Remember that golden age when cat eating aliens could be your neighbor? Or how about when an idealistic immigrant from Mypos could move into an apartment in Chicago with his high strung cousin? Remember when Denise made a wacky shirt for Theo. Believe it or not, there was a time when America was awash in network sitcom tom foolery. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true. Throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the TV sitcom ruled. Canned laughter, highjinks, and that never seen fourth wall were what made TV go round. So what happened? Did Balky get sent packing by the INS? Too much anal probing for Alf? The truth is, there is more to the near death of the American sitcom than just the shift of the cultural pendulum.
I’ll admit that I’m glad to see the emergence recently of some quality sitcoms, something I was worried I might not see again. How I Met Your Mother, Community, and 30 Rock don’t hold a candle to the televised dominance of the 80’s and 90’s sitcoms, but they’re good shows, and probably a lot smarter. It’s been a rough few years for those of us who were brought up on 24 minute (now 21 minute) bursts of comic theatrics, and while the sitcom may never retain its former glory, hopefully we’ve weathered the storm. But the question remains, why did the sitcom slide so far down? Why did America stop wanting to laugh?
Many in the industry pinned it on the pendulum shift of popular culture, and like an economic cycle, sitcoms were merely in a recession. I personally never felt like this was a good explanation. I do agree that a cultural shift was partly to blame, but not one that was cyclical. Look at the evidence. The sitcom first bloomed in the 50’s with shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver and then never really looked back. Each decade added more successful shows to the prime time line up, which peaked in the early 90’s. So what then nearly killed the sitcom?
NBC has to shoulder a healthy portion of the blame here, but probably not for reasons that you think. Right now NBC is in a quagmire of awful television and despite Community and 30 Rock being in the lineup, things don’t look to improve anytime soon. Look back 10 years though and NBC was king, and had been for a long time. The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends are the obvious highlights. But shows like Blossom, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Wings, and Mad About You were all insanely popular. In the late 80’s/early 90’s you have the institutions of Golden Girls and Family Ties. There were gems on other networks, for sure, but none dominated like NBC. Much of the credit for this goes to network head Brandon Tartikoff, who took the reigns in 1981 and turned NBC around. Despite Tartikoff leaving in 1991, the monster he created kept on rolling. The problems began when that momentum started to lag. The other networks created programming based on the hope that they could be second best. When NBC lost it’s luster, the only thing left to fill the void was second rate programming, so people tuned out.
The next death blow was from the mafia, or at least the fictional mafia. The Sopranos has certainly not suffered from a dearth of accolades, but its revolutionizing effect on television hurt sitcoms more than I think people realize. TV drama in America was widely regarded as fluff throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Sure there were serious shows like Hill Street Blues, ER, and Law & Order, but they only really dipped their toes in gritty realism. The subject matter may have been serious, but more often than not, the endings were happy-ish. Most dark endings of episodes were “to be continueds,” where the second episode wrapped things up neatly. The Sopranos didn’t do this. The endings were almost always dark, darker then anything ever seen on TV. Pay cable freed the creators to make a show that was like an R-rated movie. People were awestruck and The Sopranos became less a TV show and more a cultural movement.
Soon the networks were trying to make their dramas gritty to compete, and when that failed, they drafted out of work sitcom writers to create dramedies. Network TV couldn’t do the nudity and swearing, so they created a new breed of drama. Shows like Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, and everything on the USA Network (which so far has spun more gold than network TV has). While procedural dramas helped the networks get by, the dramedies saw some healthy success, but they pilfered the few remaining comic minds in television. Sitcoms suddenly had no writers.
Of course, America changed around this time as well. 9/11 has done a lot to alter our cultural landscape and light comedy can be counted among the victims. Mike Seaver could no longer exist in a post 9/11 world, things are much too serious. Even without 9/11 though, the days of the old sitcom formula were numbered. The sarcasm boom of the 90’s produced two great sitcoms in Seinfeld and Friends, but it killed off the possibility of fluff. 9/11 just sealed the deal. Ironically, one of the greatest creations ever put on TV came of this post 9/11, post-ironic scenario. Arrested Development is still and probably always will be the most intelligent and pitch perfect comedy ever to be broadcast across airwaves. Sadly, America wasn’t ready for it, although its influence can be seen in many of the emerging sitcoms today.
The new mold of sitcom rising from the rubble is a lot smarter than its previous counterpart, but it’s hard not to watch the gems of the 80’s and 90’s and lament the loss. Sure some of the comedy was stupid, but it was kind of innocent stupid. It’s sort of like Adam and Eve eating the apple, sure we know more now, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. There are many days when I would happily crawl back into a world where Alf could exist. If the sitcom doesn’t survive though, hopefully we can count on shows like Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar to keep getting made. It may be a new paradigm, but at least it’s a good one.