Thursday, May 13, 2004

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Adieu to the adult sitcom?

Slate's headline writers teased me with this Dana Stevens essay about the Frasier finale. The headline is, "Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone? The Frasier finale marks the end of situation comedies for adults."

The Stevens essay underscores this point in this graf:

Growing up, I watched my parents watch Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart's eponymous situation comedies: Here were childless professionals in their 30s and 40s who moved in a world that seemed mysteriously complicated and grown-up. Week in and week out, they contended with traffic jams and IRS audits, incompetent colleagues and drunken doormen, and negotiated the intricate dilemmas of bourgeois etiquette: What do you do when a flaky friend asks to borrow a significant sum of money to start a business? Granted, my perception may be skewed by the fact I was 4 feet tall at the time, but even now, revisiting the world of those '70s sitcoms, the texture of adult life is palpable behind the standard sitcom storylines of marriage and divorce, flirtation and friendship. Frasier was a throwback to that time; more mature than its jejune (but still funny) progenitor, Cheers, it posited a world where a divorced, stocky, balding man in his 40s, who collected African erotic art and noodled on a grand piano in his stark modernist apartment, could be a plausible romantic lead for 11 straight seasons. In the post-Seinfeldian TV landscape of perpetual adolescence, where attractive young slackers were hooking up and trading apartments as casually as if New York City were their personal college dorm, Frasier sided with the grown-ups and won the respect of its audience by treating them as such.

The problem with the rest of the essay is that it doesn't ever expand on this thesis, turning instead to why Frasier was so good. Left unaddressed is why are there no more sophisticated, adult sitcoms?

I actually do have a roundabout theory to explain this -- the target demographic of sophisticated adults have morphed into obsessive-compulsive parents. This argument is implicit in David Brooks' latest book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. One of the themes in the book -- which Brooks has previously touched on in myriad articles -- is the growing obsession with parenting in this country, to the point where unorganized play has simply ceased to exist in much of the country.

Brooks tends to focus on the effect this has on the kids -- but what about the parents? All this organizing of their kids' lives can crowd out other activities, as Brooks points out on p. 139:

[P]arents have gone to extraordinary lengths not to let jobs get in the way of child rearing. They have added work time, but on average, they have not stolen those hours from child-rearing time. The time has come out of housework, relaxation, and adult friendships. (emphasis added)

Whether the tradeoff of more child rearing at the expense of adult relationships is a good thing or a bad thing I will leave to my gentle readers and bloggers I trust on the subject. However, if fewer adults are investing the time in adult friendships, that could translate into less demand for adult situation comedies on network television.

Just an idle thought.

Closing note -- before people start bewailing the decline of the sophisticated sitcome, do bear in mind that for every Frasier there have been a hundred crappy adult sitcoms. Furthermore, it is at least possible to write a sophisticated family-oriented sitcom -- go watch an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond and admire Patricia Heaton's perfection of the slow burn.

posted by Dan on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM


I think a bigger factor is that adults, compared to teens and college kids, simply have less time to watch TV. Even if your kids are grown (as ours are) there are too many other things to do rather than sit in front of the television: Internet (especially readings blogs like yours), yard work, travel, etc.
If adults are too busy to watch TV, then programmers will aim for a younger, more idle audience.

posted by: Michael Rogers on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

Personally, the only sitcom I've found worth watching in better than five years has been Red vs. Blue.

Now /there's/ a sobering thought.

posted by: Catsy on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

I think a large part of this is the constant emphasis on attracting younger viewers, especially younger men. It's the Holy Grail of the TV industry and advertisers. Personally, I think it's a bit of a crock, and that it leads to bad programming decisions, but the idea's got the hammerlock on Hollywood, and I don't see it going away anytime soon.

Another thought (that I'm too young to know about for sure) is that dramas today are quite a bit better than they were in the 60s and 70s, and so that's where the older audiences tend to go.

posted by: Devin McCullen on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]


If sophisticated suburban parents of a certain age are indeed friendless and alone of a weeknight evening, kicking around the house, perhaps waiting for the ink to dry on the color coordinated activity schedules for the following day, what are we doing BESIDES flipping throught the channels bemoaning the dearth of anything watchable?

