Hey, Sitcoms, What is… the Deal??

Posted by Gabriel von Grünbaum on February 15, 2010

The network comedy landscape could be on the verge of change – or it could end up business as usual.  How do I know that change may be in the air?  Well, I’m not proud of…  Okay, this isn’t easy to say – but on January 31, 2010 the television show ‘Til Death (airing on FOX since 2006) became something that deeply fascinates me.

I haven’t been watching many sitcoms for years now – although I must admit that I enjoy the slowly unraveling mystery of How I Met Your Mother (maybe due in part to the fact that it features Dr. Horrible, Willow and that I Love You, Man man who has trouble Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and The Big Bang Theory (originally tuned in for the double entendre, stuck around for the playful theoretical physics chuckles).  Overall, the format lost its sparkle for me back in the 90s.

Wait, 30 Rock!  Love 30 Rock.  Almost forgot about that one – but it is a sort of plucky new twist on the format.  30 Rock refreshes a form of entertainment that over the years was ridden hard and put away wet, like Better Off Ted does in its own way.  Holy cow!  Better Off Ted, that’s a must see right there.  Can’t believe I almost forgot about Better Off Ted.

I think the reason I’d forgotten about these last two shows is because they don’t feel like sitcoms to me, they’re just Happy Happy Fun Time I get to spend with my new hi-def TV (we love to bond).  They are experimenting and bending the sitcom format, seeing what new directions it can be taken in.  So glad 30 Rock’ll be around as long as Tina Fey feels like making it – so sad that it looks like we’ll be saying so-long to Ted before most people even got a chance to know him (and by “him” I mean the whole rest of the cast – Jay Harrington does a very fine job with the roll of Ted, but he is the straight, the only straight man, in this wonderfully crazy world).  To me, Better Off Ted is hardy-har-haring at its very best.  These shows are pushing the sitcom envelope until it teeters on the edge of the desk.

On the other hand, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother aren’t really changing the game; they’re just playing it perfectly.  They feel like sitcoms to me all the way, but I don’t hold that against them – I just sit back, shut the ol’ brain pan off and enjoy.  Part of the reason that they enjoy the success that they do may have to do with the younger casts attracting the younger audiences.

“So wait, what about ‘Til Death?”  That’s right.  I just read the mind of a man in Portland.  Hi, Brian.  Thanks for reading.

‘Til Death, if I understand correctly, is a sitcom that a few people like, a lot of people don’t and most people don’t even know about (I was part of this third group).  This is a sitcom’s sitcom that relies on the strength of its actors and the wittiness of its writers to make it week to week.  Premise?  A couple, married for many years, tries to keep their marriage working.  Uh, I think I may have seen that one before… on just about every sitcom I’ve ever seen.  In fact, if I’m not mistaken, this was the very premise used when the original sitcom format was first being developed by the ancient Greeks.  (It was a real riot!  Their neighbor was a Cyclops!  Shenanigans!)

Now I can’t speak to what these people were up to for the first 3 seasons.  I don’t know.  Like most of America, I wasn’t watching.  I can only assume it had nothing to do with Cyclops.  But one night, (I don’t actually remember what I was doing, but if I was in a sitcom fantasy it might’ve gone something like this…) while I was at my hot neighbor’s – who loves wearing those short skirts with the long stockings – waiting for her to finish cooking me a steak, ‘Til Death came on and I was forced to watch because I am banned from the company of open flames (long story).

The episode (#9 of season 4, called Hi Def TV) began as I would expect one of these sorts of sitcoms to begin, and I gazed longingly in the direction of the hot meat in the other room (my sitcom fantasy rocks!).  Then, unexpectedly, I was jerked to the edge of my seat, one of the characters in the sitcom suddenly realized that he was just a character in a sitcom.  (Whoa, this is so meta right now…)  This show had abruptly dug into Vonnegut’s sandbox, was suddenly sipping from Groundhog Day’s juice box.  I watched in amazement as this run-of-the-mill show suddenly embraced this “fantasy,” “sci-fi” territory without blinking or apologizing!  The other characters were still involved in the main story arc of the sitcom, but this one guy – dopey husband of the leads’ grown daughter – was a guy that was finally seeing the world around him clearly.  He’d taken the red pill!  His ramblings made sense to no one else on the show he now knew he was on.  He could see that their set had no ceiling, that the sets would change out the windows when the blinds were closed… and where was the fourth wall?!  I laughed in surprise and disbelief!  This was risky storytelling for the mainstream, but I was always hearing that the show was about to be canceled anyway – the mainstream had let them down, so maybe this was their strike back.  I think that they just decided to have fun, now that there was nothing to lose.

I figured that I had witnessed a clever one time event on a failing show – sitcom writers gone wild! – and went on to enjoy the rest my evening with hot meat.  But when I accidentally flipped to the show the following week, there was the character once again trying to avoid the boom mics only he could see, asking for “Line!” when he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say and getting answers from an unseen script supervisor!  I was thoroughly delighted.

With this sort of “ploy” it’s easy to imagine how cheesy or shark-jumpy it could feel as the creators BEG for your consideration, but this is not the case here.  It doesn’t feel like I’m being begged to spend my time on their show – it feels like the writers have been freed to express their wildly creative ideas, and hope you enjoy watching it as much as they’ve enjoyed coming up with it.  This continuing plot is handled deftly, with the stakes continually raised. (SPOILER RIGHT HERE:  In the follow-up episodes they recast the role of the character’s wife with yet another actress and he’s the only one who can tell!  I was laughing my ass off.  OKAY, SAFE NOW.)  It feels like they know the end is coming and they’ve decided to have all the fun they can in the meantime.  Thank you, dear writers, for making it a sci-fi fantasy angle – I’m tickled, and actually find myself questioning the reality around me that I was so convinced of just yesterday.  (Maybe my hot neighbor really will cook me a steak?!)

So, I would say check out ‘Til Death while you still can, it’s better than I would’ve guessed – if you wanna support Joss Whedon alums, How I Met Your Mother – if no one gets your science jokes, The Big Bang Theory is your huckleberry – if you enjoy the warm fuzzy bizarre, 30 Rock will take you there – if you enjoy laughing until it hurts about bizarre science AND wanna start a letter writing campaign, Better Off Ted is your show (please let us all know if you do, I miss it already… sniff).

The networks are testing out what the future of half-hour comedy will look right now – everything could change depending on what’s successful.  Let’s get together and make our eyeballs heard by showing them what we like – so we can laugh in all their networky faces.

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