Beyond the Sitcom Schtick

jessicapena.columnist
In the recent summer months, in between the gratuitous shots of vampire and werewolves (now, faeries?!) on “True Blood” and science-fiction frenzy of “Doctor Who,” a curious thought trickled through my hazy brain: these shows are better than movies. Perhaps not better, but at least on par, and this struck me as something novel in the history of not only television but media in general. The evolution of the TV show, from Lucy to Archie Bunker to “Alf” (a classic!) to “Friends” and on through the Liz Lemons and Donald Drapers of the modern television canon, has hit a high point with more variety and quality than ever before. 

That’s not to say that television has been abysmally awful until now. Of course, the odd eccentricity — a “Twin Peaks” here or “Freaks and Geeks” there — provides the  exception to any theory that television was all precalculated laughter and multi-camera setup before the heydays of now. However, what has changed is the availability. No longer is HBO the hegemonic ruler of cinematic television, but this high quality pastiche has transferred into the networks which used to produce the now seemingly archaic work of an “Everybody Loves Raymond” or the oft-ignored (and rightfully so) “Becker.” The differences among format, style, and tone range in astronomical diversity on television, unprecedented in previous decades.

With this diversity, from the musically-liberated high school halls of “Glee” to the Werewolf Bar-Mitzvahs of “30 Rock,” shows now have a voice besides that of the prerecorded audience laughter — a voice which is original and distinguishable. Probably in large part due to the creative risk that was “Arrested Development,” the cut flashes to strange, off-beat references, the sarcastic candor of Ron Howard’s narration and the simply un-sitcomy schtick which characterized the show’s bizarre qualities also enhanced it as being a truly original means of comedic expression.

No longer was there the stultification of sitcom rules — the multiple cameras, the predictable jokes delivered to fake audiences, or the trite plots of “two dates to the prom, what to do?” or the “it’s not at all a plot contrivance that we’re trapped in this basement and have to talk to each other and/or make out.” Wow. That’s a long one. Even longer when one recognizes it’s been done more than eight times from “Charles in Charge” to “Diff-rent Strokes.”

Take, for instance, the previously ubiquitous clip show. Used by nearly every sitcom from “The Golden Girls” to their modern, younger counterparts on “Sex and the City,” the clip show is king when it comes to television production. You’ve seen it before. You turn on your favorite show, expecting your favorite characters to indulge themselves in a fresh series of shenanigans and then, you see it. It’s just a half-hour filled with flashbacks from previous episodes, tenuously tied together with trite dialogue. Clip shows were, and still are, a cost-saving tool for the tight budgets that sitcoms endure. Now, with more innovative and imaginative shows like NBC’s “Community,” the clip show is no longer a creative hindrance but an outlet. On their recent episode “Paradigms of Human Memory,” instead of flashbacks from old material, we witnessed new, never-before-seen scenes which not only added depth to the characters but also progressed the storyline.

The format has changed. But, also the expectations. No doubt the variation of television and the abundance of creative approaches to old time slot formulas has arisen out of the need to satisfy an ever-decreasing audience size. Gone are the times when 76.3 million people carve time out of their day to view a “Seinfeld” finale. The transfer of media outlets to the Internet, On Demand, or TiVo have not only increased the accessibility of television shows but have opened up a demand for variation given the increased competition due to the diffuse proliferation of media.

Not to say the familiar sitcom doesn’t still exist. But, even the recognizable formats of a “How I Met Your Mother” still produce moments of dynamic creative content, musical numbers about suits being one of them (thanks to Neil Patrick Harris), which extend beyond the confines of previous conventionality. So, when your friends tell you they don’t like television “because there doesn’t seem to be anything on,” please tell them they’re wrong. For the first time, it now contains more original and dynamic material than any other previous decade and all available at the touch of a button — remote, mouse, or phone.

Jessica Pena is the assistant arts editor.