I'm not going to pay HBO 25 bucks a month just for "Curb Your Enthusiasm", which to my mind is the only adult comedy show worth the price of admission these days. So we fall asleep waiting for the "Daily Show" to start instead.

Bad, gutless programming decisions--that's what this is all about, and perhaps a dearth of literate comic writers in this country. It really shouldn't be so hard to infuse a little edgy Seinfeldian/Stewartian/Davidian humor into the middle-American viewing diet. But if they (they being the network bosses and cable apparatchiks) think they can get away with a stew of reheated 80s garbage (Full House!) and schlocky reality programming (remake my face! my house! my dog!) they will to save a buck. As Fat Albert's little friend Russell used to say "NC--no class."

posted by: Kelli on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

"Another thought (that I'm too young to know about for sure) is that dramas today are quite a bit better than they were in the 60s and 70s, and so that's where the older audiences tend to go."

That's partly true--I am old enought to know--in part because of cable. For example, Monk on USA is probably better than most of the stuff you would have seen in the 60s and 70s. I love NYPD Blue, which you obviously could not have had on when I was growing up. On the other hand, a lot of the dramas today are considered better only because they have nudity and profanity--their dramatic content is not necessarily any better. And if you have a chance to watch the original Twilight Zone shows, that's pretty much as good as it gets.

A lot of the problem with sitcoms is simply that the audience is so diffuse and there are so many cable channels targeting specific interests. For example, I watch baseball almost every night and my wife watches Home and Garden TV. It's very difficult to get an audience for "appointment TV" anymore and that's what sitcoms thrived on. I used to watch Frazier regularly and thought it was very funny. But I stopped watching in the last few years, for no particular reason except that other stuff seemed to intervene.

I don't think stuff has to be "edgy" to be entertaining. I find some of the edgy stuff can get tiresome because the writers are trying to be edgy all time. For example, Seinfeld was very funny at times, but the characters were so unlikeable and stupid I could only take it in small does.

posted by: MWS on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]


I agree with you that baseball is usually the best thing on evening tv (with HGTV-type stuff reserved for the interminable late inning pitcher changes).

You don't like the "edgy" stuff; I do. The point, however, is that neither of us like the laugh-track dreck that is dished out as a matter of course these days (I'd name an example but they're so insipid I've developed a mental block even on their names).

Another point worth making here (while we're on the subject) is that network suits appear to keep nothing whatsoever in the pipeline, preferring to milk tired old shows well past their prime (yeah, Friends, Frasier AND Raymond all fall into that pile).

Oh, just so you don't think I'm a total whiner, I just thought of the one bright spot (for my husband and I, at least) in the current line-up (unless they've cancelled it already), "Arrested Development." No laugh track, unusual set-up, solid writing and good acting.

posted by: Kelli on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

The major dilemma facing broadcast TV today is that it's all been done before. They've been giving us the same hack plot gimmicks and banal characters for 50 years now. I'm in that precious demographic they all covet but I haven't watched any of the shows you are all talking about for more than 1 hour TOTAL in the last 10 years. Most sitcoms have all of the following-smart ass kids, stupid dad, wacky neighbors dropping by, the rock solid wife who holds it all together and it doesn't matter what the plot is, everything is going to be OK in roughly 25 minutes. PHHHHT! Doctor dramas, cop dramas, PI dramas, lawyer dramas-same characters and plots generally. It's all been done many times before and people have given up on it in favor of something less predictable like sports, cable talk shows and reality TV.
If you have to watch this crap I suggest playing a game I call "Spot the Lucy". Think about old 50's, 60's, 70's, sitcom characters and try to match them with whatever character is speaking on TV. Try to spot Eddie Haskell, Danny Partidge, Ethel and Fred Murtz, Ralph Cramden, Ed Norton etc.

posted by: MArk on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

Sounds like someone has confused "the demographic has ceased to exist" with "I've aged out of the demographic." Remember, Dan, people are delaying childhood longer and longer every year, and professionals delay it longer than other people. The demographic of adults who a) don't have lives structured around children and b) might be more interested in watching shows about adults interacting with adults than in watching cute kids wisecrack is probably *growing,* not shrinking.

The issue just seems to be that all these professional twenty- and thirty-something childless folks would rather watch either reality shows or HBO sitcoms than network sitcoms about adults; and that the number of sitcoms is shrinking fast.

