Monday, September 21, 2009

The Modern Sitcom, Part Two

such vibrant picture and sound Last week, I cut this talk off in a weird place, halfway through describing the transition from old-style sitcoms to the new-style sitcoms that we all know and love. Let’s pick up right where we left off.

The last piece of the puzzle is the critically acclaimed, oft-lamented, personal favorite Arrested Development. Derided by critics as having hard-to-follow storylines and profoundly unsympathetic characters, the show barely hung on for three seasons before being axed by Fox. Arrested featured densely layered and often subtle jokes and wordplay and many a running gag, gags that didn’t stop when the episode ended but continued on into subsequent episodes and seasons of the show. In it, we see the hilarious self-absorbed assholes from Seinfeld married to a single-camera, pseudo-documentary, all with the rapid-fire jokes and cutaways that 30 Rock would later replicate.

The show never wanted for praise – nearly everyone who actually watched the show for any length of time ended up loving it – but it was never popular. What it didn’t get in quantity of viewers, it made up for it in quality - Arrested fans are among the most devoted you’ll find, many of them able to quote episodes verbatim even a few years after the show’s departure.

This is another important distinction between the old sitcom and the new sitcom – the rise of the Internet has given fans of cult shows and movies the opportunity to find each other, discuss and obsess about a show. Where Friends had the watercooler, Arrested Development had innumerable fansites and Internet forums devoted to its discussion, to the dissection of every episode’s every nuance. Jokes and running gags in Arrested or The Office become a sort of shorthand by which fans can identify each other and communicate. As a result of this phenomenon, viewers of sitcoms today have more of a sense of ownership of their favorite shows.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how loyal your fans are – at least, that’s the mentality that smothered Arrested, Futurama and other cult favorites. Network executives seem to be catching onto the fact that people don’t just watch their shows on TV during their scheduled timeslots. Tivo changed that, and Hulu (actually started by TV network bigwigs) continues to change it.

As a result, A show doesn’t need to be #1 in its timeslot to be promised an extended lifespan these days. The Office, in its sixth season with no end in sight, has had better and better ratings over the years, but it has never even cracked the top 50. That’s in part because fans of The Office buy t-shirts and bobbleheads and DVDs in mass quantities – if 9.8 million people watch a show and the majority of them are willing to pony up for DVD box sets, well, that’s enough to make up for less-than-record-breaking ratings.

The subject of Hulu and DVD box sets is the last stop on this train. Sitcoms were once pressured to be extremely self-contained, with every episode telling a story that didn’t necessarily require viewers to have seen any earlier episodes of the show. If your viewers missed the show even once, there was no convenient way for them to catch up, and so they’d be less likely to come back to the show. With the advent of the DVD, TV shows now had convenient access to the home video market, making it much more feasible to watch the entire run of a show – no more scouring the TV listings to see if that episode you missed is on. Hulu also makes it easy to watch and re-watch missed episodes.

Because writers can now assume that their audience can see old episodes of their shows, they can delve deeper into story arcs and more complex character relationships. Story arcs involving romance between characters were once the most common, but now shows are much more serialized in nature. Every single character in The Office, not just those with top billing, have been fleshed out over the course of five seasons, and those character moments accumulate, they don’t just disappear at the end of the episode.

This breeds deeper affection for these characters, major and minor, on the part of the viewer. Remember at the end of the fourth season of The Office how Toby, a second- or third-tier character at best, was leaving Dunder-Mifflin, and fans were a little worried that the character was actually leaving the show? Now, remember the last season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when Will Smith’s aunt’s character was replaced with a different actress and no one was supposed to know the difference? That shit wouldn’t fly anymore, my friends.

So, let’s recap – the modern sitcom is defined in part by its presentation and subject matter. Where multi-camera, episodic shows with laugh tracks were once the norm, serialized, single-camera shows stuffed full of jokes are now the style du jour. Where family-friendly stories with Morals and Lessons once ruled the day, characters are now allowed to be remorseless assholes, and the jokes and storylines are now front and center instead of just being means to an end.

The sitcom today is not just characterized by stylistic choices, but by the behavior of its fans – these merchandise-hungry folks are all too ready to whip out their wallets for a t-shirt with a catchphrase on it, and network execs know it. Fans are also intensely loyal to shows, and connect to them on a deeper level than happened in the past. This is partly because online communities give them the opportunity to obsess over shows with other fans who like it just as much as they do, and partly because these shows’ persistent character development make the characters feel more like people and less like interchangeable joke dispensers.

At least, that’s how I see it.