Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bad Sitcoms With Good Writing

Have you ever noticed that many TV critics are really bad at evaluating sitcoms? I'm not just talking about problems with recognizing a good sitcom when they see one -- to be fair, most of the great sitcoms have been recognized as such by the critics -- but about the inability of a lot of TV critics to give an accurate description of a sitcom's style. A critic can usually tell you how one cop show differs from another, or how this autopsy-fest adopts a different approach from that autopsy show. But when it comes to the style of a sitcom, critics tend to have trouble looking past the basic setup; if a show is shot before a live audience, it will tend to be lumped in with all other shows filmed before a live audience, even if it doesn't have much in common with them.

For example, I recently read something about Arrested Development (a very funny show, but through no fault of it's own it's become this year's sitcom-for-people-who-hate-sitcoms) which contrasted it with the style of live-audience shows like "Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and Seinfeld." But the only real reason for lumping Raymond in with those other two shows, stylistically, is that they all use the live-audience setup. "Raymond" is actually a reaction to the Seinfeld/Friends style of fast-paced storytelling, lots of plots, etc; the creators of "Raymond" returned to the '70s, All in the Family style of having few sets, less frantic pacing, and avoiding "B" stories, instead taking a simple story idea and having all the characters discuss and argue over it. In many ways "Arrested Development" is far closer to "Seinfeld" or "Friends" than "Raymond" is, because AD adopts the basic formulas of the "Seinfeld" model (have many plots in one episode, use short scenes rather than long ones, keep the pace fast at all costs). I'd also argue that "Arrested Development"'s basic style of humor probably has more in common with a live-audience show like "NewsRadio" than most sitcoms shot without a live audience, which tend to be slower, not faster than the studio-audience shows. The live-audience sitcom is an outgrowth of the snappy Broadway comedy of the '30s to the '50s, the kind of fast-paced play writing that died on Broadway but emigrated to Hollywood; the single-camera show, like Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, has more in common with film comedy, which tends to space out its big jokes more than the rat-a-tat, audience-obsessed rhythm of stage comedy.

This points up the biggest problem with the way critics tend to evaluate sitcoms: they tend to evaluate by form, not substance or even style. A good example of this is the acclaim for Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is a funny show, but it commits all the sins that people say they're sick of in conventional sitcoms: characters who never develop; plots involving problems that could be solved in two minutes if the lead character wasn't an idiot; repetitive storylines. The show has become a sitcom for people who hate sitcoms, but largely, I think, on the basis of its unconventional form (semi-improvised) and non-network subject-matter; but really, in terms of substance it's quite close to one of those '60s sitcoms that did the same plot every week.

Which brings me to the point of the title: a lot of times, I find that critics don't make distinctions between sitcoms that are well-written and sitcoms that are not. Instead they often evaluate sitcoms by the basic form, or the basic premise, and assume based on that that the writing is bad. Conversely, once a show is established as quirky or sophisticated or something above the conventional sitcom, it can get a pass on its writing even if it's not all that good. The Simpsons got praised for its brilliant writing even when, as has often happened in the last six or seven years, the scripts have fallen down on many of the basics of characterization and story structure, and settled into one of those accursed sitcom-writer ruts where all the characters talk the same (have you noticed, in recent episodes, that Marge, Bart, Lisa and many of the rest of the characters make interchangeable one-line jokes that could have come from anybody?). But that's better than the shows that never had particularly good writing to begin with, but got written about as though they did. Usually these are the shows that have some kind of groundbreaking subject or quirky approach, anything to endear themselves to the critics who aren't interested in conventional sitcoms: Will and Grace and Sex and the City are recent examples of acclaimed shows with rather dreary writing.

Because critics tend to judge a sitcom based on how conventional its form is, this means that a sitcom with a reputation as being "bad" can often have better writing than a sitcom that is considered "good." I think I've already mentioned "Who's the Boss?" as the arch-example of the "bad" sitcom with good writing. As an ABC family sitcom revolving around a second banana from "Taxi," and with most of the stories revolving around ultra-conventional setups, it could never get a good critical reputation. But the writing, supervised by MTM veterans Blake Hunter and Martin Cohan, was quite good: the sort of well-crafted comedy that gets laughs not from one-liners (the lines look like nothing on the page, so I won't quote any) but from characterization and character interaction. The writing was so solid that they were able to do a successful British remake of the show, "The Upper Hand," that used the scripts from the original version, with the American references Anglicized but everything else the same. I wouldn't call "Who's the Boss?" a favorite sitcom of mine, but I think it was heavily underrated because of its form and look; it was, overall, a better-written show than "The Cosby Show" (which was well-written for its first season but very hit-and-miss for the rest of its run). Other shows that come to mind as being "bad" sitcoms with good, solid, character-specific, smart writing: "Boy Meets World," some seasons of "Growing Pains," the first two seasons of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (Paul Henning was a brilliant comedy writer), "Alf," and a bunch of others that even I don't have the nerve to admit to liking.

I'm not saying these shows are all-time classics. But I do think that they had better, smarter, tighter writing than a lot of the officially-approved, "quality" sitcoms of their respective eras. And when it comes to a show that isn't supposed to be a "quality" sitcom, I'm always impressed by good writing, since it demonstrates (from my outsider's point of view, anyway) that the writers sort of went the extra mile: a show like that can be a hit if it's as badly-written as "Full House," and the critics don't often acknowledge the difference between the writing quality of "Full House" and that of "Who's the Boss?" so it's kind of nice that the writers found a way to do some good work anyway. Of course, some shows are so misbegotten that it doesn't matter who's writing; "Mr. Belvedere" had an extremely strong creative team (mostly veterans of "Barney Miller," of all things), but it wasn't well-written. Or at least, the cast and characters were so repellent that it would not have been possible to build good scripts around them. But, again, you can say the same thing about a lot of quality, for-people-who-hate-sitcoms shows too.

By the way, I should be giving more specific examples of the kind of criticism I'm complaining about, but then this isn't real journalism, so you'll have to forgive me for my breach of non-journalistic protocol.

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