Critic’s Notebook: As the sitcom turns…
Most TV series begin with a premise. (Some begin with a star, around whom a premise is molded.) It is desirable, given the many discussions it takes to bring a show to fruition — to pilot, to market — that some sort of compact, comprehensible theme be stated. A picture painted in words, the hint of the beginning of a story: the situation in the situation comedy. A man finds himself married to a witch, a snob gets a job in a bar, a hot blond moves in across the hall from a pair of socially awkward physicists.
Sometimes a premise is just a place with people in it — an office, a diner, an apartment — but even when their backstory is not elaborate, new shows usually wink on at a moment of change: a new job, a move away from or back to home, a new semester in a new school. In olden times, and still today when an ironic note is desired, the catalytic events might be sung each week over the opening credits: “The kinfolk said, ‘Jed, move away from there!’” “Five passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour.” “Here’s the story of a man named Brady.”
These beginnings were just … beginnings. All television shows change with time, if they last; whatever pretense first brought the characters together is often lost in a growing thicket of detail or is cast aside as writers and actors look for more interesting things to do. “The Office” in its early days was really a semi-realistic show about what it’s like to work in an office; the first season looks remarkably conventional next to the latest. (Compare the normally touching halting romance of Jim and Pam with the more recent farcical halting romance of Andy and Erin.) “The Simpsons” began as a parody of the family sitcom before it went on to satirize everyone and everything.
Such metamorphoses are hardly new: “Green Acres,” nominally the story of city folks out in the country, ended as cornpone surrealism as divorced from reality as any episode of “30 Rock.” “Seinfeld,” never long on plot, edged more toward a sort of magical realism with every season. But it seems to me we’ve come to a time in which the disposability of the original concept is not only acknowledged but expected. Call it “post-premise comedy.” We know now, because we have grown sophisticated, that the early episodes or even seasons of a series are often just a sort of booster rocket to deliver the actual, less obviously dramatic but also less predictable payload into orbit.
“Community” began with a fairly busy setup involving a slick lawyer fella who, having lost his license, returns to junior college and, in pursuit of a girl, accidentally organizes a Spanish-class study group. For a while in its first season, it was sort of about that, with relationships developing in more or less normal ways to more or less normal ends. But it has since, one might say, overcome its narrative; it has come into its own and is now more to do with form and the knocking together of different types of neediness — it has as much to do with billiards as with old-style storytelling. Similarly, there’s “Cougar Town,” whose titular premise, wrung from a contemporary hot topic — older woman seeks younger men — was a bad idea quickly and profitably forgotten in favor of a show in which a bunch of neighbors hang out and drink and get in one another’s business as semblances of stories irrelevantly emerge and fade until cancellation should part them.
One thing these shows share, and share with many other recent comedies, is a lack of sentiment. The apex of this heartlessness, and to my mind the funniest show on television, is “30 Rock,” which I’m tempted to call the first 21st century sitcom, though that honor might equally go to “Arrested Development” or even “Seinfeld,” though it never made the millennium. It too began in a state of relative naturalism, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon a quirky but basically cool-headed television professional trying to keep the weirdos around her in line. No more.
Jokes on “30 Rock” are like Escher drawings, logically plausible and practically impossible. “There’s no way I could be pregnant,” Liz said on a recent episode, “because I have had my period for the last 61 days.” (That she says this with a sort of pride — both in refuting a charge and being able to make that claim — puts a further spin, and a counter-spin, on it.) This is cold, brilliant comedy, intellectual and hyperactive, which has no time for either pity and disgust that its characters, were you asked to take them at all seriously, would naturally excite. But they are only abstractions of humans, circles and squares and squiggles fighting for space in the color field. It is like life, but it is not lifelike.
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