Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

What is happening to the American sitcom?

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The mockumentary is tired and the multi-camera format offers nothing new – the likes of Louie and Girls may be the natural evolutionary step for the US sitcom.

Last week, Screen Robot’s Scott Rutherford wrote a worthy piece on the state of the British sitcom, where he concluded that its future “doesn’t look bright at all.” In it, he made reference to the success of US imports like The Big Bang Theory, and suggests that UK comedy has undergone an Americanisation of sorts. He’s not wrong. British television, both comedy and drama, looking increasingly out of date and shape, has cast eyes westward.

Several years ago, Britain helped the US sitcom get its groove back. Now it’s in uncharted territory

But the wrong lessons have been learned from the stateside small screen: more imitation, less innovation. The British sitcom now tries to look like mass-appeal Big Bang Theory instead of niche-y 30 Rock. It has forgotten the day old adage: content is king. It’s a lesson that US television was forced to learn several years ago – during the rise and rise of plucky cable upstarts – and one that was pivotal to the industry’s creative upswing.

Don’t be deceived by the churlish charms of E4’s US-com lineup; the American sitcom is in uncharted territory. It wasn’t long ago that US television was in a quality crisis like that which British TV is now in the midst. And, to save itself, US television learned the right lessons from Britain’s own ‘televisual golden age’ at the turn of the century. US TV learned from The Office that real and painful can be hysterical; it learned from Brass Eye and Garth Marenghi that weird can be wonderful; it learned from The Thick Of It that cynical can trump sincere; it learned from Spaced to be a nerd again. Britain helped American TV get its groove back.

Curb-Your-Enthusiasm

And thus began a period of experimentation for the US sitcom, and the consequent fall of the traditional multi-cam format. Everybody Loves Raymond gave way to Scrubs, King of Queens to Arrested Development. Suddenly surrealism and complexity entered the industry vernacular. Curb Your Enthusiasm was a celebration of improvisation and squirm-inducing conflict; It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia dared viewers to live in filth and cruel intentions; Community, like Spaced ten years prior, was a beacon of nerditude. In this period, there was healthy balance between classic comedic sensibilities and notions of breaking ground in the medium.

There have been 201 episodes of The Office US, 101 of Modern Family – trying to wring every last laugh out inevitably affects things

There was also one formal experiment that quickly became mainstay of the mainstream: the mockumentary. First there was The Office UK (top tier television), then there was The Office US (good, but never bold), then there was Parks and Recreation (the essence of joy) and then there was Modern Family (humdrum). And here’s where something went awry. American TV, like everything else in the country, does not do restraint. It was one British virtue US TV refused to adopt, and it’s sort of suffering for that.

So US television stumbled upon a formula that worked. It worked in the 80s in the films of Christopher Guest and it worked in the noughties with a gamut of comedy TV series. But there have been 201 episodes of The Office US, 95 of Parks and Recreation, and 101 of Modern Family – it ain’t slowing down. Trying to wring every dime and every laugh out of every show inevitably affects its reputation. Parks and Recreation, for instance, was a triumph in its second and third seasons, but has since been delivering ever-diminishing returns.

parks and recreation swanson

Parks and Recreation may not last beyond this season (it’s been put on hiatus till the new year), but the damage may already be done. It’s tired. The mockumentary is tired. What started as a bold experiment has become a crutch, and the mainstream US sitcom must recognise it as such. But please don’t return calculated comedy of the multi-camera. There’s nothing interesting about The Big Bang Theory or 2 Broke Girls (though credit to ABC for a New Girl that shines so bright).

Louie and Girls are the next step in the evolution of the situation comedy, perhaps even its natural conclusion

As with drama, (almost) all the good stuff is on cable, where the sitcom is barely recognisable. This is the uncharted territory to which I referred earlier. Louie on FX and Girls on HBO are the next step in the evolution of the situation comedy, perhaps even its natural conclusion. They’re funny, sometimes outrageously so. And there’s structure, though it’s not what we’re used to. These shows, written by honest-to-God visionaries, have done what hasn’t been since Tim Canterbury took off his microphone and got his heart broke in the winter of ‘02: they made the sitcom art. It’s comedy with ideas, and balls, and warts – so, so many warts.

 

Featured image: CBS

Inset images: HBO; NBC

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