When times are tough, as they are now in the United States, television is supposed to supply the escapism that every citizen needs. Laughter is the best medicine. This has always been the pattern before -- in the late 1960s, as America shuddered and was shaken by the war in Vietnam, assassinations and race riots, tens of millions of Americans watched The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was the situation comedy, that most American of genres, which offered the mindless release from everyday worries and general dismay.
Today, any American expecting to find a quick fix of escapist frivolity on TV is probably going to be disappointed -- the sitcom is almost dead. A whole genre of American TV is missing when it is needed for action.
Sure, there are still sitcoms on every network's schedule and some new half-hour comedies are being unveiled for this TV season, but there are fewer laughs, and the new shows only bear a superficial resemblance to what Americans watched from the 1950s to the 1990s. Even worse for the American psyche and the future of the American sitcom, almost every show that's considered a true stinker in the dozens of new shows being unleashed is a sitcom.
Once, sitcoms were almost all the same in format and style. Set in the home or the workplace, they all had three types of characters -- main, supporting and transient. Every show had easy answers to life's questions and always had a pat ending. The kitchen was always on the left and everybody's front door was unlocked. Canned laughter exploded every few seconds. Now there are sitcoms without laugh tracks. Now there are shows that aren't even taped on a soundstage in Los Angeles with an audience. Now there are shows classified as sitcoms that are so sensitive they'd make you cry. Right now, some sitcoms are dangerously close to being realistic, offering no escapism at all.
Undeclared, a new show on Fox (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.) is 30 minutes long and airs right in the middle of the sitcom-friendly hours on prime time. But there's no canned laughter and, while it's often searingly funny, it's also terribly sweet and sensitive. It's set at a college and the characters (the main character is played by the delicate-looking Canadian Jay Baruchel) are young, goofy, naive and nice. The humour is wry, oddly remote from television's predictable rhythm and closer to J. D. Salinger than Jerry Seinfeld. Talking to TV critics in July, creator Judd Apatow (who was executive producer of the similarly bittersweet Freaks and Geeks), said, "College is an experiment. You learn lessons and make decisions about whether or not you want to be the guy who is stoned 24 hours a day." Clearly he didn't have Happy Days as a model.
The same reluctance to rely on laughter can be found on Scrubs, an NBC sitcom (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.) set in a hospital and featuring young doctors. There are moments of great slapstick, clever wisecracks and a couple of finely developed comic characters. But there's no laugh track. And, near the end of the first episode, there's a scene of stunning bitterness -- a young female doctor (Sarah Chalke), makes a pointed joke to a nurse about the nurse's sexy underwear. The nurse turns on her and explains, passionately, that sometimes she needs to feel good about her body in order to feel something good about her life in this miserable world.
The three new sitcoms that strive for old-fashioned laughs and predictable characters and situations are glaringly awful in their tiredness. Bob Patterson (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), an ABC sitcom featuring Jason Alexander ( Seinfeld's George Costanza) as a motivational speaker, is an uneasy blend of the workplace sitcom and the family sitcom. Bob is a great motivational speaker who can't control his staff and can't keep his girlfriend from straying. The show has peculiar elements that seem designed to be politically incorrect and therefore appealing to a smart, irony-savvy audience, but these elements are cringe-inducing. At the office, Bob has a personal assistant who is black, a woman and in a wheelchair. She screws up his life constantly but, of course, he can't fire her. Every time she panics and does something inept, the laugh track erupts, but the comedy gambit seems stupid, not smart at all.
Emeril, an NBC sitcom (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) featuring TV chef Emeril Lagasse, is unspeakable. Although the pilot episode that horrified critics this summer has been retooled, it's still hokey and Lagasse's acting is horrible. The shows aims to be sunny and bright, never demanding. That's what the traditional sitcom is supposed to be, but Emeril -- like ABC's According to Jim and CBS's Danny -- seems glaringly out of place. All of these shows try to be cute fluff. The emphasis is on domestic minutiae about dads, kids, pets and saintly but sexy Moms having to put up with it all. Even before these tough times became obvious in the United States, hardly anybody was buying into these shows as a new wave of sweet and sugary escapism.