But it was only a few years ago that NBC was All Comedies About Single Childless Adults, All The Time-- a phenomenon that coexisted just fine with the (already in-full-swing-at-the-time) turn to obsessive scheduling among parents.

Frasier has been more sophisticated than most of its ostensibly Must-See bretheren. But that difference hasn't been and isn't that it was about adult friendships and the others weren't. Indeed it's been *more* about family and *much less* about friendships among adults than most sitcoms have been for a while.

The real question is just: why has TV in general or the sitcom genre in particular gotten dumber? And I'm not sure there's a systematic answer. But the migration of certain kind of work to HBO has been a factor, and the pull of reality TV has been a factor.

But it might just be a coincidence that MTM, the Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family, and MASH all struck at one particular moment. A few years before we'd had The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island; a few years later, Three's Company. Eventually Frasier popped up. Eventually something else will again.

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

When did the word "graf" enter the English langauge? Daniel has now used the word twice in so many days. I have never seen the word used before, and it does not appear in any of my dictionaries. Is this part of some new literati ebonics?

posted by: torsor12 on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]


It's oh-so-hip, J-school, self-congratulatory short-hand for paragraph.

It's he cute?

posted by: Tommy G on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]


It's not that I don't like edgy stuff; it's just edgy shows seem to do nothing but edgy and I think tend to sort of "jump the shark." And I admit that I don't watch some of the edgier stuff like Arrested Development--which I hear is very good. But I agree with you about the paucity of decent TV, especially sitcoms. The lack of imagination on TV just boggles my mind-and you can't even ascribe it to a desire not to offend people, because the shows often are offensive. And the so-called "reality shows" are beyond my comprehension. What kind of mind thinks up "The World's Worst Car Crashes? But this has always been true. A lot of the old sitcoms when I was growing up were equally terrible. (I'm dating myself here but think "Hazel" for those of you born before 1964 or so. This show was insipid to the point of surreality even when I was a kid.) The difference is that today, we can watch baseball and old movies, and so forth on cable. And the diffusion of the audience makes it more difficult for the networks to mix in good shows with the dreck.

posted by: MWS on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

(1) I never liked Frasier that much. Every joke centered around dramatic irony (when the audience knows something a chactetr doesn't.) Seriously, watch the show - I'm not making this up.

(2) I think one reason that kids lives are so ridden with structered activities these days is colleges demand it. College admissions committees look for "authentic, longstanding" activities that kids have been involved with, perhaps as a proxy for kids' dedication and proactiveness. I think the whole thing is rather silly, but it's primarily driven by the parent's drive rather than the kids' initiative.

posted by: dellis on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

I think it's kind of myth that there was this time in the past when (..actually insert almost any subject here) sitcoms were better. Over the past 20 years there have been only a handful of good sitcoms, and so many bad ones that you can't even list them (because you probably didn't watch them). In addition, when there is one it usually stays around too long. Seinfeld is the only sitcom in my memory that didn't get old. They got out at exactly the right time.

Actually, the only good sitcom on today is "Coupling" on BBC America. The basic premise is essentially friends in London, but the characters are so good that it just works. That's the real key. Seinfeld had great characters that you could laugh at. So did Cheers. So did Married with Children. It's not easy to create good characters that aren't just a re-incarnation of Milly next door from Dick Van Dyke.

As for the child-centric generaton of modern parents: I dread the day when these spoiled, short attention span little monsters take their artificially over-inflated self-esteems into the real world and gain experiences like actually having to accomplish something extraordinary to get a trophy (like win). In the real world there is disappointment, winners and losers, and hard work is required to accomplish something. You don't get TV for a 5 minute car ride to the store, and you can't have everything you want just because you throw a temper tantrum. In the real world there ARE spankings, they just won't turn your butt bright red. The parents, teachers and school administrators I come in contact with every day frighten me.

Maybe it's me who is complaining about things not being the way they used to be, but when I was a kid my mom didn't have to tell us to go outside, and she never had to force us (like I have done on occassion). She had to tell us that if we didn't come back in time for dinner that we would go hungry. My kids certainly are in no danger of skin cancer (unless you can get skin cancer from a video game screen), at least that's a positive.

posted by: DSpears on 05.13.04 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

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