Saturday, January 22

“It’s an inherent comfort zone”: why the American sitcom has endured | Documentary film

“SUBWAYMore than jazz, musical theater, or morbid obesity, television is the true American art form! “So goes the country wisdom of jolly NBC page Kenneth Ellen Parcell, a young man raised with the Bible and tit tube in equal measure, his religious devotion spread to television as much as his organized faith. Cult favorite 30 Rock, the series informed by the lineage of small screen comedy more than any other, would be the ideal viewer for CNN’s new documentary series History of the Sitcom, which channels his affection and admiration for the format. . in a comprehensive study of its evolution and impact. The eight episodes cover a broad swath of pop culture stretching from postwar prosperity to our scattered present, tracing the national narrative through beloved 22-minute time capsules .

Executive producer John Ealer was wrapping up a similar late-night talk show project for CNN when plaintiffs asked him about any other ideas he might have. Although considering the breadth of the subject raised her blood pressure, the comedy was presented as the next logical step. “After the initial period of panic, you start looking at the fabric of the sitcom and what it means,” he tells The Guardian by phone. “You realize, one, it’s something we can all relate to, but also two, not everyone is going to be familiar with it. Therefore, it must tell a story that draws a line through everything, with which we can all identify. The most important line is the development of the United States, told through the screen of the sitcom. We can trace cultural issues, whether it’s the evolution of the family unit or the workplace or race. “

The first two episodes, which will be broadcast consecutively this Sunday, build these mini-chronologies destined to measure the changing socio-political temperature of the country. A Family Matter traces the initial myth-making and subsequent disruption of the nuclear family unit, from the healthy 1950s to the social upheavals spearheaded by Norman Lear in the 1970s and the rise of conservatism in the 1980s that sparked the Reaganist intergenerational culture shock. of Family ties. Sex and the Sitcom explores the changing mores of gender and sexuality, connecting Maude’s famous abortion episode with the unbridled antics of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends. In the coming weeks, other episodes will delve into the buddy group subgenre, mature perceptions of race and on-screen representation, and out-of-society premises from Gilligan’s Island to Good Place.

A scene from Good Times
A scene from Good Times Photograph: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

Faced with a wide variety of execution themes and code names, Ealer and his team kept their focus on the commonalities that brought the same ubiquity to such drastically different shows. “In essence, sitcoms are groups of people in a relatively cyclical and stable situation,” he explains. “They may have adventure or conflict or drama or humor within that situation, knowing that generally we will end up where we started. Create a safe space to laugh, a place we can go for half an hour, an hour, two hours. You can have fun knowing that there is no threat of an ending. There is a protective environment in the situation that remains the same. It’s an inherent comfort zone. “

Everyone has an innate understanding of that “inherent comfort” and their own relationship to it. As a member of Generation X, Ealer remembers getting home from school at 3 in time for reruns of I Love Lucy; His co-executive producer, Lyle Gamm, shortened his childhood trick-or-treating when Halloween landed on a Thursday, so that he would be home to watch NBC’s Must-See TV programming. Some part of the human brain has been programmed to seek out and respond to the reassuring reliability of sitcom, even as viewing habits have mutated with the advent of online video. “A couple of the other executives in my department are younger than I am, and they didn’t really grow up watching sitcoms,” says Gamm. “And yet they are still very familiar with them, and that comes from the broadcast.

“If you look at what people see on streaming platforms, it’s all sitcoms,” adds Ealer. What are the most valuable properties that exist? Friends, The Office and Seinfeld, things that people can see over and over again. The bureau practically built Netflix. “While interest in comedy hasn’t waned in the slightest, it has hit a downturn in terms of new productions. Fewer pilots are breaking a season order, and even fewer are demonstrating staying power. , while the collapse of the weekly date-watching schedule in favor of on-demand binge-watching hasn’t helped. “I agree that the sitcom is at a low point in its cycle, in terms of the shows that they are created, not in terms of quality, just the number that is made, “says Ealer.” The only thing that history tells us is that comedy goes in cycles. He has been pronounced dead many times. In the early ’80s, conservatism was on the rise, and then again in the early 2000s, when reality TV was the new thing. Comedies responded with Modern Family and Black-ish. “

The cast of Family Ties
The cast of Family Ties. Photograph: NBC / NBCUniversal / Getty Images

Gamm has no doubt that the sitcom will be re-adapted once again, this time incorporating new points of view to break new ground in storytelling. Highlights the remake of Lear’s classic One Day at a Time as an example, his choice to reimagine his core family as Cuban-Americans offering audiences something they hadn’t seen before. “I think the sitcom is going to get more global,” says Gamm. “As the world gets smaller and television networks and streamers have a greater global reach, we will see more inclusive sitcoms not only in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of global identity.”

Soon enough, everyone will be able to see themselves reflected on the screen, but the 184 interviews conducted for the upcoming miniseries illustrate how all the main architects of the sitcom made it a part of their lives before joining its pantheon. “It’s the characters, more than anything,” says Gamm. “These are characters that people relate to, feel comfortable with, and are welcome in their home.” The great advantage of television is its longevity, that the large number of hours recorded with Frasier Crane or Samantha Stevens or Leslie Knope can make them seem as real and loved as our closest confidants. At a certain point, our favorite episodes stop being so much entertainment as a way to spend time with the people we care about. Through America’s upheavals and revolutions, we could always go back to the apartment settings and the laughs that make us feel at home.

Summing it all up, Ealer echoes the reassuring tunes of Friends, Gilmore Girls, Cheers and many others: “Whatever is happening, they are there for you.”

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