So where did the traditional sitcom go? Well, if anybody examines the last five years of American network TV, they'll find that the sitcom morphed into the hour-long comedy/drama. Ally McBeal is far closer to the sitcom in spirit than Undeclared. Ally has slapstick, fantasy sequences and long-running jokes. More than half the characters are sitcom staples -- the sex-crazed co-worker, the boss who isn't very good at his job. The NBC hour-long drama Ed, which stars Canadian comic Tom Cavanagh, is also more sitcom than serious show. Drenched in the dippy humour of small-town life, it has more laughs in an average hour than Emeril is likely to cause in a six-episode run.
And then there's animation. The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurama and Family Guy have set a new benchmark for the American sitcom. The Simpsons can be droll, expansive and satirical in a way that no live-action show could ever be. Animated characters such as Bart and Homer can utter lines and behave in a crudely comic manner that transcends anything ever seen and heard on Dharma & Greg, The Drew Carey Show or That '70s Show. Dharma can crinkle her nose in an I Love Lucy kind of way, but she'll never be as comically compelling as Homer Simpson ranting about the merits of his laziness and beer-and-doughnuts fetish.
Dharma and Greg is in fact just another I Love Lucy update, but it only underlines how much America and American TV have changed over the decades. In a classic I Love Lucy episode, Ricky gets mad because Lucy is spending too much money. He suggests that she might have more respect for money if she had a job. She retorts that if she has to go to work, he has to stay home and do the housework. Of course, Lucy and neighbour Ethel get jobs but they're hopeless workers. Of course, Ricky and neighbour Fred are terrible at being house-husbands. In the end, conformity is glorified and order re-established. Today, the audience won't accept the ditzy gal week after week on TV -- certainly not if she's supposed to be an adult. Actually, Ally McBeal is the new Lucy, and Ally's a lawyer.
Even among the current crop of successful sitcoms, laughter is often abandoned for moments of great seriousness. The season finale of King of Queens this past spring had the main character's wife, Carrie (Leah Remini), suffer a miscarriage. Both Remini and Kevin James, who plays the title role, were required to act serious and shed tears.
King of Queens is close in style to Everybody Loves Raymond, a show that's anchored in family relationships that, for all their comic potential, often reflect real tensions between the generations. On this week's episode of Raymond, one of the main character's children embarrasses everybody by reading an essay at school that suggests the entire family is always fighting.
Ray Romano got his break into TV with Everybody Loves Raymond six years ago, during the last great wave of traditional sitcom hits. Home Improvement and Seinfeld were still running strong. Those sitcoms -- and The Drew Carey Show and Mad About You -- were all based on the comedy routines of male comics who had a definable persona and attitude. The ensemble comedy was already on its last legs when the big egos of comedy moved in to take over the territory.
Now, new comedies try to succeed by being deliberately old-fashioned in order to remind viewers of simpler times. The Ellen Show, which brings Ellen DeGeneres back to TV in a sitcom, is deliberately backward-looking and downright retro. The premise has the DeGeneres character return to her hometown. Everybody in town is acting like it's still 1975. The only oddity is that the Degeneres character is gay, and nobody gives a damn. DeGeneres herself described the concept to Entertainment Weekly as, "like those ridiculous shows I grew up watching, like Petticoat Junction -- a classic TV show that makes you feel good."
And there's the key -- only old sitcoms can really make American viewers feel good. In Frasier, the single current sitcom praised for its wit and style, the feel-good factor is in the quality of the writing. Frasier isn't inherently zany or a predictable fantasy, week after week. It's a very theatrical show, filled with mistaken-identity plots and hidden romantic aspirations. It's the best of the current crop of sitcoms, the last great sitcom and not really a traditional American TV sitcom at all.
At a time when America needs a shrink, Dr. Frasier Crane would probably tell the country to watch one of those cable channels that show I Love Lucy, Petticoat Junction or I Dream of Jeannie all the time. Nothing new can compare.