Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fashionable Sitcom Alchemy

The sort of sitcoms that got made in any particular period always seem similar to one another. Humor, to some extent, is driven by novelty, and so occasionally producers have "reinvented the wheel" sitcom-wise from time to time, trying to keep the best (read: popular) traits from previous incarnations. Olde-timey Nick At Night sitcoms always seem to be "gimmick" shows (They're an ordinary couple, only she's a witch!) or odd-couple shows (He's a yokel, she's a snob! Hilarious!). Some have both (Sailors, an intellectual, a farm girl, a movie star, and rich people, on an island!). The 90s seems to see major innovation in the form of the "apparently normal weird friends" shows. Their contribution: strong support by a younger age bracket, and a departure from "family" sitcoms, where most everyone was related (entirely removing many sexual-tension gags from possibility). Often, characters were downright bizarre in their weirdness. Dave Barry once described it as a machine that spits out sitcom ideas to the tune of "X young, quirky, attractive young adults share an apartment."

And now, there's a new breed: the Awful People sitcom. The protagonists are invariably flawed, often totally unbalanced. Humor is mainly achieved by their willingness to say, do, or publicly endorse things that are utterly unacceptable in the real public world. Usually, these comedy worlds are held together by the thinnest threads of believability, sustaining themselves by virtue of the fact that every character is an awful person (so there's a sort of balance).

There are degrees to this, of course. In some cases, the character flaws, though pronounced, are forgivable. Sometimes, certain characters are a lot more awful than others. In other cases, the show manages to generate sympathy for the protagonists against extraordinary odds. Sometimes, everyone just needs to get slapped around.

There's been some of this in film, recently. Some of it was really good, and a lot of it was really, really bad.

What I want to know is this: if you staff a narrative with awful people, but write them believably, will people still watch? Can people really become fans of the worst kinds of people, just because they want to hear a story?

If so, it would go great lengths to explaining soap operas, apart from the "believable writing" part.


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