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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
TV Critics and the Modern Sit-com
“De gustibus non est disputandum”
In the real world -- where people crawl home after a long day of beating their heads against the brick walls of a job they're grateful to have, yet hate in so many ways -- there will always be a place for clever escapist entertainment designed to distract us from work, politics, life in general, and the increasingly dismal state of a world lurching inexorably towards the abyss.
Every now and then we all need a mental time-out of one sort or another. Each has our own preferences when it comes to zoning out in front of the Toob, but over the last decade, so-called “reality television” – mutant bastard-spawn of the ancient Candid Camera show – shouldered aside the traditional multi-camera sit-com as the media opiate of choice for vast numbers of television viewers.
I don’t much care for the genre. From “Survivor” and “American Idol” to the odious “Housewives of Orange County” and their mindless young cultural kin along "The Jersey Shore," “reality television” remains a bleak wasteland of shame and humiliation. Still, a lot of people I know and respect are fans of these shows, and since there really is no accounting for taste -- what we like is not who we are -- I won't pass judgment on their viewing habits.
Despite drifting out of the popular spotlight, the old-fashioned multi-camera sit-com never really died. Kept alive by the astonishing success of “Two and a Half Men” (until Charlie Sheen’s recent meltdown, anyway) followed by “Big Bang Theory,” the flickering flame of sit-coms is burning brighter these days thanks to a resurgence on cable led by Betty White’s return to center stage in “Hot in Cleveland.”
For an old dog like me -- with work boots firmly planted on the turf of sit-coms in making my Last Stand in Hollywood -- that’s a very good thing.*
Two very eloquent critics of the medium recently addressed the state of the modern sit-com. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman discusses the “unexplainable surge in good sitcoms” currently on TV, while Robert Lloyd –- to my mind, the LA Times most thoughtful TV critic –- dissects the evolution of sit-coms over time, both as a genre and the manner in which an individual hit show tends to morph into something very different over its five-to-ten year life on screen.
Any student of modern media culture will find both columns worth a read.
My only quibble with Goodman and Lloyd is in their habit of lumping single camera comedies in with the traditional multi-camera shows under the term “sit-com.” This seemingly minor detail may just be a pet peeve of mine, but for anyone involved in making television, the term “sit-com” refers to a multi-camera show accompanied by an enhanced (“sweetened”) audience laugh track. Single camera comedies are typically shot out of sequence on stage or location in the time-tested, grind-it-out, 12 to 14 hour-a-day process pioneered long ago by feature films. Multi-camera shows couldn't be more different -- after a full week of lighting and rehearsals, most are shot sequentially in front of a live audience over the course of three to four hours. Nobody I've talked to in the biz (from producers and writers down to grips and juicers) considers single camera comedies to be “sit-coms” -- but TV critics remain stubbornly oblivious to this. The differences between these two forms of televised comedy are profound -- translated to the animal kingdom, one would be a Zebra and the other a Wildebeest; both four-legged ruminants that live and die on the veldt, but there the similarities end. I just wish our TV critics could wrap their undeniably talented brains around this notion.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- get a life, Mike -- but it's a little late for that...
* Not that I watch sit-coms any more than "reality TV" -- which leaves me in the rather awkward position of rooting for the success of genre on which my livelihood depends, but that I don’t actually, uh, "consume." From my point of view, "reality TV" is a highly exploitative medium based largely on the cruel dynamics of personal humiliation, while a quality sit-com is a balanced, well-crafted comedic effort worthy of professional respect, at least. Still, making such a show is one thing – tuning one in at home is something else altogether. In a world of limited time, choices must be made...