Tuesday, March 24, 2015
WHY AREN'T MORE SITCOMS LIKE "CHEERS"?
You know, this has been bothering the hell out of me when it comes to the modern-day sitcom. Actually, let's specify slightly more, the modern-day, 3-camera sitcom in particular. You know the standard I use to compare a sitcom to other shows? It's not "Seinfeld", it's not "All in the Family", it's not even "M*A*S*H" or anything like that, it's "Cheers". Yeah, "Cheers", and you know why I use "Cheers", 'cause A. I grew up with it, but also because it felt so real. Not that it wasn't artificial, it was clearly a set and whatnot, and you rarely get set-ups and jokes as funny as "Cheers", ever, but "Cheers" was so rich in character and setting. It actually gets deeper the more you watch it. All the characters are distinct and occasionally quirky, but it was placed in a reality where, it actually seemed reasonable that I could go to the bar down and have it be like "Cheers", hell, I know places like it, I know people like Sam and Diane and Rebecca and even a few Norm and Cliff. (Oh, hell, I'm Cliff to be honest; I was voted most likely to blow a big lead on "Jeopardy!".) That's the thing though with the really great sitcoms, you never once felt like this wasn't a real place. WKRP felt like a real radio station, "Welcome Back, Kotter", felt believably like a real high school, "Family Ties" felt like a real house and that a real family lived in it, hell, "M*A*S*H", looked like the fucking Korean war. It's not aesthetic thing though, it's also an acting choice. All these sitcoms, there's this sense, there's this hyper-awareness that this is a sitcom. Or even worst yet, "Oh, it's just a sitcom, so it's to do (Insert whatever stupid thing "2 Broke Girl$" has done lately here) Hell, I don't even think "Married... with Children" do this much winking at the camera or being self-awareness. People seem to think that's because it's a three-camera sitcom and that the old-style of audience laughter or god-forbid a laugh track takes you out of the reality. Well, what, do all those guest actors on "30 Rock" in unexpected places not take you out it? Or Ron Howard's voiceover over everything. Or actually, everybody's voiceover over everything, what-the-hell is with all the voiceover narration in sitcom's now? I get it, it works sometimes, and it kinda goes with the single-camera format set-up byyyyyyyyyyy- Quick trivia question folks, which single-camera sitcom started that trend. You have 15 seconds?
A) Arrested Development
C) Dave's World
If you guessed A., you're wrong, "Scrubs" came out first. If you guessed B, "Scrubs", you're wrong too. If you guessed C., and you actually remembered "Dave's World", then you would've remembered that it was a 3-CAMERA SITCOM!
No, Answer, D) "The Wonder Years", they started that. And you know what, hardly a single-camera or three-camera sitcom has come around and felt more believable and realistic that "The Wonder Years".
You know, that's the other thing that this has brought on, the first-person perspective. Yeah, I know, history of literature, first you learn third person than you learn first person, and there's been versions of that, over the years, from Doogie Howser with a computer to "Blossom" with her video diary to "The Office", "Parks and Recreation", "Veep", "Modern Family", "The Comeback".... with their pseudo variations on mockumentaries, but still, it's kinda ruining the sitcom. Really, For every "How I Met Your Mother", there's a "Manhattan Love Story", where frankly the only reason you have this voiceover is to have this single-person perspective. Actually, it's not even the voiceover, most of television nowadays really, basically amounts to all of these single-vision sitcoms, like "30 Rock", "Girls", "The Mindy Project", all these shows that are basically following the "Seinfeld" idea where we get somebody funny and have them create a show and what we're getting now is the world from their perspective. Even something like "Family Guy" is essentially that, the world from their perspective. And there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it's leading to these more stylized shows that don't have the longevity and classicalness that something like "Cheers" had. It's not like "Cheers" was formed in a committee, but Glen and Les Charles, two Mormon brothers from my hometown of Henderson, Nevada, and frankly that fact amazes me; they created a show about a bar and focused around an alcoholic former pitcher in Boston, Massachusetts. That doesn't seem much like their viewpoint, and yes they worked on and borrowed the style of other shows like "Taxi", but still,... Anyway, it's because we're now looking for this distinctive single-visions and first person perspectives however, what we're ending up with is this more stylized form of humor. Where we're seeing a show mainly from a single character's perspective, and not much else. This allows for things like aberrations and stopping your essay in the middle to give the readers a pointless multiple choice question that doesn't have the right answer just to yell at them, despite the fact that the real answer probably isn't correct either and that TV shows have been experimenting with voiceover and first person format years long before even "The Wonder Years", but don't we have enough of this? I think we do.
