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One of the worst things you can do to me is make me watch the typical American situation comedy.

Now, in Great Britain, they don't overkill these things. They come up with a reasonably funny background for the story, uproarious characters, and proceed to present hilarious stories in them with superb actors until the concept plays itself out. Then, they end it gracefully and get the hell out.

On American networks, the situation comedy - indeed, any series concept - is something to be milked, churned and raped until the ratings are horrid and there's nothing left for the writers to play with. Shows run for years upon years, sometimes well over ten years, until the public is truly tired of them but watches them out of tradition or because everything else is truly worse. The best example of such a long-running situation comedy is the animated classic The Simpsons; however this isn't entirely fair because The Simpsons is still genuinely funny. At this writing, I understand this show to be running in its twelfth or fourteenth year.

Be apprised, should you be still a teenager or younger, or perhaps a foreigner, that the pickings weren't always so scarce. I grew up in the 1970's, when situation comedies were, for the most part, quite inventive and entertaining, and even provided some meaty social commentary for those with ears to hear. The characters were rich and the actors generally up to the task of enfleshing them. The writers knew how to take advantage of the settings and the characters' nuances and relationships to craft stories that would become part of the viewers' most personal memories; the characters wound up becoming icons of American consciousness and even immortalized. My favorite example of this positive end of the spectrum is the all-time classic All in the Family.

All in the Family deserves special note because it is America's greatest triumph in the tradition of television comedy. It has all the above-mentioned hallmarks of character depth, a well-detailed setting, and powerfully crafted stories that while short and comical are successfully illustrative of all kinds of social critique and life teaching. Much of my own social consciousness comes from my faithful childhood viewership of this show, which ran from the very early 1970's into the '80's, changing its concept somewhat as original characters left the show. Throughout its run, however, it focused on the slow but inexorable personal evolution of one Archie Bunker, a super-stereotypical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and a bigot, into a sensitive and progressive citizen with consistent and interesting human flaws. This character was brought to life by one of America's greatest actors and social activists, the late Carrol O'Connor.

O'Connor brought his social activism into the role, deftly stepping back from the progressive, working-class conscious and anti-racist values he tried to help instill into American society to portray an everyday American citizen who somehow didn't quite catch on to the spirit of change. At first, the young left-wingers the show's producers expected to embrace the show hated it for its gritty depiction of Archie Bunker's racism and sexism, while the audience that was actually being lampooned found Archie a lovable if deserving target of social criticism. Eventually, however, everyone caught on to what the show was trying to do, and the long-running series became a nexus of American sociopolitical consciousness from right to left. Both sides learned something from this show, and it drew richly from the depth and breadth of recent American history to teach its lessons right there in our living rooms - from Archie's living room.

When do we really see this kind of power and creativity in the situation comedies today, which all seem so throw-away in their conceptualization? They blur together, from the style and the quality of the acting to the bland concepts and script writing. The same ground is tread over and over, and while it's hard to match a classic, the British show consistently that it can be done better than this.

I miss the '70's for a few reasons - not the ones for which most of my generation and those after us do (or imagine they do). I miss Archie Bunker, the warped DJ's at WKRP in Cincinatti, the heart-attack guilt-trip antics of the brilliant Red Fox's Sanford and Son. The unmatchable quality and depth of these immortal characters and the talent of the players and writers behind them is eternal. I hope that they will always be semantically accessible to the minds and hearts of future generations, so that something of my generation will live forever, too.

What do we have today? I must admit that there are some gems. I would never go so far to say that today's sitcoms had nothing going for them altogether. Aside from the aforementioned The Simpsons, I find Kelsey Grammar's Frasier absolutely uproarious, as well as the quirky and often bizarre Will and Grace.

Will and Grace is of course only possible in today's cultural atmosphere; despite claims of progressive thought, the networks of the 1970's were already feeling 'out on the limb' airing All in the Family. At the very best, gay or transvestite or transgendered characters would occasionally be featured, but would rarely if at all be permissible as main attractions. The only exception I can think of offhand is Billy Crystal's character in the wonderfully off-the-wall spoof comedy Soap.

I'll forgo mentioning the shows I think are absolutely rancid; what's the point anyway? If they stink, I don't want to recommend them nor waste space in someone else's head throwing out their names. It's up to the reader to have the discernment to decide what's garbage and what's good, but I hope that I've increased a certain capacity for 'television critical theory' in the minds of younger consumers of electronic culture.

