Over-Flow — Responses to Flow Conference 2010 Panels: The sitcom and happy endings

If you follow me on Twitter or caught up with a few of my delayed posts on last week’s television, you know that I spent last weekend at my first academic conference. The 2010 Flow Conference took place in Austin, Texas and it was generally awesome, particularly for a super-young television scholar (I believe that I was the youngest and least experienced person there, or at least participating on a panel). Anyway, I went to various roundtables covering a wide variety of television-centric topics, all of which stimulated my mind.

Thus, I figured that I could discuss some of the ones that really stuck with me as a way to not only keep those conversations going, but also figure out where I really stand on some of these subjects that were really being debated in ways I had perhaps never really thought of. So the plan is to write-up a few posts in the next few days and just see where the conversation goes.

I want to preface this by saying that I am not an expert on the television comedy, but am someone who is quickly becoming more and more interested in the subject (if only because I had stuck close to dramas in the past). Thus, “The Sitcoms Have Become Self Aware” panel was particularly intriguing to my burgeoning intrigue (you see all the position papers from the panelists if you scroll down to the middle of this page). Though the panel was not necessarily convened with the subject in mind, there was a robust discussion about today’s comedies, particularly those on broadcast television, and their seemingly incessant desire to end things on a happy note. In fact, the conversation (like many at a Twitter-friendly event like Flow) was burgeoning throughout the conference on Twitter, appearing randomly during other panels as comedies were brought into the discussion.

Georgia State’s Ted Friedman seemed to be the catalyst for the discussion when it arose, in both the digital and real spaces, as he mentioned on a few occasions that he longed for the days of Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show where there were “no hugs, no lessons.”

In the context of the actual sitcom panel, there was lots of discussion about Community, which you all know I have a major soft spot for. Ted mentioned that the low-rated NBC comedy is having trouble balancing the pop culture references and its slight tinge of cynicism with its endings, which do oftentimes feature the characters of Greendale’s most awesome study group hugging, forgiving or generally feeling better about themselves as individuals because there is a lesson learned.

Off of Ted’s comment, Jason Mittell actually tweeted at Community showrunner Dan Harmon to see if the supposed “happy endings” were a personal choice or something bestowed upon him by the monolithic powers-that-be from NBC. Of course, Harmon replied and noted that it’s totally his call, which I believe by the way.

Nevertheless, the discussion raised an obvious, but important point: Comedies today do feel too schmaltzy and full of manufactured emotion.

I personally don’t see that to be true with Community, but do have problems with the happy endings in Modern Family and can find myself at least annoyed by the sap of How I Met Your Mother and sometimes Cougar Town. Across multiple comedies today this is an issue and I am not sure there is a clear reason for why there has been a sea change in the past few years, particularly on broadcast. But I do think it is something worth examining. Here are a few possible, although probably not totally original, reasons for why the broadcast comedies are the way they are.

The happy ending seems inherently built into the formula of the American sitcom. I am currently taking a class on the television sitcom and thus far everything I have read has more or less confirmed that we in America like our happy endings (as if I need the books and articles to tell me that, though). Dating back to the glorious Leave It To Beaver days, it’s obvious we like a certain formula and even in some of the more cynical, realistic, innovative and challenging efforts of the ’70s like All in the Family, the episodes end on a happy(ish) moment.

It seems as if the cynical, less “here’s the lesson, folks!” sitcom is more of an exception than a rule here in the States. We tend to remember some of the more challenging and rough sitcoms — Seinfeld, Sanders, Curb, The Simpsons, Arrested Developmentbecause they are novel and different. Those kinds of comedies deserve to stick out among the crowd, but perhaps there is an issue with taste and who was actually represented at this conference or even in the critical community as a whole. Chances are, comedies like the ones I listed above are going to be championed by a very specific type of viewer, a viewer who is maybe more critical of the norm and more open to differences in the sitcom formula, a viewer who will remember those series who do just that.

But amid those few examples, there’s been a whole slew of comedies that tend to end on a high note, often with a lesson or moral button of some sort. The ’80s and early ’90s were jam-packed of comedies with that kind of emotional-based formula as well. In general, I suspect that most people would think of the American sitcom as a fairly safe (but not completely docile) genre.

Moreover, as someone in my graduate seminar on television comedy suggested, is the recent sea change political and therefore somehow related to 9/11 and the war on terror era? I can’t fully disagree with that sentiment fully. Television viewers probably do want to come home to something escapist, even if television is completely an active and engaged medium that does take some effort to watch — basic sitcom structure or not.

