There’s something about the familiarity of a sitcom. Sitting down to watch characters whose quirks you know as though they were your own friends’. According to Stephen Winzenburg in his book TV’s Greatest Sitcoms, “We hum the theme songs, repeat the funny phrases, and even copy the behaviour of the characters that have become our living room friends.” Perhaps that is why some sitcoms have been loved for so long. Yet, E4 has given up on Friends, its faithful mistress for many years; does that mean the era of the traditional sitcom is over?
New sitcoms often emerge only to be cancelled after one season. Does anybody remember Accidentally on Purpose on E4? – Inoffensively funny, canned laughter and some alright characters, but not worth watching every week. Some other newer sitcoms draw on past formulas, like Happy Endings, a clichéd group of friends spending time in a bar… need I go on? Another, perhaps more offbeat, sitcom coming to E4 soon is New Girl starring Zooey Deschanel (the queen of quirkiness) who moves in with three guys. Although it was a hit when it aired in the US, the main character Jess seems slightly too odd for the rest of the characters. All of the above become old very quickly; the characters have been in every situation possible and audiences become overly familiar with their predictable traits.
Maybe we must revert to the original sitcoms to see the problem. Domestic sitcom I Love Lucy began in 1951 and ran for 179 episodes. Its classic brash humour and applause every time a new actor walks onto set has permanently affected the genre, but while novel back then, this format has clearly reached its best-by date on modern TV screens.
Modern sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother are perhaps more intelligently written than their predecessors. Told through flashbacks from the year 2030, the creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas manage to use interesting narrative devices to tell the usual six-friends-in-New-York-story. This more intelligent take has been well received, so much so that the show is now in its seventh season (and we still don’t know who the mother is).
It could be argued that sitcoms have evolved. The IT Crowd, although it uses canned laughter, has a more unusual sense of humour than other sitcoms. Other shows have become more realistic. The Office showcased intelligent comedians rather than scripted actors, proving that audiences want to see something original. Peep Show and Miranda are also comedian-led, providing something a bit different from the traditional setup. Others like Outnumbered find the comedy in everyday life, and are largely improvised.
So is this innovation within the genre perhaps being led by British TV? British sitcoms are arguably less predictable and clichéd than American shows. Gavin and Stacey springs to mind. But shows such as 30 Rock and Modern Family demonstrate that American programmes are by no means strictly traditional either, and in fact both have dominated the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for the last five years.
Still, Winzenburg continues on to say that it is dangerous to “mistake innovation for influence. Many innovative sitcoms have had little or no long-term impact on the situation comedy genre.” This can be seen in the lukewarm reception of new sitcoms such as Fresh Meat and Threesome, which aim to surprise audiences by focusing on unusual subject matters.
Undoubtedly there will be some sitcoms whose influence will last and others, like the recently rebooted Two and a Half Men, who will carry on regardless of whatever else may happen in the world of TV comedy. The sitcom has undeniably evolved to something more intelligent, with a refreshing sense of humour and, hopefully, less predictability.