Why must television sitcoms make themselves feel ‘real’ all the time?
It seems like as the years roll by, more and more sitcoms are running out of creative fuel, and when that happens they resort to introducing storylines that seem more realistic, and at times, even more dramatic. I, for one, don’t watch sitcoms for a drama fix. I watch daytime and primetime soaps for my drama fix. When I sit down to watch Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory, I expect to have a laugh at the expense of some funny actors acting out funny stories. But it seems that’s becoming harder and harder, in some cases.
It’s not that hard to understand, and it happens with almost every long-running series. After eight or nine seasons on the air, writers and producers see that ratings might be dwindling as well as their creative fuel, so they introduce a story that might be “realistic” or out of the ordinary, or they just do a storyline that makes people say, “WTF? I think this show is on the way out.” That was certainly the case with Roseanne, which at the height of its run was one of ABC’s most popular comedies. Then, out of the blue, they virtually shot themselves in the foot when the Conners, the main family of characters, won the lottery, immediately changing the dynamic of their working-class family they spent eight seasons building. That of course is not even a realistic storyline; how many people do you know who actually win the lottery?
The only exception to the rule of running out of creative fuel is Friends, the hit NBC sitcom which ran for ten seasons. Why do I believe Friends was so successful? Because it wasn’t realistic. They sent the message that twentysomethings can live in New York City, hang out in a coffeehouse all day, have decent jobs with decent pay, and live in beautifully kept apartments. That is not real life, not even close, and that’s why it worked. With the combination of stellar acting and writing, Friends created a comedic illusion that kept viewers under their spell for an entire decade, and not only that, they had fans begging for more. The Friends gang have nixed the possibility of a reunion so many times, yet loyal fans held out hope. That is why Friends was so successful; they did not focus on reality, they focused on their characters and their stories and did not really bring unnecessary amounts of reality into their stories. They focused on comedy, and making their viewers laugh and be entertained. Yes, they shifted the dynamic of the series when Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) got together, but that was merely the producers realizing that the premise of the series’ first four seasons would have gotten old eventually. The same can be said for Will & Grace; for the better part of its eight seasons, they stuck to what was funny and didn’t stray too far away from what made viewers tune in every week for a laugh, and that was unmistakable comedy served by Will (Eric McCormack), Grace (Debra Messing), Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mullally). At one point they did introduce Harry Connick, Jr. as a love interest for Grace, but even that was put on the backburner for the better part of the character’s arc because, clearly, the producers didn’t want to mess with the dynamic of the series too much. And that was wise.
Several critics have compared The Big Bang Theory to several of the sitcom greats from the ’80s and ’90s, but that series, which is about to enter its eleventh season on CBS, has made more questionable creative decisions. Some argue the trouble began when they introduced Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler as a love interest for the one and only Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) back in 2010. I disagree. I don’t think the trouble necessarily began when Amy was introduced. I think the trouble began when, slowly but surely yet still somewhat suddenly, they began writing Amy as much more socially advanced than Sheldon. If you recall the Amy we met back at the beginning of the series’ fourth season, she was just as anal-retentive and laughably annoying as Sheldon was for the majority of the beginning of the series. The writing for her character began to shift in the fifth season, although not completely, but by the sixth season, the Amy Farrah Fowler from 2010 was gone. And I don’t necessarily judge that decision wholeheartedly. I understand that, from a writer’s point of view, having Sheldon and Amy retain their unique personalities would eventually get old. But that’s not to say they had to go and start writing Amy as just as socially adept as Penny (Kaley Cuoco) or Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) by seasons six and seven, when most of the jokes surrounding her character are the fact that she consciously chooses to date a man who does not seem to comprehend or have a desire for physical affection. That, in my opinion, is when the dynamic between Sheldon and Amy (and, as a result, most of the series’ dynamic), seemed to take a nose dive. Even then, the writers seemed to get bored with that as, by the ninth season, they decided to break the couple up for the sake of drama only to later completely sexualize Sheldon and Amy, and by season ten, they were living together with very few major issues therein. All of this to say, the need to write Amy differently than Sheldon only to later sexualize a couple that did not need that angle (sexualizing Sheldon Cooper is like sexualizing Bugs Bunny, if you ask me), comes from a creative decision and need to introduce more elements of reality into sitcoms which, in the case of The Big Bang Theory, have only sent the series further downhill. I was hoping they would have gracefully said goodbye to the series after season ten (the vast majority of those years would have been strong), but CBS decided to renew it for an eleventh AND twelfth season, extending it to a point I don’t think The Big Bang Theory will be capable of reaching, at least creatively speaking. Unless seasons eleven and twelve turn out to be better than seasons nine and ten, I only see the series burning out instead of seeing the value in not having too much of a good thing and gracefully saying goodbye. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens there.
I’m not saying The Big Bang Theory could’ve continued to succeed if they’d followed Friends or Will & Grace’s formula, but they didn’t have to go and break up Sheldon and Amy in season nine only to go and sexualize them a minute later, all in order to bring this unnecessary real-life drama into a 30-minute television sitcom. Sure, we see couples on sitcoms have arguments and fights, but we don’t necessarily expect them to break up. We expect everything to be happily ever after by the end of the episode, and that of course is not realistic…and why should it be? We sit down to watch sitcoms to have a laugh or a chuckle. We enjoy seeing a made up world in which everyday problems are funny and how people can live in a world where having coffee at Central Perk every day without a noticeable care in the world because we most probably have enough of our own problems to deal with. Roseanne was probably the first sitcom to break that barrier, making light out of serious issues such as unemployment, poverty, and even domestic violence. Sitcoms are an escape, at least for me. If I’ve had a long day and just want to have a laugh, I’ll gladly put on a rerun of Friends or Modern Family or Will & Grace (or The Big Bang Theory, just before season nine). If I want to watch my favorite couples go through emotional turmoil, I’ll watch Grey’s Anatomy (or any other show by Shonda Rhimes, frankly).
Of course, I’m in no place to judge, I’m not a television writer with the pressures of making millions of fans happy worldwide. But I do believe that, at its core, sitcoms are supposed to be comedic, half-hour broadcasts that make us forget about life for a while (well, maybe not in the case of Roseanne at times) and have a laugh. I have a deep appreciation for present day sitcoms who stay true to themselves by not losing the magic, such as The Middle, Modern Family and, once upon a time, The Big Bang Theory, but I no longer consider it to be in that group.