More importantly, why does seem like the only thing a sitcom writer can do now? Their own singular vision and perspective? They can't create something a universe or a world that isn't just the way they see it? Did everybody just wake up one day and go, "We would rather come up with their own kind of "Seinfeld"? This is where modern-day sitcoms really start losing me, especially network ones. Because it's either somebody singular vision, which has a better chance of success than other shows, but it's still pushing it somewhat, or it's the other extreme, everybody trying to recreate, "Friends". Yeah, Tina Fey nailed this one, I am so sick of seeing the same actors and actresses in bad sitcom after bad sitcom, because they happen to be young and good-looking. No wonder networks are getting rid of pilot seasons, but you know, when they do try to create a sitcom, why is it that they are so insistent on these young good-looking actors? Many of which, probably weren't alive when sitcoms were primarily where ugly people went to act. Alright that's mean, but seriously though, "Friends" was the exception to that rule, and even then, that show kinda had a base of reality to it. Yeah, it did. The original concept of that show was that it was about how in your early twenties, you were surrounded by your friends after you leave home and that becomes your family support while you struggle to find your place in the world. (That, and it was the first show that didn't have a star main character and each cast member was an equal part of the cast, so two things that were truly unique to that show at the time) All these other shows, well, they're not really knock-offs of it, but they're still more influenced by having this idea of this single unique vision of a show and trying to, I guess they'd call expand the horizons of a sitcom from something that wasn't just, a couple rooms across the hall an a coffee shop, but you know, how many people, places and things do you really go/do? Not that many. That's what you're surrounded by. That's why so many of the best TV shows have focused on some way about the behind the scenes of television. "The Dick Van Dyke Show", "30 Rock", "Murphy Brown", "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", etc., they're writing what they know, but also creating a world around their characters, not showing their character's perspectives on everything everyone, including themselves. The best shows know that, and like "Cheers" they also know that the more stronger characters a show has in them, and surrounding their show, the better the series is and that it can actually survive even after say, a major character leaves the series. Lena Dunham drops dead tomorrow, there's no "Girls" coming back, and I huge fan of that show so I hope it doesn't happen, but still, that show's nothing without her.
Why isn't that, we need single-camera sitcoms in order to create that world too? We never needed that before. I never watched "Cheers" because it was funny, I watched it 'cause it was good, and it could've been a drama if they wanted it too, it was that strong a show. It was that based in a reality that it could be like that. Most of the great shows were like that, "Family Ties" had a studio audience that never cheapened the show or made it less believable. That show seemed like a believable family. Where did this stigma come from that shows had to be fun and over-the-top if they're gonna be 3-camera? "Friends", alright "Will & Grace" but again, that was an exception, not the rule, and the exception worked and was what made to show the distinctiveness between those characters and archetypes.
This is the problem, not enough people look closely enough at shows anymore to see why they work or why they don't. People think sitcoms with 3-cameras need to be big and full of caricaturish over-the-top characters then they think that's what they need and now, nobody wants to do that show because nobody will believe it. Or if you want reality, do mockumentary to let the audience know this is how it's really happening, but if you're a particular distinctive vision, do single camera, and maybe have a voiceover of some kind, so you can do anything at it'll all workout okay. That's seems to be the idea, with the only real exceptions, for some being CBS shows like "Mike & Molly" and....- well, everything else is Chuck Lorre really, but at least worked on those "Roseanne"-like shows that understood that establishing a first base in reality can be done with a 3-camera sitcom and then you can even expand and extend beyond that if you want.
Anyway, this is why more people need to study "Cheers" and not "Seinfeld" to really look at just how powerful a sitcom can be. "Cheers", "Roseanne", "The Wonder Years", all those great sitcoms, see what really makes them stand out and why those shows will still be powerful years after all these shows will practically be forgotten. Shows that are representatives of the creative mind and that alone are cool and all, some of them are even great, but they're still basically limited to the talent and mindset of the creative mind behind them. No matter the tricks one possesses, that's all we're really getting, and because people see Tina Fey or whoever's vision work so well they're convinced now that they must also create in that image. The best thing to really do is to seek out shows that aren't just predicated on that single solitary vision however and could still work. Sure, there's places for a Seinfeld-like mind or Tina Fey or Lena Dunham or Seth MacFarland or whoever, on the television dial, but look at the level of the person creating those things. You think anybody's gonna put Elizabeth Meriwether on that list in the future. (She created "New Girl", and 2-1 you didn't know that.) Doesn't matter whether it's a sack of losers in a bar or survivalists circumnavigated a world of zombies, drama or comedy, the more believable a base a series is, the more interested we will be in it, and the stronger that show will become. If anything, it's actually more important in comedy; comedy works best in a real world and skewers it in some way. not necessary because it's important to satirize reality, but because the best comedy is always based in tragedy.
And really, when it comes to tragedy, what's sadder than having so much struggle in your life that you would like to get away, to a bar where everybody knows your name?