The after-school hours of many a Gen X youth were spent in front of repeats of old-fashioned network sit-coms like Happy Days. In the waning days of the Network Era, these mass entertainments were sources for a common culture. But in today’s fragmented mediascape, all-ages entertainments are harder to find. The recent history of the sit-com genre offers an instructive case of a genre that once had huge mass appeal splitting into age-defined forms.
It might seem that the sit-com genre has “advanced” by adopting the style of shows like Arrested Development which appeal to upscale audiences with their stylistic and narrative sophistication. It’s true that some hit network shows today like The Big Bang Theory follow old conventions, but if you’re looking for the classic formula familiar from the Network Era, a good place to look today may not be the networks but rather cable channels aimed at kids. It’s as though the genre is mutating into a more aestheticized, culturally legitimated, adult version programmed on the more prestigious networks addressing their coveted 18-49 year-old audience (as well as premium cable channels), while its earlier form has survived in part by exploiting a less legitimated, age-segregated niche.
The Disney Channel had a hit earlier this decade with Lizzie McGuire, and followed it with successful runs of That’s So Raven, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and its mega-smash franchise fixture Hannah Montana. This style of program is cheaper to produce than single-camera shows, and its conventions are time-tested and reliable. As they did in the 70s and 80s, characters speak in setups and punch-lines and pause for the audience’s laughter before delivering more of them. Scenes are built around entrances and exits and shot with multiple cameras from one side of a three-wall set. Plots follow the “hilarity ensues…” convention of setting up comical misunderstandings, mistaken identities, or wayward schemes which resolve in lessons learned. It’s no surprise to learn that the creative personnel behind many of these programs are veterans of the likes of Diff’rent Strokes and Who’s the Boss?
The Wizards of Waverly Place, a vehicle for the budding Disney star Selena Gomez (previously a guest star on Suite Life and Hannah), is typical of the Disney kiddie-com style. The situation is a family of magic practitioners. As on I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the protagonist uses supernatural powers to work herself into and out of comical jams. In this episode, Alex (Gomez) works her magic to transform her art teacher back into a teenage girl, thus depriving her of the one class at school – art -- that she actually likes. The sequence here includes so many mainstays of old-fashioned sit-com technique: multiple camera shooting with flat lighting, physical comedy based in action and reaction, broad verbal humor, and the sound of an audience’s laughter.
So many times over the past few years the sit-com has been pronounced dead or reborn. But if you’re paying attention to television for children, you realize that the familiar sit-com style of the past lives on, at least in the narrowcast niche of tween TV.