With the future of sitcoms in doubt, Rory Clarke muses on the importance of the genre and its prospects going forward.
They have long been a core part of our lives; their lives becoming our lives, their triumphs becoming our triumphs, their setbacks becoming our setbacks. Is it time for us to move on? Is it time to leave, by the wayside, the Big Bang Theory, the Friends and the myriad other sitcoms which populate our television screens? Is it time to stand up?
Many modern media consumers would have little hesitation in condemning one of the most historically successful genres that television has ever seen. I would not be amongst those.
People argue that, with the advent of Netflix and other streaming services like it, sitcoms have become redundant. It’s argued that we, as television consumers, no longer have a need for the reliable sitcom. It is too rigid, being on at fixed times and, furthermore too banal, having perhaps less real action than some celebrated streamable alternatives. It seems to me, however, that these two purported flaws are actually the main benefits of a sitcom.
In a market over-saturated with choice, the simple pleasure of knowing what is on at a particular time, of knowing what you’re going to watch, cannot be underestimated. How many times do we come home after a long day at college/work, looking to unwind in front of the television, only to be confounded by the number of choices available to us?
One can spend untold minutes flicking around on Netflix, looking for the ‘perfect’ show for the moment, to the point that the thing that was meant to relax us is actually exacerbating our stress. This is where the sitcom comes into its own. It may not be the most inventive, or the most dramatic, but they’re always there, faithfully present, on the same channels, at the same time. There is little doubt that they are amongst the easiest shows to watch.
The practical benefits of a sitcom don’t stop there. One of their greatest advantages is that, with their steady casts and meandering storylines, we can keep abreast of what is happening without undue effort or attention. This is of great use when we are distracted, busy, or multi-tasking; in short: when we are living life.
One can flit in and out of a sitcom’s diatribe, and still retain a fathomable understanding of what is going on.
Unlike dramas, one can flit in and out of a sitcom’s diatribe, and still retain a fathomable understanding of what is going on. We don’t have to sit at attention on the couch for an hour, straining to understand sudden plot twists and hear muttered remarks (Sherlock anyone?) – we can go about our lives. With sitcoms, we know the go-to jokes and comments, we appreciate the not-so-subtle melodrama and we rejoice in the comfortable knowledge that, if we are to miss an episode, nothing transformative will have happened.
The cultural impact of long-running sitcoms cannot be underestimated. Take the example of perhaps the most celebrated sitcom of the television generation, Friends. A simple storyline, revolving around six interconnected friends, it gave rise to some cultural phenomena. From the sensation that was “The Rachel” haircut to some treasured one-liners, much of our culture is derived from this illustrious sitcom.
The cultural impact of long-running sitcoms cannot be underestimated.
Many, including the nominal ‘father of the Irish specialty coffee scene’ Karl Purdy, founder of Coffee Angel, credit Friends with the Irish importation of coffee culture. We forget that, less than 20 years ago, many coffee shops used phonetics on menus, to help people pronounce ‘cappuccino.’ Sitcoms have a social impact far beyond our sitting rooms; their longevity facilitates social replication and mimicry, the likes of which is simply not possible with single-series dramas and the like.
However, sitcoms have historically been successful thanks, in part, to their transferability and ability to remain relatable and current, years after their original release. Repeats are what makes a sitcom truly useful to us. It seems to me, therefore, that the recent tendency to politicise sitcoms, as the revival of Will and Grace has done, will damage the genre.
The show has succeeded by staying true to the original blueprint, timeless jokes and themes, a divergence away from which may prove fatal. The superfluous introduction of specific issues and themes will create whole series that rely, in large part, on their viewer’s knowledge of contemporaneous real-world events and characters. It’s not sustainable. In the short run, it will doubtless see them succeed, but their legacy will be severely impacted.
Sitcoms have been one of the mainstays of our television culture, since the days of our parents and matchbox-sized, sepia-toned screens. They have been written off before; criticised for their banality and predictability – but they’re still here. They still dominate our teatime television slots. We haven’t grown tired of them yet. Moreover, if they stay true to their origins, I don’t think we ever will.