Episodes: Friday mailbag (Feb. 24)



What's this? Another Friday mailbag? Let's open up the ol' mailbag and answer some of the mail we found in the mailbag!

James asks:

It feels to me like sitcoms hit America in waves -- there are stretches of time where we have multiple great sitcoms running at more or less peak condition, and then lulls where the total supply of sitcoms dips and the number of quality series drops awfully low. (I feel like we're in one of those lulls now, personally.) Would you agree that there's something cyclic about the sitcom? And if so, why do you think that is: is it something to do with the nature of comedy, or just television as a business/art form, or is it just an inevitable "law of averages" sort of problem where the good and bad stuff will clump together as often as not?


I'd quibble with the idea that this isn't a great era for the sitcom, as I think the 2010s have, in general, been a really great decade for TV comedy, especially compared to the oft-disastrous 2000s. But I often find people have an aversion to family sitcoms, and the bulk of really good, traditional sitcoms at the moment fall into that broad genre. (For workplace shows, you've got Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, though a show like The Good Place fits more comfortably here than in the family sitcom box.) It's also an era when the best comedies tend to be experimental in one way or another, which leads to cries of, "But that show's really a drama," etc., etc., etc.

At any rate, I also don't think this is particularly true of just comedy either. All of TV is cyclical, because the most talented people tend to get snatched up by certain shows, then work on those shows for a few seasons (or, if they created them, for several seasons), and then when they're off the show, it often takes a couple of years for something else to truly settle in. And, yes, there are young, talented people coming up all of the time, but they require training and so on. So a show like, say, Breaking Bad can become this dominant thing, but its true descendants often take 5-10 years to make themselves known because the family tree takes that long to spread out its tendrils.

And if you pull back even further, you can see that decades of TV history, roughly, feature more long-lasting innovations in comedy and drama, roughly alternating, back to the dawn of the medium. (I peg it as 50s: comedy, 60s: drama, 70s: comedy, 80s: drama, 90s: comedy, 00s: drama, 10s: comedy, with the '70s and '80s essentially inventing the modern forms of what we think of as "TV comedy" and "TV drama.") Obviously, there's overlap, and there are important programs of both types in every one of those decades. But as a general trend line, this tends to work out.

So by those metrics, we should be watching for the rise of a new crop of great dramas in the next couple of years -- remember that Sopranos debuted in 1999, right before the bumper crop of great dramas in the '00s. And if you really want to follow my whacked-out logic, those new great dramas will probably be in the vein of the '80s ensemble dramas, as opposed to the "one true hero/antihero" shows that dominated the '60s and '00s. (Yes, I think I can pinpoint 40 year cycles in TV. It's a sickness.) I have written more on these theories here.

So, anyway, I don't think this is particularly unique. It's just the way the American TV industry works.

June writes:

What are the most important ways critics experience TV differently from normals? I've long thought that getting screeners gives critics a different experience because they don't have to wait for the next episode--and more significantly they push themselves to keep viewing even after meh episodes because it's their job, whereas regular viewers would probably just stop watching. This is hardly a big insight on my part, but is that all?


June's writing in response to my recent newsletter talking about marketing's effect on criticism (or lack thereof), arguing that with DVR technology and so on, she can pretty easily avoid most TV and movie marketing, which is true. And I think her point about screeners is a good one. I am currently working my way through the back half of Patriot, an Amazon show I almost certainly wouldn't have kept up with if I weren't forcing myself to for work, that I've come to... enjoy is the wrong verb, but I feel a weird respect for its devotion to its vision. (It's basically an antihero show that doubles as a satire of late American capitalism, and each side of the show seems unaware of the other, like someone who's had the two lobes of their brain separated -- which may be why a somewhat major character has a brain injury, maybe I should write about it.)

But I think one big thing critics still differ from audiences in regards to is our level of indulgence. That's not particularly the right word, but we're far more likely to spark to an idiosyncratic vision that's not 100 percent there and stick with it to see if it gets there. If it doesn't, well, that's our job, and we haven't wasted any time. An audience member is much more likely to tune out of a show that just doesn't work because, hey, time is limited, and they have better things to do.

Again, Girls strikes me as a good example of this. Critics could see, from the pilot on, that even if you didn't spark to Lena Dunham's whole thing, she was clearly a unique talent with a strong, individual voice. That's theoretically what we're here to champion. But if you were just a viewer who didn't spark to the show, that was it. You were tuning out.

I got in a discussion about the show with some AV Club commenters at an honest to God "staring each other in the face" meetup early in Girls' run, and it was just clear that those who hated it didn't want to extend the show's characters even the sliver of empathy it demanded of them. That's fair, but to some degree, the critic's job is to factor in their own feelings on a work of art but also factor in how much it stays true to the beat of its own drummer. And Girls has always done just that.

Maybe this isn't indulgence; maybe it's more... forcing ourselves to stick with things that are interesting, for the sake of their interest. Sometimes we're richly rewarded (there were times I found Americans trying in the early going); sometimes we're not (hello, 2 Broke Girls). But the pursuit is always what we're after.

Let's conclude this week with someone who didn't leave a name, so we'll call them Groogle:

Of the NBC sitcoms that aired in the late aughts/early 2010s (Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Community, The Office), which do you think will hold up the best over time?


Well, Groogle (can I call you Groogle?), what's usually the best signifier of if a comedy will last is how dependent it is on contemporary references. In that case, the pop culture mishmashes of 30 Rock and Community are probably in trouble as we get further away from their specific eras, while the more timeless humor of Parks and Rec and The Office should hold up more. (What we're talking about, really, is the divide between the MTM well-made sitcom and the Norman Lear "load it up with contemporary references" show, which is still the biggest divide in how American sitcoms are made and produced, 40 years after those two studios sniped politely at each other). (I should really write that book about '70s sitcoms I want to write.)

But wait! I've argued recently that Parks and Rec, with its sunny optimism gradually being curdled by public pessimism is, in some ways, the perfect pop culture representation of the Barack Obama era. And like almost every show that perfectly represents a certain presidential era, it can be a little tough to watch removed from that era. (Think of how creaky 24 can seem to modern eyes. It'll take a little while to clear that up.)

I would guess that Parks and Rec will have the healthiest long-term life, simply because shows about small towns and shows about radio stations have weirdly long lives in sitcomland. But if we're looking for a show that will continue to be watched and watched and watched for the rest of time -- including the very immediate future -- my guess is The Office. It doesn't hurt that the Jim/Pam relationship gives it a natural spine, something that accidentally makes it a good Netflix watch.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.