. During summer vacations in elementary school I'd watch reruns of Bewitched and M*A*S*H when it was too muggy to get up and frolic outside. I've always enjoyed sitcoms more than dramas, mainly because I figure life is a bummer without having imaginary people with problems to worry about. As a kid, Full House and the Cosby Show cracked me up. I'm an aficionado of the sitcom. But the past five years or so has made me feel like a cigar smoker after a bad crop. The sitcom is dying.

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This man is not funny. Don't let him fool you.
I know there are still "sitcoms" on television. Some of them are actually funny. But for the most part, sitcoms are a dying breed. In the nineties, we had Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, the Simpsons and Sex and the City. Not everyone loved all those shows, but they meant a lot to a large number of viewers. NBC seemed invincible with it's Thursday night lineup. Then came the late '90s and early aughts, which brought along a glut of reality television. Survivor seemed to be what everyone was watching and talking about for the early part of the twenty-first century. Then came the Bachelor. Then Married by America. Then the Apprentice. If it didn't involve unscripted competition of some kind people didn't seem to care. As a result new sitcoms weren't created since paying a star's salary and writers is much more costly that getting a few rubes from Alabama in front of a camera in a cheap IKEA furnished "apartment." The old sitcoms got stale or had the good sense to end before they got their waterskis strapped on and went looking for a shark to jump. Networks hadn't invested in testing sitcoms so they kept pumping reality shows that were insanely derivative of shows that had aired only months before. The reality schtick got boring, old sitcoms were leaving and new ones had been left to languish in development. Since networks have gotten rusty with sitcoms, they air the most ludicrous, intelligence-insulting swill. They trot out a fat and/or dense man, his intelligent and foxy wife and let the toilet-seat jokes begin. Let's review what sitcoms are popular according to the Neilsen ratings.
At number six is Everybody Loves Raymond, which just finished up it's last season. I'd argue that not everybody loves Raymond because I certainly do not. I think Patricia Heaton is a shrill harpy and Raymond has so many issues with women who bark at him incessantly that his spinoff series should be titled Raymond Loves Therapy. It seems that the acrimony in that house would kill all the comedy. The brothers hate each other. The women hate each other. The men sit and shrug about the crazy women. These characters have been on television since Andy Griffith. It's tiresome and cliche.
At number ten is Two and a Half Men on CBS. I've only seen a few episodes of this show but it doesn't seem like anything special. The dense man is Charlie Sheen and the intelligent foxy wife is his gay live-in brother and his brother's son from his marriage before he went gay. It's fairly inoffensive, but derivative of Will and Grace and every typical sitcom.
NBC, the former king of comedy, has gone completely to shit. The Thursday night that was once home to Seinfeld, Frasier, Will and Grace, and the behemoth Friends now has Joey and Will and Grace with the Apprentice and ER. None of these shows is the glory that it once was. And Joey isn't even good, but it got renewed for another season. The one excellent sitcom on NBC, Scrubs, has the Arrested Development curse of being underpromoted and shuffled around the lineup like an old woman's slipper.
Networks need to realize what cable television has known for years-- people don't want the same safe series that have been on for years. We have TV Land if we want something cozy and familiar. Sex and the City was different and honest. Women (and some men) could relate to it, even though the wardrobe gave small children epilepsy. The 3-camera sitcom is over. Scrubs is filmed like a drama, as is Arrested Development. The Office, while another sucky Americanized British show, is filmed as a mockumentary. Watching these shows do something different gives me hope that a banner crop of sitcoms could be growing in development somewhere.
Reality is largely over. FOX didn't add one reality TV show to the fall lineup. Not one. UPN debuted the Bad Girl's Guide with Jenny McCarthy to attempt to fill the void of Sex and the City. Stop with the derivative shows. Make something that doesn't involve tension between and husband and wife or a single girl desperately trying not to die alone. There are many other settings that can be used for comedy-- M*A*S*H was set during war and was hilarious. Scrubs is set in a hospital. Develop some real characters and not caricatures, write something original and start airing something I want to watch. Otherwise I'm going to turn to the written word, television. So help me...

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