The Evolution of the American Sitcom
One of the joys of current television blockbuster WandaVision, the newest incursion to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, is its exploration of the history of the American sitcom. The series is awash in clichés, references, and visual tributes to the likes of I Love Lucy, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch and Family Ties. With each episode taking as its setting a decade with which to play in the sitcom pool, it leaves one wondering what shows will be referenced in relation to the 90s and 00s.
The smart money will be on Friends getting a look in for the 90s episode, although imagine if they opted for something approaching ‘the show about nothing’ style of Seinfeld, maybe even opening with either Wanda or Vision delivering a stand-up routine?
What’s most fascinating about WandaVision’s approach to the sitcom format is how it reveals just how much the ‘filmed in front of a live studio audience’ style of television production is still famous with viewers even though in recent years it’s somewhat become out of fashion for television to deliver its comedies in such a way. It’s a format and style of show that is hardwired into the history of the medium. From as far back as the 1950s onwards, series such as I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, right through to the many productions of Norman Lear from the 1970s, are a pivotal part of the television landscape, with characters, plotlines and even set-pieces being a key part of the televisual language.
Of course, there are still some massively successful shows that rely on the near theatrical format of an audience (or laugh track) and standing sets that cannot in any way break the fourth wall, all delivered with an aesthetic of artificiality, but also with a high degree of comfort. We’ve just recently come out of the long run of The Big Bang Theory which, love it or hate it (I wasn’t really a fan, to be honest), pretty much took on the mantle of Friends by being a flatshare comedy with an increasingly expensive cast that was produced by Warner Bros., although its television home was CBS as opposed to NBC.
CBS has remained a home for the more conventional sitcom format in the US, with fellow Chuck Lorre production Mom still managing to pull in decent numbers for the network. NBC on the other hand has increasingly pulled away from that format towards a more cinematic style of comedy that feels more like the viewer has watched a twenty-two-minute mini-feature film.
The network was the home of juggernauts such Friends, Frasier and Will and Grace during the 90s and early 00s, not to mention Cheers, The Golden Girls and The Cosby Show during the 80s, but has become more synonymous for shows that are either cinematic (Superstore, The Good Place) or go for the documentary format popularised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. A massive hit for the BBC went it aired in the early 2000s, the series would itself get an ever-popular remake from NBC that, even several years after it reached its conclusion, is still reshown and streamed in record numbers and led to the wonderful masterpiece that was Parks and Recreation.
In some respects, mainstream US audiences got their first taste of that sort of format with Arrested Development, regarded now as a classic of sorts but which struggled when it first premiered. Its increasing popularity led to a two-season Netflix revival of increasingly mixed quality (did anyone watch the fifth and final season?), but that initial run also showed that a thirty-minute network comedy could lend itself to intricate long-running plots, dense detail, recurring complex in-jokes that could endure themselves to fans who re-watched every episode in detail and made lines of dialogue into catchphrases or even memes.
That sort of storytelling might have seemed impossible for a conventional studio-bound sitcom, but it didn’t stop How I Met Your Mother from trying. It was an intricate narrative that lent itself nicely to the DVD generation and the streaming one that came after it, even if it did end up running for around four seasons longer than necessary and had arguably the single most misjudged finale in television history that amounted to a father asking his kids for permission to have sex with their hot non-biological aunt. Seriously. What was worse was that it worked like gangbusters for those first couple of seasons, and yes some of it has aged questionably, as has so many other sitcoms let’s be honest, but it’s also a series that when it worked, did so wonderfully.
It says a lot about how indelible conventional sitcoms are, and how some of them have remained forever popular that even a younger audience who have grown up with an abundance of Marvel movies, and the likes of The Office and Parks and Recreation, can understand the format that’s being referenced and paid tribute to in WandaVision. While scripted television comedies have increasingly turned toward a style that has actually been developed and honed by directors inspired by the works of, ironically, Marvel directors Joe and Anthony Russo and their visual contributions to Arrested Development and Community, the most famous conventional studio-bound sitcoms have actually never left our television sets.
Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have kept series such as Friends and Seinfeld in the public eye, the former still even being repeated to this day in various television channels across the world. If you live in the UK and stop reading this and switch on either Channel 5 or one of the Comedy Central channels, I guarantee you that Friends is probably airing right at this very second. Not only are these series still readily available to audiences, but they are also still analysed, discussed and rewatched with a frequency that makes them feel like they have never gone away. While the comedy series might turn towards the more intricate nature and higher production values of something like 30 Rock, a studio audience and a comforting sense of artificiality along with a catchphrase or two can still draw in a massive and cathartic emotional response.
We might bring up that Friends and Frasier were too white or Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother had disappointing finales, but we still turn to them and our favourite episodes (I always stop what I’m doing if I come across The One Where Everybody Finds Out from Friends), quote favourite scenes and characters, or even hum the iconic theme tunes.
They are an indelible part of the television landscape and even as television turns away from the format, the successful shows, the ones that made a considerable impact, will never leave us, especially if there are millions to be made from selling the streaming rights.