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"Community," "Modern Family" and the 21st-Century Sitcom

By admin Published: May 6, 2010

On tonight's very funny episode of "Community," Shirley adds to discussion of TV couples a mention of "Sam and Diane."
"Who are Sam and Diane?" asks Annie.
"OK. We get it," Shirley snaps. "You're young!"

In the meta world of "Community," that's a key bit of dialogue, as I will explain after the jump.

"Cheers" -- home of Sam and Diane for those of you tuning in late -- ended its NBC run on May 20, 1993, just under 17 years ago, not long after Annie was born. The Sam/Diane sitcom dichotomy was certainly influential on "Friends," which premiered in '94 and is also referenced on tonight's "Community." But in terms of "Community," "Cheers" is very old news. Neither it nor "Modern Family," this season's other great new comedy, rely as much on the comic forms of shows from the '90s and earlier as they do on much more comedies, including "Arrested Development" (2003-2006), "Malcolm in the Middle" (2000-2006), "Scrubs" (2001-present) and the original, British "The Office" (2001-03).

To be sure, there are other shows which work in a much more traditional form, including CBS's Monday-night fare (although "How I Met Your Mother" does a lot of narrative time-hopping within that framework). But the big four I just mentioned can be seen in "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "The Middle" (HUGE debt to "Malcolm"), "30 Rock" (lots of "Scrubs" and "AD") and, of course, "Community" (with several "AD" veterans involved), "Cougar Town" (roots in "Scrubs") and "Modern Family" ("The Office" and "Malcolm").

The foundation for such shows in the big four lies in two basic elements. The first is the jettisoning of both conventional narrative form -- an A story and a B, and traveling along a direct storytelling line to a conclusion -- and traditional joke-telling (line, punchline, wait for the laugh). Instead, there may be three, four, five different stories going at once (as "Modern Family" often does, and did in the Hawaii-airport episode last night), with some storylines reduced to sketches, the possiblity of loose ends and digressions into absurdity (such as "Community's" embrace of movie/TV parodies, like tonight's journey into action movies).

Jokes are tossed off, with a cut to commercial, another scene or just another line while you're sitting there going "Wait, wait, what did he say?" No pausing for the laughter from the studio audience, since these shows are presented cinematically, without a reliance on crowd chuckles.

This is all hard to do under the most basic circumstances. It requires more plot threads per episode, and more jokes. But like their distinguished predecessors, "Community" and "Modern Family" work very well -- tightly written, solidly acted. And the acting is fundamental in both cases because the writing is so textured, and because each show has a specific voice for its characters to speak. "Community" demands that its characters say often ludicrous things with absolute conviction, keeping them real within an absurd framework, so you are as engaged by the people as you are by the jokes. (Again, "Malcolm" and the British "Office" come to mind.) "Modern Family" does not go as far on the nutty scale, but it does let its people give voice to feelings that, in real life, people often keep to themselves. It feels more natural but, again, that's because the actors know how to make it real.

Think of the scene at the airport bar last night, and how Julie Bowen and Ed O'Neill are playing a scene full of aggravation and alcohol without slipping into farce; in fact, one of the things I like about that scene is the way you can really see how much Claire is Jay's daughter. Yet, as real as that scene feels, the show still makes you buy into Claire's drunken meltdown later in the episode.

A meltdown, by the way, which is not overdone or overused. Same thing with Dylan's being stuck in the house. Another show might have built an entire episode out of that dilemma. Instead, it's set up and later, briefly, paid off.

I am so grateful for these shows, and for the series that paved the way for them. Not that I don't love "I Love Lucy," or "HIMYM." But there's the delight of surprise in "Community" and "Modern Family," and the sense of something new being made -- not just a recycling of an idea that was worn out 25 years ago.

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