Network sitcoms have been the bread and butter of TV executives since the dawn of time (or at least since Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart). And from their earliest days until pretty recently, these American staple sitcoms hadn’t changed much. But then something miraculous happened, which ushered in a new era of network television sitcoms.
I’m talking, of course, about Arrested Development.
Ok, maybe I’m overselling it. But in addition to being a well-documented favorite among network comedy fans and critics, Arrested Development was also something of a revolution (and certainly not a bloodless one… RIP Arrested Development: ’03-’06. You were so young!). The show changed the way creators think about network sitcoms. To my eye (formally untrained, but subjected to a huge variety of television in its time), there are basically two kinds of American network sitcom: Pre-AD shows and Post-AD shows. And that’s not purely a chronological distinction, it’s a stylistic one.
Consider: the poster-child of successful network television sitcoms for a very long time was Seinfeld. Adored by fans and critics alike, it’s probably the best example of what network sitcoms are aiming for. It even had a very solid 9-season run, something most shows can only hope for. It’s ilk included Frasier, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and more. But it’s not stylistically that different than, say, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
You can start to see similarities among these disparate shows pretty much immediately. First of all, the most obvious: they all have laugh tracks. Second, they’re what’s known as multi-camera sitcoms, which accounts for most of their stylistic similarities. In this kind of setup, scenes are filmed by multiple cameras on a set, usually without much camera movement. It’s what makes all of these shows feel so similar. Even shows that aren’t multi-camera shows adopt some of the visual language of these shows (The Brady Bunch, for instance, was single-camera, but it stuck pretty closely to the kinds of things multi-camera shows do. See also: 30 Rock‘s recent live episode).
This style is still really popular among network tv shows, and it’s notoriously high-grossing and mass-appealing. The ratings for one sample week indicate that Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike and Molly take the top three network comedy spots, and these shows are really conventional laugh-track, multi-camera sitcoms. (Modern Family is shuffling in there, but I’ll get to that.)
That brings us to Arrested Development. While not the first to do it (consider this a sharp, sidways glance at Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle), it ushered in an era where what seems like the majority of sitcom creators started shuffling in some more unconventional elements. They started making more single-camera shows (The Office, 30 Rock, Community, etc.). They also started experimenting with AD‘s framing devices and presentation, including fake documentary elements, fast cutaways, and flashbacks. These techniques were all adopted to varying degrees on a lot of other shows (The Office is even more documentary-like than AD ever was, 30 Rock uses tons of flashbacks, and even the otherwise somewhat conventional How I Met Your Mother expertly uses rapid cuts).
But the big thing that Arrested Development brought to the network comedy scene wasn’t visual or stylistic: AD was telling stories about ridiculous, selfish, and often horrible people in genuinely emotional situations. It took petty, goofy people and made us care deeply about them. We kind of care when George Michael gets his heart broken by Anne. We feel the emotional swell along with GOB when he reconnects, however briefly, with his long lost son. We want this family to survive, even though we know they are horrible people.
And not horrible in the Everybody Loves Raymond sense: Ray might finish the donut his wife really wanted or leave a pen in the laundry, but George Bluth will knock out his own brother to send him to jail in his place, or GOB will be the direct cause of his brother loosing a hand, and we still care about either of them more than we do about Ray. No matter how creepy George Michael’s relationship with his cousin, Maeby, is, it’s still pretty touching.
That’s what defines this new crop of television shows: terrible people, that we also root for, having really touching emotional moments. The best example among this recent crop is Modern Family, which is creeping into top 3 territory for network comedy. The show is somewhat notorious for hug-tastic endings, but they are often punctuated by crotchety patriarch Jay scoffing at how ridiculous these love-fests are. The people on the show are lazy (Phil), stupid (Luke and Haley, and also Phil), childish (Phil again), racist (surprisingly, Cam), homophobic (Jay), and manipulative (Gloria, and also Phil… jeez, Phil). But they are a family, and as much as they grate on each other, they also love each other, and we love them.
All of these critics’-darling sitcoms are perpetrating this little trick: We love 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon when she’s stapling her clothing together or eating big blocks of cheese by herself, but we love her even more when she finds someone who loves her gassy side. We love The Office’s Jim and Pam when they are pranking Dwight together, but we love them more when they show actual unexpected kindness to him. We love Modern Family’s Phil Dunphey when he’s ineptly and callously threatening to take Christmas away from his children, but we love him even more when he’s so relieved and excited to give Christmas back to his family. (Interestingly, Modern Family, the most-watched of this bunch, has the least terribleness…)
And it goes on. In the world of the traditional, multicamera sitcom, our heroes are at worst inept and sometimes short-sighted, but in this new breed of comedy, our heroes can be actually evil and petty to each other, but we still care about them, sometimes surprisingly deeply. (My friend Hudi pointed out that Seinfeld also started the divergent trend of shows about terrible people that we kind of don’t care about. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia ran with this, but it hasn’t caught on the same way as the terrible-people-we-love trend, maybe because it depends on us kind of not caring, a risky move for a show that wants us to invest time every week.)
In the end, the art that touches us the most is the art that models our reality. And in reality, people ARE petty, but they still love each other. And maybe that’s why the best comedies of the past ten years have shown petty people that really love each other. Great art portrays life’s good with the bad, and, thanks to revolutionary shows like Arrested Development, network sitcoms are finally becoming great art. It’s a hell of a good time to be a sitcom fan.
(A quick note: I only briefly mentioned it above, but for me, the best example of this new trend, the one that blends these aspects so perfectly, is Community. It seems like the only one that takes full advantage of the learning-to-love-the-assholes effect on a weekly basis. Community is what happens when great television becomes self aware, the Skynet of sitcoms. But that’s all my opinion, so I wanted to say it separately. See? REAL JOURNALISM!)