It's the least this old guy can hand down to the kids.

The Alienist

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The following comments are for "Situation Comedies, Mindlessness and Occasional Cultural Watersheds"
by The Alienist


I have to agree whole-heartedly american comedies are lacking greatly, so I have found is most american television (which is why I tend to stay away from the glass teat). Anyways, this was very well written and said - PROPS! :)


( Posted by: Drastine [Member] On: September 30, 2002 )

I can see the criticism about my lengthy titles. I think I get this (bad?) habit from Mark Twain, who used long and bizarre titles on some of his novel chapters and some articles.

However, I think you're very off-base regarding All in the Family. It was a revolutionary show that did a lot of good for people: it was a long-needed self-conscious analysis of the American character and mindset that was desperately needed; and in this, I make one rare agreement with longstanding critical theory.

( Posted by: The Alienist [Member] On: October 4, 2002 )

First of I really liked the piece, because it points out the banality and mindlessness of much of what is considered entertaining in todays society in a well thought out and well written manner. I would agree with Jess that your titles do tend to get rather long at times, but that is only a minor point.
To make a response to some of the statements made by Jess about what television can possibly teach us in the form of the situation comedy, I would have to say a great deal. Most popular entertainment can be viewed as a historical document in later years. The sitcom is especially good for showcasing the changing dynamic of the American family. Look at I Love Lucy vs. Roseanne or The Cosby Show versus Leave it to Beaver or Happy Days. These television shows are a way of holding a mirror up to the culture of the time, and often times they reveal every pimple and blemish and flaw as well. You may be laughing at those very topics but as they say laughter is the best medicine. In the case of All in the Family I would say this is definately the case because it served to show the White Anglo Saxon majority of the time just how ridiculous the common judgements and prejudices of the day really were.
The television is only a glass teat if you don't bother to look at a little under the surface.
Which brings us to the interesting question: What does the television shows of the modern day show us about the society we live in?

And there's my two cents, and as always I'll expect a handful of change...

( Posted by: Bartleby [Member] On: October 4, 2002 )

I'm actually kind of surprised at your opinion of television, Jess. I agree with most of Bartleby's observations, but I'd like to toss out a few that are less philosophical. Television allows the human mind to relax in the same way a hot bath or a massage allow human muscles to relax. If you spend every waking moment hyper-analyzing literature written by armchair authors, hopeful writers, successful hacks (Stephen King anyone?), the future of the industry, or Pulitzer Prize Winners sooner or later you're probably going to strain something up there. Television offers an escape from the day-to-day routine of most peoples' lives. It's a form of entertainment, and I can relate to that from the perspective of an entertainer. People need release, and the human mind is a creature turned on by visual stimuli.
In regard to your question, Bartleby, I actually believe our television is a decent reflection of our culture. I think we're too quick to assume that our society is somehow polluted when compared with the standards of yesteryear. Our television shows will probably illustrate to the people of the future that we're a somewhat sexually liberated culture, power is king, and the average teenager has a much better handle on reality than most adults give them credit for. It doesn't sound all that different from the television of the past, really. Good guys usually win over the bad guys by using wit, intelligence, or brawn, and we like to see people who are more beautiful and striking than we are, people we can aspire to be.
Oh yeah, and big robots are really cool. I think that's definitely going to be a reflection of our society. Big robots rule.

( Posted by: MKMINION [Member] On: October 6, 2002 )

Re: Jess and Spongebob....what a combo :)
I disagree. :) We both breathe (I think), we change, and we're both completely stubborn and bullheaded.
Now, on to your post. Speaking from the unemployed line, I imagine I'll be watching a lot of television in the near future after the prime job-hunting hours have passed. Maybe I'm just trying to convince myself that my brain isn't shrinking to justify this.
Not to insult you in the least, but I've always been kind of amazed by people who say that they watch movies, yet act as though television were somehow MORE capable of corrupting the supposed sanctity of their minds. Even the most intellectual and artistic of films will serve the same purpose as television. The only differences are the medium, the time allotment, and the budget. For every "Chocolat" there's a "Sopranos." Even the fluffiest of shows are incredibly well written (Re: Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Maybe you should try watching some television from a literary standpoint? Writers are constantly trying to get people who hate literature to give a good book a shot. Why not be an emissary to the other side? :)

( Posted by: MKMINION [Member] On: October 7, 2002 )

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