Friday, December 08, 2006

In Defence of Very Special Episodes

Over at Maclean's I have a post that amounts to an apologia for "Very Special Episodes" of TV comedy shows.

And a thing to understand about "Very Special Episodes" is that in the '70s and '80s, so-called TV drama was mostly not very good -- you had a lot of cop shows and medical shows and stuff, but very little serious character development. If you wanted to see characters grow and change, or see the lead character of a show go through any kind of emotional development at all, you mostly had to go to sitcoms, and that's why shows like M*A*S*H or Family Ties would do serious shows where a character grew up a little -- because hourlong dramas weren't doing this kind of thing. Now they are, so there's less need for sitcoms to do them.

I now recall that Larry Gelbart (not my favorite writer, but certainly important in the development of the VSE) said something to the effect that the reason M*A*S*H stood out was because nobody else in the '70s was doing actual drama. He had a point. Most of the episodes of '70s hourlong drama shows revolved around plot, not character: the resolution of the episode would come when the murderer was caught or the disease was cured. The comedy shows, like Barney Miller and All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, were the shows that did stories that depended on character, where the resolution of the episode depended on a character learning something or two characters making an emotional connection.

1 comment:

J Lee said...

Sitcoms doing drama did have to walk a very fine line between entertaining the audience in a different way and hectoring them, in excessive preaching in place of any humor. In reference to M*A*S*H, what happened in the late 1970s was similar, but at counterpoint, to the late-70s problems netioned in the threads below that afflicted "Happy Days".

In that, the desire to elevate Fonzie above everything else, combined with the audience reaction that made The Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" sound like a state funeral, made the final seasons' episodes unwatchable in syndication, as the show strayed further and further from reality.

With "M*A*S*H", all the adulation of its ability to mix drama and comedy grew from the moment of Henry Blake's death over the next several seasons so that by at the latest Season 8, the cast, writers and producers had become so full of themselves with pretentiousness, they came to believe imparting a dramatic message to the audience was more important than actually entertaining them. And as a result, just like "Happy Days", the final seasons of "M*A*S*H" are unwatchable, but remain on air because they're part of the syndication package with the earlier episodes (it would be an interesting experiment to see if a station's cumulative ratings for "M*A*S*H" went up if they immediately went back to Season 1 as soon as Radar leaves for home, as opposed to airing the final 90 or so episodes. I know TV Land did a semi-mock poll once asking viewers if they preferred the "Happy Days" episodes before or after Chachi's arrival. No points for guessing which one won).