What are sitcoms? I don’t even know, to be honest. I don’t watch a lot of them, for whatever reason—perhaps I’m more inclined to marathon things than loyally tune in once a week and thus I miss a lot of them, perhaps the canned laughter or humour itself gets me in the back teeth. Sitcoms are a mystery unto themselves. What makes them good? What makes them bad? What makes them last forever? What are they even about? Seinfeld has been famously called a show about nothing, and a lot of sitcoms essentially follow suit. Sitcoms aren’t necessarily shows about nothing though, but shows about people.
They’re where we see our own mainstream values reflected back to us, heightened and wacky-fied enough to make it interesting. But I don’t think anyone sits down and says “I’m going to watch this comedy about a group of twenty-something-year-old friends living in the city!” They sit down to see what the individual characters and relationships within that generic framework are up to.
Parks and Recreation, for example, is about the parks and recreation department of a fictional small town in America. Bureaucracy and government are things most viewers would have to be strapped into a chair with their eyes taped to actually watch, but in essence Parks and Rec isn’t about that so much as the characters that deal with it, and that is what drives the show. It’s why you watch any show, really—sure, premise alone might keep some people interested, but for the most part we watch sitcoms (and dramas, on the flipside of the coin) for people.
Which is how they manage to go on for decades at a time. How I Met Your Mother ended a few months ago (in a fanfare of audience outcry and confusion, it seems) after nine seasons, Friends went for ten, Frasier for eleven, South Park (if you count it) is still going on seventeen and The Simpsons takes the cake at twenty-five. The last two are animated so they have the benefit of not having to keep their cast looking young and fresh, and they have more of a range of ridiculous stuff they can conjure story-wise, but the point remains, their creators still have to consistently come up with that stuff every episode.
So yes, sitcoms can very easily suffer the same problem as any long-running TV show (or long-running anything) where they have to keep making things happen that are consistently not only engaging but funny, and the stakes have to be raised in each season until everyone’s getting married and having children and the love dodecahedron of your main cast has so many angles, points and intersecting edges it would give an engineer a headache. The tangled trap sitcoms can fall into is simultaneously needing to have stuff happen and that stuff be big and interesting, but also hanging onto some sort of status quo which means very little can actually change.
In this day and age we’ve moved away from the stagnant sitcom where every episode was essentially a separate story joined by setting and characters and some running gags, with the state of things resetting at the end so we can begin afresh next week. In this era, viewers generally expect serialisation and story arcs and possibly even character development, watching the made-up people doing their funny stuff grow and change. Of course, the Community crew had to go back to Greendale Community College because if they graduated and parted ways there’d be no show, so we’re not completely out of the woods yet. And if two characters bicker continuously and half the humour and shipping fuel is based on their nuclear-blast-temperature sexual tension you’re going to lose a chunk of your pulling power in that case if you get them together. Ew, and then they have to have an actual relationship.
Generally, sitcom pairings are a strange affair, and I find when they’re written season-to-season their relationship dynamic and compatibility are somewhat at the mercy of whatever their writers and producers think the audience wants to see or what will be interesting. It’s not uncommon for all the ships to come true, in one convoluted way or another, over the course of the series—looking at you, Friends. If you get a pair together with no ‘happily ever after’ fade to black in sight, you have to write them as a couple while keeping them out of the realm of obnoxious and still making their interactions interesting and funny to watch.
This does not always succeed. Usually the fall back is slow-build will-they-or-won’t-they, like Jeff and Annie in Community, probably with some other love triangles and confessions and snogging to keep us guessing and to keep them apart for as long and as funnily as possible. The flipside of this is of course characters that are actually married, unhappily, and that only remain married because their constant grumpy bickering is funny. To use Parks and Recreation as an example again, I think that’s a show that actually gets its characters together and makes it work without falling into that wormhole—both Andy and April and Leslie and Ben gives us a big shiny answer of ‘they will’, and they remain in the story in all their fun essence and function as couples without impairing the show and actually have genuine ongoing affection and compatibility with each other, which is just plain sweet to watch as well as their actual funny bits being funny.
There’s been the occasional scare and problem along the way, but for the most part the plot of that show doesn’t lean heavily on the drama of who’s sleeping with who, where other series can fall into endless loops of off-again-on-again romances and one night stands that mostly just make everybody gasp. It can go on forever. This can be a terrifying prospect. How I Met Your Mother at least had an end in sight if it paid any heed to its framing device—surely, at some point, Ted is going to tell these poor children how he actually met their mother and we’ll learn why, as we have now. Not everyone is happy with the ending, which I can’t comment on since I haven’t watched it, but mostly I’m just surprised it did end.
Sitcoms have an eternal quality to them, without a regular story arc, written season-by-season depending on how they’re funded like most TV series, and thus technically, if you’re popular enough, your show never has to end. The apocalypse will come and society as we know it will collapse, and The Big Bang Theory will still be sending canned laughter and nerd jokes across the radioactive wastelands.
There you go—sitcoms are a strange breed, but they’re an accepted constant in our lives, especially if, unlike me, you do make a routine of sitting down to them one night a week, which can become an established tradition for literal years of your life. They’re part of culture as well as just pop culture, plot tangles, melodrama, badly timed obnoxious laughter and all. At its heart, that’s because we love watching these characters we’ve become attached to—no one’s going to watch a show for nine years because they think the costumes are neat (then again, correct me if I’m wrong). Thus, there’s no such thing as a show about nothing, because no matter the great abundance of nothing in the slice of life story, there will always be characters’ lives to slice and interactions to watch and that is what brings us back.