24 February 2011

I Thought I Liked Sitcoms

I grew up watching sitcoms. When I was a kid, they practically dominated the airwaves. I remember watching four 30-minute shows from 8p-10p, then being told to go to bed because anything after that time was for grown-ups. Many of them had predictable plots, but they made me smile: "Happy Days", "Mork and Mindy", "Laverne and Shirley", then later came shows like "Night Court" and "The Cosby Show". Gradually, sitcoms all but disappeared, making way for reality shows, hour-long dramas, and the hybrid called the dramedy. I've enjoyed a lot of what has been aired over the years, but when "Big Bang Theory" came on the scene I realized how much I missed comedy and sitcoms.

Unfortunately, I'm still not getting as much comedy as I would like. Many of our current TV comedies, whether critically acclaimed or popular with the masses, have left me cold. A few of them, like "The Office" make me so uncomfortable that I can't even sit through an entire episode. Most comedy, at least in part, hinges on laughing at the embarrassing situations that the characters get themselves into. Modern shows really seem to be pushing what I call "the cringe factor".

My favorite shows, like the Britcom "Gavin and Stacey", walk right up to the cringe factor line but then they pull back before I start to dislike the characters. The writers of that show in particular balance the embarrassing moments with scenes that make me still care about the characters. Other shows, like "30 Rock", have admittedly made me laugh harder than "Gavin and Stacey". However, I have to sit through a lot of uncomfortable scenes to get to the laughs. There was a cumulative negative effect, too; the more episodes of "30 Rock" I watched, the less I looked forward to watching it, even though I did laugh at least once in every episode. There are other shows like "Arrested Development" and the new "Raising Hope" where I didn't even laugh once.

So what does make me laugh? I think I'm more attracted to verbal wordplay than all-out comedy. Shows that technically aren't comedies, like "Firefly" and "Glee", have had lines that made me do a spit take. I like pop-culture references and unexpected twists on words, but I also want to have an emotional investment in the characters. On so many of the new sitcoms that are supposed to be so great and clever, I don't like the characters at all. For instance, the big bad on "Glee" is Sue Sylvester. On the surface, her character is rude just for the fun of it. However, viewers have found out over the run of the series that she has a mother who abandoned her and a sister with Down's Syndrome that she lovingly cares for. That doesn't excuse Sue's bad behavior, of course, but it makes it easier for me to laugh at her instead of totally hating her. On another show, the writers wouldn't have bothered to humanize her at all.

The pendulum will eventually swing back in the other direction, I suppose. Until then I will have to turn to movies and TV reruns for the lighthearted viewing I crave.
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