The resurgence of the TV sitcom
Every summer a thorny set of TV critics decides their take on the fall preview will be to bemoan the lack of high-quality shows set to air in the coming September and (their words, not mine) the dearth of worthwhile situation comedies.
Sometimes these jaded scribes will cross the line from pathetic to pretentious by actually declaring the sitcom officially dead.
But if they really believe that, I think they should probably check their pulses; it’s possible that they are the departed. At the very least their funny bones have been badly broken.
I say if you can’t find something both original and funny on TV today you’re not looking hard enough. In fact, I’d argue that there’s been a comedy resurgence over the last five years. I offer two stellar sitcoms under the age of six to prove my point: How I Met Your Mother and The Office (US).
How I Met Your Mother offers a most original device in the way it plays with time, shifting from present-to-past-to-future and back again in a single episode. The storyline’s pieces are purposefully jumbled up and thrown in the air for viewers to catch and lovingly put back in order. It’s a daring way to tell a story and, for the viewer, highly satisfying.
Ted, the main character/narrator, tells stories to his kids in every episode about how he met their mother, who is never named. The young, hilarious cast, which includes Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel, brings Ted’s memories to life. The “Is that her?” guessing game piques our curiosity but it’s also what keeps propelling the series forward.
The Office (US) is an American take on a successful UK series starring the cringe-inducing specialist Ricky Gervais, so it’s not a unique concept. Still, the US series, about a mid-level paper company, has made its mark in several ways.
The UK version offered up a total of 12 30-minute shows and two 45-minute Christmas specials – albeit by design; it’s a typical series length for many UK-based shows filmed for the BBC – but the Office (US) has managed to stretch the concept for 100 episodes and five seasons, and it’s almost as fresh now as it was in season one.
It also assembled a better cast, having nabbed the super-hot Steve Carrell as its lead just before his movie career exploded, and hired a supporting cast of near unknowns who act so bravely silly that you can’t look away.
The show’s ace in the hole is its documentary style. Cameras follow characters almost everywhere. Some of the funniest scenes are meant to look like they’ve been surreptitiously shot, through the partially obscured glass office windows. The combination of intentional and (seemingly) unintentional laughs is unusual and irresistible. There’s no laugh track, and there doesn’t need to be.
So take another look before you trash all sitcoms, critics. There are a lot more quality laughs to be had than you think. Oh, and you might want to get an X-ray for that funny bone.