I’ve never taken sitcoms seriously. I rarely watch them. Aren’t they just silly stuff? Aren’t the jokes just too predictable and the characters too caricatured?
It took a blog post in the sober New York Review of Books to persuade me that sitcoms have something serious, and seriously accurate, to say about single life and married life. Especially in comparison to romcoms (romantic comedies).
In the title of this post, I did not need to spell out the place of marriage in movies (at least the romcom variety) because you already know what it is: The two lead characters will dodge and weave and face obstacles but ultimately, at the end of the movie, they get married. They are “meant to be.”
That doesn’t happen in sitcoms, says Elaine Blair, who wrote the New York Review of Books article. Unlike movies, with their predictable two-hour time block, sitcoms can go on and on, or get cancelled at a moment’s notice. Rarely do individual episodes culminate in weddings.
“As long as each episode has its own tidy, reassuring little ending, audiences tolerate a great deal of open-endedness when it comes to the hero or heroine’s romantic life. And what those tidy little endings are reassuring us about, much of the time, is the fact that the characters are not alone even when they remain romantically unattached and hapless; they have friends, family, colleagues—stability, in other words, even without being married… [emphasis mine]
“[Sitcoms] inadvertently offer a harder-edged truth as well. Sitcoms rarely ask us to believe that any particular couple is, as they say, meant to be.”
Elaine Blair embeds her provocative thesis in a brief history of single women on TV. I don’t remember watching That Girl (1966-1971), but I do know that it marked an important development in sitcom history. The show “starred Marlo Thomas as a free-spirited woman in her twenties trying to break into acting in New York.” Here’s what Blair said about it:
“…there seemed to be no question that Ann Marie would be single; the point of the show was that it would have a female character at the center, and no one, it seems, could quite imagine a married woman at the center of anything.”
At the beginning of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Richards had just ended a long-term live-in relationship. It was an important relationship to her, yet when it ended, she did not end up alone.
“The idea of being not-alone even when your relationships and dates end in shambles—this would become not only the overriding issue of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but of pretty much every subsequent sitcom about single characters. Three decades later, it’s easy to rattle off a list: Cheers, Golden Girls, Living Single, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, 30 Rock, The Office—plus cable sitcoms like Sex and the City, Girls, and Louie.”
Single life, I think Blair is suggesting, can be a big-sized life both on sitcoms and in real life. It has the potential to be full of friends and family and work and passions. Meanwhile, in real life, the size of marriage is shrinking. (In my opinion, that’s what a lot of the matrimania is about – we are hyping marriage and weddings and couplings not because we are so secure about its place in our lives but because we are so insecure. The hype is a fearful protest against the dawning realization that marriage is actually not all that important anymore.)
The last word goes to Elaine Blair:
“Now that we don’t really have to live with our marriages, or enter them in the first place, the choice of whom, if anyone, to settle down with is not a great subject but a middling one—about sitcom-sized, it turns out.”
[Notes: (1) Thanks to Joy Pasini for the heads-up about the NYR article. (2) Other recent posts are listed below.]
(Image credit: Jordan Strauss/invision/ap)