Monday, November 17, 2008

Why you probably don't want to get those politics in your sitcom

One of the things you'll occasionally hear TV comedy creators bemoan is the fact that they can't do politically-oriented sitcoms anymore. Some of the best sitcoms of the '70s (often considered to be the golden age of the form) were heavily centered on political issues, particularly Norman Lear's All in the Family, which often seemed to tackle a hot-button issue in every single episode. You'll also occasionally hear this from TV viewers or from their increasingly ineffectual proxies, the critics. "Why can't sitcoms tackle more serious issues?" they ask. "Whatever happened to THAT?" And, indeed, the success of the BLATANTLY political Daily Show and Colbert Report in the comedy field would seem to prove their point -- politics can make for good comedy, and, indeed, SHOULD make for good comedy. But, let's face it, that's not really the way it turns out most of the time. (If I were at all a good blogger, I would link to a few examples of this, but I'm lazy, and you should be glad to have me back, so you're not getting anything except my own personal recollection that American Dad was launched as something Seth MacFarlane insisted would be less like Family Guy and more like, you guessed it, All in the Family. While the show maintains a BIT of political edge, it does so only in the sense where it will make an occasional Family Guy-style cutaway political gag -- and this is coming from someone whose feelings have warmed considerably towards the show and is inclined to be generous.)

In a way, those who wish that sitcoms would tackle more serious issues are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Sitcoms used to ALL have sort of an "issues" base. Even Mary Tyler Moore has been hailed as a triumph of using the sitcom to show how single women were going to make it after all in the workplace (even if most single working women didn't have things so easy in the '70s). All in the Family, of course, was the top of this type of programming (heck, Edith was once almost raped), and it somehow managed to wring laughs out of everything from the burgeoning quest of homosexuals to be recognized by society to Archie's fights with the union (in episodes that are among the show's most dated now, in an age of diminished labor importance in the U.S.).

Really, if one wants to look at a post-70s history of the sitcom, one could hardly do worse than tracing the writing staffs of Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family. The two staffs would go on to populate almost every other staff with either themselves or the people they trained (the first real writing staffs to be largely staffed with people who hadn't grown up in the MTM or Lear programs came with The Simpsons and Seinfeld's Ivy League writers -- and even Simpsons was heavily influenced by the MTM gang). By and large, the shows from the MTM school (shows like The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, The Cosby Show and Cheers) were shows where there might be a political subtext (both Taxi and Cheers did pointed shows about homosexuality), but the overriding sentiments came more or less from our interest in seeing these characters interact with each other in their world. The All in the Family lineage was far more scattered (containing shows as diverse as the All in the Family spinoffs, Soap, The Golden Girls and Roseanne), and it HEAVILY emphasized the "sit" in sitcom, often putting the characters in BLATANTLY political situations simply to wring laughs from the issues of the day (what are the early seasons of Roseanne but a chronicle of the desperation of the working class in the late '80s and early '90s?).

Hollywood, of course, being what it is, shows like All in the Family or, say, Murphy Brown often got plenty of acclaim simply BECAUSE they dealt with political issues, rather than due to their actual quality. And that led to the Very Special Episode, which pretty much assured that shows could never, ever tackle issues-heavy subjects ever again (I think the last show to do VSEs on a consistent basis was Home Improvement, which typically did about one per season, but I'm willing to be proved wrong here). VSEs tended to pop up in shows that were based more in the MTM style of comedy, and the sudden insertion of the jarring real world into the hermetically sealed universes of these sitcoms often disrupted their rhythms. A good example of this is The Cosby Show, which, as the most popular show on television and a show that was written about in a scholarly fashion a lot in its heyday, often took on issues of importance to African Americans or to families with teenagers (as in the famous episode where Vanessa goes to a party where there's drinking). While some of these episodes were quite good, when Cliff Huxtable just went back to telling goofy stories the next week or having dreams where he got pregnant, it had the effect of making the VSEs feel even more jarring, which, ironically, diminished their impact, making it easier to make fun of them (indeed, the term "Very Special Episode" is something that almost everyone recognizes and not as a good thing).

Whereas Archie Bunker was always blathering about the issues of the day (as were Roseanne Connor and even the Golden Girls, in their own way), most of the popular shows of the '80s and '90s grew out of that character-based, MTM style of comedy, and this led to a lot of issues-based comedy being kind of gutless, simply because no one wanted to trivialize teen drinking or something like that. And so sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond just never even TRIED to deal with politics beyond the very superficial. Even The Simpsons, which always had its pointed, satirical side, has mostly left that by the wayside when it comes to political issues in recent seasons.

(I freely admit a lot of the above is oversimplified, but the point of this post is not to write a complete history of the American sitcom.)

Some of this has to do with the divisive culture we live in. Even though Barack Obama's recent win was the most decisive we've seen since the '90s, 48% of the population still voted against him, with 46% of the population going for his main opponent. And the issues that there IS a broad consensus about are hard to work into something in a humorous context. Most of the American public is against the Iraq war at this point, but who wants to write a funny show where people deal with the toll of said war (not to mention the fact that the lack of a draft has meant that a surprisingly small number of Americans have had their lives directly affected by the war)? Similarly, while the economy is in shambles, it's much harder to write comedy about someone losing their home when they can't make mortgage payments or about the perils of the commercial paper market.

