The Sitcom’s Death, the Zero Degree of Style

Curator's Note

Some say the sitcom is dead–killed off by reality TV and the YouTubian attention span of the few remaining television viewers. The sitcom’s presumed death goes unexamined and unlamented as the genre is thought to represent the zero degree of television style: multiple cameras capturing a live performance in eye-level medium shots and medium close-ups under bland, high-key lighting; with shallow, unimaginative sets of living rooms indistinguishable from one another; and the bare minimum of actor and camera movement. However, recent narrative comedies have amped up their visual and sound style–as may be observed in this characteristic clip from My Name Is Earl. The lighting is low key and the ceiling intrudes into the frame. The first shot starts with a bit of a crane down and then Steadicams into the set. The tenth shot goes even further. While the credits roll, director Ken Whittingham takes us on a Touch of Evil-style tour through the Crab Shack, winding up back where the scene started. Clearly, we are not in Lucy and Desi’s apartment anymore. This prompts a variety of questions: What significance does this change in style have? What does it signify? How does it change the spectator’s position vis-a-vis the text? Is the sitcom truly dead, or is it just evolving into something more interesting?


Real quick -- I will have to think more about this but I cannot think of one decent three-camera-shot-live-in-front-of-an-audience sitcom that is being produced today? And, yes, I understand I am inserting a question of value here, but can anyone defend According to Jim? My favorite sitcom today is the US version of The Office, which has adapted the "verite-lite" style of the UK version. Lucky Louis, unable to find an audience on HBO, was shot in the standard three-camera style with a live audience. In that now-cancelled program, the style felt as if it was at odds with the content, i.e. an older, more sentimental visual sitcom style on a deliberately offensive sitcom about how family life is miserable. I find the relative lack of this older style as significant as what Jeremy has identified.

1. There are certainly multi-cam shows on TV today that many people think highly of: The New Adventures of Old Christine, How I Met Your Mother, King of Queens. Amy Sherman-Palladino's much anticipated Return of Jezebel James will be a three-camera sitcom (see interview with ASP). It ain't dead. That's hype that promotes shows like Earl. 2. This change in style has several likely causes: the influence of animated sit-coms that defy the spatial and temporal constraints of the Lucy style (does anyone who writes comedy diverge from the view that The Simpsons is the best thing out there?); a more general "cinematization" of television technique and the requisite budgets to do so (perhaps a product inter alia of TV on DVD and other technological changes); a desire for novelty to breathe life into an old format. 3. I have written about the Earl-style sitcom (I call it the anti-sit-com) on my blog. Basically, I try to describe some of the new conventions of the single-cam shows and how they have themselves become a kind of formula.

I haven't How I met Your Mother yet, but the other two... eh. I guess I will have to chalk it up to taste and will read your post. BTW, I never said it was dead, it just seems tired. I mean, I really cannot remember enjoying one that much on Network TV since Raymond went off the air. I enjoyed what I saw of Lucky Louis, then to have it axed.

@Tim: You never said the sit-com is dead but Jeremy gave this idea some credence by bringing the topic up in the first place. I don't love any of the shows I mentioned very much either, certainly not as much as I love the single-cam 30 Rock. But I also don't love the contemporary Hwd blockbuster--not my taste--and of course the Hwd blockbuster isn't dead. The question for us should be whether the traditional 3-cam show is still a viable form of programming on the networks. I think it is and predict that this will continue. What I find interesting is that the sit-com has bifurcated into two distinct styles, not that one style has killed the other or, alternatively, risen from its ashes.

Michael: Oh yeah, I understand, but I do wonder about cultural relevance of this style, which, I must admit, I long for at times (just like the occasional Blockbuster). Allow me to throw in one idea around about this issue of style: in the era of DVRs and video iPods more subtle forms of comedy can find a larger place at the table than it once did. In what was a genre known for broad humor and catchphrases, I look at sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office and the like as sitcoms designed to have high "replay value". I know I often replay Office episodes at least more than once as many of the jokes have punchlines that are as simple as a raised eyebrow or the onlooking presence of specific character in the back of the frame, i.e. things I don't get when my girlfriend's kids are demanding my attention. These shows seem written for DVD sales: disposable they are not.

Tim: As you may have heard, The Office was an early success for NBC on iTunes. Which raises an interesting issue for visually inventive sitcoms: How well will they fair on the itty-bitty iPod screen? Directors like Ken Kwapis (who's done Larry Sanders, Malcolm, Office, etc.) are drawn in two directions these days. They're asked to fill the screen with details for high-def broadcasts and they're asked to dumb things down so that the program will play well on small screens, with reduced definition. The next few years are going to be very interesting ones for television...

Jeremy: Oh, yes, and I can see why that is a success. I have been doing more travel these days and my video iPod has replayed many episodes of The Office because it almost seems tailored for individual address and close analysis. The High Def issue is especially interesting since I had yet to experience it until a few months ago at my Sister's house. My Brother In-Law purchased a HD TV and it was interesting to watch sports. The "individual-blades-of-grass" rack focus was a shot I remember seeing, but honestly I couldn't tell if this was someth

oops, sorry, hit a button and you submit! ... Anyways, I couldn't tell if it was a shot I just didn't notice, but it was rather pronounced in the one game I saw.

If 3-camera shows are struggling, I wouldn't blame/thank reality TV, YouTube, DVDs, iPods, etc. -- rather, I think a whole host of parodies have really made it a hard form to pull off. The Simpsons made fast work of the family sitcom; Scrubs has played with the workplace sitcom with skill; and several other shows have made many 3-camera sitcoms look so uncomfortably old and naive. Parody has long been seen as a driving force behind generic innovation, and maybe it's finally helping us to kick the 50 year habit. But as NBC's Thursday night lineup shows, the sitcom is all the stronger for the development (I find it so nice to have 4 comedies in a row that avoid telling me when to laugh with a laughtrack, for instance; and I like more than 2 sets; etc.). So no death -- just a new type of existence (like the detective show post-CSI with CGI, or, more to the point, post-Wire, with serialization)

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