Sitcoms seem to be heading in divergent directions these days. When we say that, we mean it as a positive. If you are a frequent reader of fourthmic, you’d recognize that we appreciate the direction that sitcoms are going. There are so many shows to write glowing reviews about that we haven’t been able to get to all of them.
Let’s go back ten to twenty years ago. TV was basically broken into two categories: drama and comedy. Today, the lines have become blurred and the ends of the spectrum have been stretched to the extremes. Part of this is due to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services that are available to audiences. Part of the credit also needs to be given to the people making these shows and the executives giving creative people a chance.
If we continue on our trip down memory lane specifically looking at comedy, there were only a handful of tropes. There were shows about daily life, family, dating, and the workplace. These were standards and they still need to exist as a basis for any series to work. Sure, shows like MASH (if we go back even further) or The Larry Sanders Show that stood out as being different, but there were only so many ways comedy was done on television. As we’ve gone through the Golden Age of Television most of the adulation has been heaped onto drama series, but this leaves out a large swath of shows that deserve equal if not more credit.
We’re not sure where the sitcom shift began, but where we are today is totally different than where we were. Look at the most recent episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show. A comedian dug up his own past and put it on display. Gaffigan was willing to put himself on trial to point out how society’s outrage over “politically incorrect” statements. Louis CK has used comedy in a couple of series and has thrown surrealism, slapstick, and drama into a blender to create some of the most memorable television we’ve ever seen. Last year, Amy Schumer used the first half of the season of Inside Amy Schumer to address issues like rape and body judging. And then there’s Veep. As real world politics get crazier and crazier this show has become more and more a reflection of reality. Or is the other way around? We can’t tell anymore. And it isn’t just the cable networks that are going in new directions. Imagine a series like The Carmichael Show on NBC in the 90’s. It wouldn’t have happened. The issues would have been considered too serious for a sitcom. ABC has taken some chances with shows like Blackish and audiences are responding. One The point is that these shows aren’t taking the easy way out by poking fun at a fat husband or a wife who likes to shop. They’re looking at more serious issues and this is important both so that audiences can laugh and think about some of the problems we face.
Don’t get us wrong, we love King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends, but the shows today stick with us in a different way. The creators of some of today’s best sitcoms are making statements about the way we live, the world around us, and are addressing issues like never before (again MASH not withstanding). Maybe there wasn’t the same need for this social commentary in the past or maybe society wasn’t ready for it. When the word pregnant couldn’t be said on I Love Lucy, television was obviously in a different place and the target is constantly moving. Now we have shows like TransParent that is tackling one of today’s most sensitive subjects. Avoiding sensitivity isn’t the way to progress and TransParent is proving to be an important part of the trans movement.
Today, we see our world evolving politically and socially. In some ways life has gotten better. It some ways it is worse. Political correctness has become more and more of a topic and some of the shows we’ve mentioned as well as series like South Park, which has moved from being an adult cartoon to being one of the go to places on TV for social commentary. Pushing political correctness isn’t the only reason why these shows are great, though. They’re addressing some issues that would have been reserved for dramas in the past. On Maron, the title character is overcoming a drug relapse. Maria Bamford is sharing her personal experiences with mental illness on Lady Dynamite. What helps these series even more is that the stars are also the creators and writers. They know their subject matter because they are creating experiences essentially for a fictionalized version of themselves (that sometimes doesn’t seem all that fictionalized, i.e. Curb Your Enthusiasm). Laughter helps healing and it also does wonders to help people understand.
Audiences don’t have to relate to all of the specifics as long as they relate to the characters. None of us are horsemen, but we can connect with Bojack Horseman. Instead of just tip toeing around a character’s feelings for someone they cannot be with or keeping personal failures from dominating episodes, shows like Bojack are facing them head on.
Almost every sitcom has had an episode or two here and there with adversity. They often didn’t land and that’s because of how the characters were developed. To use King of Queens again (which is one of our go to’s when we want to unwind with some guaranteed laughs), the show tried to go serious at the end and it didn’t work. We knew these characters to be one way and when they turned on each other and showed dark sides it felt inconsistent. There were earlier episodes where Doug and Carrie struggled to conceive, but their devolving marriage felt like a step too far. Meanwhile, when similar things happen on Louie or Girls, audiences react differently. The characters on these shows have flaws. They have depth. We look to shows like these for a full range of emotional experiences.
There likely will always be a place for series like The Big Bang Theory (as is evident from the big ratings), but audiences seem to be expecting more from what we’d call “more straight forward” sitcoms. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has all of the feel of a typical comedy. While that’s true what lies beneath is the distressing fact that the title character was previously a woman kidnapped underground. Once again, this is something that few of us can relate to, but it’s a new take and it is an example that comedies can use situations previously reserved only for dramas for the basis of an entire series.
With so many great sitcoms on TV right now, it’s hard to choose which ones to follow. If you’re like us, you’re probably watching as many of them as time allows. If you’re watching none, we’ll just shake our head in disapproval.