Certainly, one can do South Park or Sarah Silverman-style flaunting of sacred cows, but it's not enough to simply thumb one's nose at both sides of the abortion debate and declare both of them wanting. At the same time, could you imagine an episode of How I Met Your Mother where Robin got pregnant and considered whether or not to have an abortion? There's simply no way it would get on the air -- not because of the issues it tackled but because of just how much of a Very Special Episode the premise would dictate it would become. The HIMYM gang is made up of five vividly realized characters, but not a one of them has expressed even an inkling of a political viewpoint beyond Marshall's vague appreciation of wanting to practice environmental law. To suddenly toss them into an abortion debate would feel about as jarring as that Scrubs episode a couple of years back where everyone debated the Iraq War, then forgot about it the next week. There's some feminist snark coming out of 30 Rock on a pretty regular basis, but it doesn't really add up to a coherent political viewpoint just yet, and the characters on that show are probably not deep enough to sustain anything so pointed anyway (much as I love it).

So when someone says, "Oh, we're going to do Family Guy, only it's going to have politics in it, and things like that," it seems fairly unlikely, because part of the point of Family Guy is that the characters are not really characters -- they're blanks, capable of taking on any joke that might need them. Similarly, when someone says, "Sitcoms need to be more like The Daily Show," it's completely missing the point. A sitcom is designed to be something that will be syndicated for decades and decades. The Daily Show is designed to be ephemeral. It's funny now, and it'll be funny in six months, but what about in six years? Will we still remember why we were all so worked up about lipstick on a pig then? (Heck, do you remember what that was all about NOW?)

Here's the thing about most political humor: It instantly dates. Look at Murphy Brown. It's borderline unwatchable now, because who really remembers all of the salient points of the Contract With America or all of the stupid things Dan Quayle did? Even Soap, a show I still kinda like, can be hard to take when it veers into the political, to say nothing of its more blatantly political spinoff, Benson, which is also pretty dated.

But all roads lead back to the gold standard: All in the Family. All in the Family is perhaps the most political sitcom of all time, and the show is surprisingly undated. Even when Archie is blathering about whipping inflation now or whatever it was people got worked up about in the '70s, it's compelling watching. And, oddly, the reason it is goes back to the MTM style of comedy writing: The characters on All in the Family are just really, really tight. (A similar example of a show that bridges this gap is Family Ties, which I watched a lot of over the summer and found surprisingly impressive, even if it's not an all-time great like many of the other shows in this post. Still, on that show, while the idea of political conflict is built into the premise, the characters were strongly conceived enough that the show ended up mostly ditching the political conceit beyond having Alex say, "William F. Buckley!" or something in every episode.)

What it all boils down to is this: All in the Family was about politics, yes, but it was only about politics insofar as they applied to the four characters at its center, who had specific POINTS-OF-VIEW on those politics. We watched Archie and Michael argue about something, and we could SYMPATHIZE with both of them. It wasn't about agreeing with either or finding one side of the argument more compelling than the other (Crossfire-style). It was simply about liking both of these characters, even if we maybe found some of their views loathsome. (It also helped that many of the issues the characters argued about were fairly deep-seeded. Something like race is a lot more lasting in the culture than something like Reaganomics.) Too often, when you read a proposed sitcom that has politics at its center (like that ABC one that almost got picked up a few years ago where one brother was liberal and the other was conservative), the characters ARE their politics. If you have no reason to exist beyond those politics, you don't make a very compelling character. Archie Bunker had so much more to him than his conservative viewpoints, and that's why he remains compelling. And yet, as simple an answer as this is, it seems so hard to learn. Look, again, at Murphy Brown. It's a pretty good show, with some sharp writing, and it's certainly engaged with the culture it was a part of. But who are its non-Murphy characters beyond a collection of tics and types, designed to heighten the humor in the easiest and least challenging way possible. The politics of the show have aged poorly because the CHARACTERS on the show have aged poorly. Take a look at a similarly issues-based DRAMA from the period, like, say, NYPD Blue, and it's infinitely more watchable because the characters on that show were carefully thought out. Even Roseanne is more watchable because of how that show's politics snuck up on you slowly, growing out of the established characters.

As we should have found out from that weird stint when Fox News was trying to create a conservative Daily Show, any time you create comedy with the express point of expressing a political point-of-view, it's almost destined to fail. The Daily Show works because it's written by people who have a strong concept of delivering their own brand of truth to power and people who have little patience for blowhards in the media. The Fox News comedies DIDN'T work well because they were simply reactionary pieces in response to The Daily Show. All in the Family works well because it's a real and measured attempt to recreate discussions millions of Americans have around millions of otherwise loving dinner tables. But Murphy Brown doesn't work because it's more about creating liberal characters than about creating real characters or funny characters.

What it all ends up being comes down to one of those iron-clad rules of television: If all your character is defined by is X, you've probably got a pretty boring character. And you can only hide that with good writing for so long. (I should really call this VanDerWerff's Will and Grace Law, but I don't think I will.)

(That was really rambly and digressive, but I've been on the campaign trail and thinking about how to turn politics into compelling television for a while now. At some point, I'll do a similar post on dramas. For now, though, just know that I'm back and I'll be posting at least five times a week and usually more. Tomorrow: What's up with Mondays at 8, and how did EVERY show in that timeslot randomly get REALLY GOOD at the same time, with the exception of that Dancing Stars thingy?)

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