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.
the big reversal
Yes, great analysis Michael! I'd add another layer to what you are saying. Twenty years ago, children's TV was insistently ironic, pastiche-laden, and even cynical--at least shows targetting the much coveted 6-11 year old boy demographic like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were. They constantly quoted popular culture ("hasta la vista, baby!"). Today's Disney sitcoms, by contrast, are insistently straight, in every sense of the word, while grown-up sitcoms have become increasingly jaded and distanced. The U.S. version of The Office conveys my point well--the lack of laughtrack, the deadpan humor, the pseudo-observational documentary style, etc.
application across genres?
I am wondering how much we might find this phenomenon repeating itself across genres. Do children's programs other than the sitcom reproduce earlier modes of production and storytelling that have been largely abandoned by the broadcast nets and cable channels seeking to appeal to more demographically narrow adult viewers? May be true for the musical (now adopted by Fox for Glee), also for action-adventure. The new Disney XD series, Aaron Stone, which I will discuss later this week, reminds me so of The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, any number of late network-era action series--the kind of thing that is rare to non-existent elsewhere on screen these days.
The Sophisticated Sitcom
I am not familiar with the current crop of Disney sitcoms but your post definitely got me thinking about the state of the contemporary sitcom. The sitcoms I loved as a child--THREE'S COMPANY, DIFF'RENT STROKES, WHO'S THE BOSS? and FACTS OF LIFE--were very different from the sitcoms my parents enjoyed, like CHEERS and TAXI (though I watched those too). If I recall, CHEERS was considered more "sophisticated" than WHO'S THE BOSS. This seems very similar to the dichotomy between between contemporary sitcoms like TWO AND HALF MEN and ACCORDING TO JIM (which critics love to pan) and critical darlings like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, 30 ROCK, THE OFFICE, etc. There seems to be critical disdain for what you term the "old fashioned" sitcom--perhaps because it's seen as appealing to lowbrow or immature sensibilities (i.e., kids)? This is definitely something I'll have to think more about. Thanks for an interesting post!
Nice post and discussion - there's definitely a trend throughout TV history to assume that what's happening in primetime genres is self-contained, rather than part of a larger continuity across timeslots, channels, and audience segments.
What struck me about the clip was seeing Heidi Swedberg as the art teacher - while I was watching, I couldn't place her for a few minutes, and then it came to me - Susan Ross, George's ill-fated fiancee on Seinfeld! Seeing her here in such a conventional throwback sitcom was jarring, as Seinfeld was very much a bridge from the multi-cam toward today's single-cam norm. Of course given the divergent target audiences and time periods, I doubt many viewers of Wizards have seen much Seinfeld...
This dynamic goes in both directions
Definitely a great post. I tend to think about the reverse dynamic in new media and consumer culture: cross-branding, interactive media, social marketing, and other such innovations emerge in response to children and youth practices around media and consumption, and then filter into the "mainstream." Kathryn Marsh makes something like this argument at some length in her Generation Digital. It's fascinating to see the reverse dynamic in kids' sitcoms.
In response to Heather Hendershot's post, I'd mention that ironic and pop-culure-laden shows like the Family Guy have very wide appeal even for younger tweens (whatever their appropriateness for different ages).
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