Sitcoms = Westerns

Earl Pomerantz does, among other things, the absolute best posts about the decline of the sitcom form. (His words have extra authority, of course, because he was there helping to make some of the best examples of the form, including The Cosby Show, which saved the form when it was near death two decades ago.) Today’s post contains a great insight about why it’s becoming harder and harder to revive the multi-camera sitcom format: the fewer examples there are of this kind of show, the less audiences can accept its built-in conventions:

Why didn’t these, and other artificialities – the Huxtables’ living room was large enough to land an airplane in – disturb the viewers of that period? Because owing to the volume of comedies on the air at the time, “sitcom reality” was unconsciously accepted as normal.

As the number of sitcoms drops below a critical mass, the inherent weirdnesses of those that remain seem jarringly disconcerting. Which is a significant reason for the switch to single-camera and animated comedies. These more flexible formats significantly alleviate the traditional sitcom oddities.

I would compare it — and I think I might be unconsciously stealing this comparison from someone, maybe even another post by Pomerantz — to the decline of the Western, in movies and especially on TV. When there were lots of Westerns in movie theatres and television, the kabuki-like rituals of the Western form were accepted by everybody. When lots of shows and movies are using a formula, it doesn’t seem like a formula; it’s just the everyday “reality” of our entertainment experience. But now, when Westerns are scarce in the theatres and almost nonexistent on TV, the Western formula is no longer a common, ordinary thing; it’s something that we’re aware of, instead of unconsciously accepting it. People still like Westerns, but in a retro way, as a form belonging to another era. And sitcoms could well be headed in the same direction.

I say could be, because there are a lot of reasons to think they might not be, starting with the much-noted fact that multi-camera shows are, still, more popular overall than single-camera comedies, and the equally-familiar fact that kids are being raised on old sitcom conventions via multi-camera comedies like Hannah Montana. (Westerns died out, in part, because Westerns for kids died out, and people grew up being unfamiliar with the form. That’s not happening with multi-camera sitcoms, yet.) But it’s certainly a danger sign when the audience starts to recognize that the clichés of a TV form are, in fact, clichés. TV is built on clichés and unrealistic conventions, but its success depends on our not questioning them. And that means that these clichés have to seem as natural and familiar to us as the conventions of the Western seemed to us 50 years ago.

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