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What is happening to the British sitcom?

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As fresh ideas and talent are neglected in favour of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, we wonder where the British sitcom is headed.

If American television is known for its high-end drama, then surely British TV is renowned for its incredibly diverse and hilarious comedy, more specifically, the situation comedy. It’s hard to look over some of the names in the British sitcom back catalogue and not be impressed – from Fawlty Towers to Blackadder, I’m Alan Partridge to Father Ted, the list of classics goes on and on. Recently though, there’s been a lull in quality and, personally, I’m starting to fear for its reputation. So what is happening to the British sitcom?

The list of classic British sitcoms goes on and on. Recently though, there’s been a lull in quality

Let’s begin at the turn of the millennium; after the success of the BBC sitcom The Royle Family, there was a gap emerging in the market for the untraditional sitcom. The lack of studio audience laughter was refreshing and something different. The single-camera aspect of it created a more cinematic feel and contributed to its social realism. There were a handful of other shows on Channel 4 in the late 90s (Brass Eye, Spaced) that were breaking the mould too, but they were cult hits with a dedicated fan base – not enough to make a huge impact on the genre itself.

Make way for The Office, which was a game changer for the BBC and comedy in general. The mockumentary, written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, not only adopted the style of the single-camera comedy, but it went further to break the rules of the sitcom as we knew it. Its witty dialogue, droll humour and superb performances, particularly Gervais as the self-proclaimed boss/entertainer David Brent, made it a hit with critics and fans alike. Its impact on the sitcom genre is undeniable and its American remake emulated its success in the states.

the office uk dance

If The Royle Family propped open the door, then The Office surely blew the door off its hinges. The 00s were now fair game for the ‘new’ format, thanks to the sitcom revolution. Some truly great shows followed suit – Peep Show, The Thick of It, 15 Storeys High, Green Wing, Extras, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Early Doors and many more. They were clever, witty, well-written with no forced jokes or one-liners. They had multiple episode story arcs, interesting love stories, great performances. They were technically daring (see Peep Show, Green Wing) and they all had a modern, contemporary feel that was impossible not to relate to. The future certainly looked bright for the genre in the mid-2000s.

Two of the biggest shows currently are Miranda and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. Is that really the pinnacle of the British sitcom right now?

Now we’re here, that game-changing philosophy seems to have been abandoned and the rule now seems to be: The broader the better.  Two of the biggest sitcoms on television at the moment are Miranda and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. Miranda, written and performed by Miranda Hart, relies on pratfalls to get the big laughs, while Mrs. Brown’s Boys is identical to When The Whistle Blows, the fictional sitcom featured in Ricky Gervais’s Extras that is watered down, packed with innuendos, wigs and catchphrases as the creator, Andy Millman is at the surrender of the BBC to chase ratings. Is this really the pinnacle of the British sitcom right now?

This current regression in quality is to get as many people on board as they can; pulling in a plethora of age groups can significantly boost your ratings. Love or hate The Big Bang Theory, it’s a huge success and it gets around 15 million viewers a week. Are the BBC and ITV trying to emulate its success by appealing to as many people as possible? Maybe, but the BBC has always tried to recreate the success of its hits, hence the copious Christmas specials of Only Fools and Horses. Even The Royle Family has fallen into that trap, having recently aired four Christmas specials in the last five years.

The Royle Family Christmas Special

It seems the BBC has banished its single-camera sitcoms to BBC3, alongside endless repeats of Family Guy. The newer shows that have found a home on BBC1 have been truly terrible. If it’s not The Wright Way, Ben Elton’s woeful return to comedy, it’s Father Figure, the radio show-turned-TV series that is as sub-par as it gets. The BBC’s one saving grace (pardon the pun) is Rev, which rarely shows (although there’s apparently a new series in the works). Unfortunately, the BBC seems to be trying to recreate the success of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, aiming for popularity rather than quality. But even those replicas are failing to pull in the numbers.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Channel 4 seems to have kept the style going with the likes of Fresh Meat, Friday Night Dinner, Derek and PhoneShop. And while all are good, they seem a long way away from the standard of The Office, Peep Show or The Thick of It. So what does the future hold?

The recent announcement of the return of Open All Hours suggests the BBC is dusting off old classics rather than seeking young talent

The IT Crowd is over. Peep Show is coming to end. The choice is dwindling as we speak. Early reviews do suggest Greg Davies’s new sitcom Man Down is going to be great, but expectations for any new British sitcom are monumentally low – I’m not getting my hopes up. To make things worse, the recent announcement of the return of Open All Hours suggests the BBC is dusting off the old classics rather than seeking young talent and a fresh, original voice. If that’s the future of the British sitcom, it certainly doesn’t look bright at all.

 

All images: BBC

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