However, I suspect many people would challenge that assumption by rightfully noting that a number of the so-called challenging and cynical comedies came in the post-9/11 landscape: The Office, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Curb and a number of the animated comedies like Family Guy, etc. And though I could make an argument that suggests a few of those series aren’t as cynical as they may appear (particularly The Office and 30 Rock), it is absolutely true that the latter half of the aughts was full of a certain brand of comedy.

Is that, perhaps, our answer then? Maybe Modern Family, The Middle, Raising Hope and Community are all some sort of heartfelt response to the cynical response of the aughts comedies. Maybe the broadcast networks want to emphasize family because they figured out that while comedies that have some bite to them pull in the critical community, they don’t always do the same for the general 18-49 viewer.

But probably not.

Instead, if we are going to say that current comedies, particularly on broadcast networks, are more hug-filled, I think the only real way to look at it is on a case-by-case basis. Yes, we as a culture enjoy the happy endings. And maybe we do want to be lectured while we’re entertained. But in general, what is popular on television happens by accident and trends don’t quite hold up as well as they appear to.

Meaning, look back to Seinfeld‘s time on the air. What else was popular? Home Improvement, Mad About You, Friends. These aren’t the most challenging and cynical of comedies. As The Office and 30 Rock were supposedly changing the American comedy game, they aired alongside the sappy Scrubs and the mainstream Everybody Loves Raymond. And now, Modern Family and Community exist alongside things like The League or Louie or any number of the odd Showtime comedies. These series are more similar than they are different, but still don’t add up to a specific trend in viewpoint as easily as they seem to on the surface.

Therefore, to me, it seems both like an accident and inevitability that Modern Family and Community both like ending on a happy note. It’s an accident because they came on the air at the same time and are both beloved by many; it’s inevitable because that’s how the sitcom tends to operate.

What is most important to me is not if sitcoms in general have happy endings, but how specific sitcoms get to their happy ending. For example, I oftentimes feel like the endings on Modern Family are completely unearned because the series tends to use the voice-over button as a way to sum an episode’s events up with a nice bow when it doesn’t really actually work. Many times, the voice-overs are coming in even as the character speaking is doing something different in practice, and other times, it’s simply annoying and cheesy to switch from slapstick humor to the lovey-dovey music and monologues of people who have supposedly “learned” something. Frankly, it’s insulting.

However, Community‘s endings are much more earned on a week-to-week basis. Not only are they less preachy and less awkwardly executed, but they tend to flow (more) naturally from the events of an episode and are usually undermined by another bit of comedy before it gets too sappy. Thus, when Jeff sees the error of his ways at the end of “Anthropology 101” and gives a heartfelt speech in front of the whole class, I can buy that for multiple reasons. First, Jeff really does care about the rest of the people in his study group. Second, he also understands that said study group’ers are the kind of people who respond to heartfelt speeches. Third, before Jeff can even finish, he’s attacked by Betty White’s crazy professor character, which completely derails the moment and reminds us that we’re watching a comedy. And finally, an argument can certainly be made for the fact that the whole sequence is a riff on sitcoms and their insistence on having these kind of situations occur at the end of an episode. So Jeff apologizes because we know externally from the context of these individuals’ world that a character like him is supposed to apologize. It’s meta, but that’s how Community operates.

But compare that with Modern Family, and the end result of the heartwarming moment is very different. Not only do the characters on Family speak directly to the camera and thus make their message seem more preachy, but said monologue happens at the very end of the episode with little action following it. In that sense, there is no moment of undercutting, no time for the sappiness to be sucked out of the air like there is on Community. The writers of Modern Family want you to leave the episode with that message and that’s why it’s highlighted so much more with musical cues, voice-over and direct connection the audience.

In the end, for me, it all comes down to execution. If a sitcom wants to end on a sappy note, confirm some dominant hegemonic ideal or morally identify itself, that’s fine — but it has to feel more seamless and less offensive. For example, I found last week’s Modern Family to be wonderful because the message flowed within the context of the episode and felt less tacked-on. Meanwhile, last week’s Community kind of forced the final bit where Jeff makes another public proclamation, particularly after he had just made one a few scenes earlier. These individual instances don’t signify the individual series as a whole and serve as outliers, but that’s fine. Raising Hope seems to have gotten the balance down fairly well early in its run and so I’m okay with its “we’re a dysfunctional, poor family, but a family nonetheless!” rhetoric.

Happy endings won’t be going away anytime soon, and it’s probably less problematic to focus on how the approach is executed in specific comedies instead of worrying about why it keeps coming up across the board if we seem to already have a number of the answers to that question.

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