It began innocently enough in the summer of 1989, with a group of friends sitting in a New York diner, cracking wise about their lives and loves, a laugh track underscoring every quip. “Seinfeld”  seemed no different from any of the situation comedies that had come before it. Yet, for better and most definitely for worse, the sitcom genre has never been the same.
Twenty years later, “Seinfeld’s” legacy as the first postmodern situation comedy still influences every television writer. NBC’s “Community”  and FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”  are but two examples of the complicated situation that is situation comedy in the post-Seinfeld era.
Both “Community” and “It’s Always Sunny” send up the “pack of ragtag misfits” narrative that’s been around at least since the time Moses told the Hebrews about the land of milk and honey. But while “It’s Always Sunny” fails because it goes against the narrative tradition from which it came, “Community” succeeds because it reinforces the lesson inherent in its genre, that grace can be found through fellowship and shared experience.
The sitcom has always faced the demands of being a quintessential populist art form. Like its television sibling, the soap opera, the sitcom traces its roots back to the days of radio. “Fibber McGee and Molly” were the public’s favorite sitcom couple long before Ross and Rachel of “Friends” or Jim and Pam of “The Office.” Unlike the soap opera, however, which is dying a quick and ignoble death, and whose traces are found only within legal and crime-scene series, the sitcom remains as healthy as ever.
But it is no longer enough for a sitcom to tell a story with a few jokes; now both narrative and punch lines must be deconstructed, critiqued and referenced back to all previous TV shows in the span of 22 minutes. The result is usually a cool, clever product, but it is missing a heart.
Within the sitcom there has always been a tension between the subversive and the sentimental. One can never stray too far in either direction without missing the mark, the resultant extremes being either the cruel hardheartedness of a “Family Guy” or the insipid inanity of a “Full House.”
A new show that brilliantly negotiates the two polarities is ABC’s “Modern Family,” which takes on not only the sitcom genre, but the family melodrama. The show, which looks at the life of one extended family in Southern California, works because it upends our expectations about comedic structure and archetypes. For instance, the much younger, trophy stepmother with the low-cut blouse is characterized neither as villain nor as brainless bimbo but as the grounded voice of reason. (In one episode she intentionally loses at chess to her much older husband, in spite of her superior skills, in order to keep the peace.) “Family” also mocks the pathos of conventional family dramas like “Brothers and Sisters” yet never flinches in the face of authentic moments of loving concern. Both its writers and actors can move smoothly from ironic snarkiness to honest conversation in the blink of an eye. It is this kind of artistry that sets apart the best sitcoms.
“Community” is a show equal in caliber to “Modern Family.” Completing its debut season on NBC, it gives a weekly glimpse into the lives of a handful of students at the fictional Greendale Community College. Joel McHale, late of E!’s flagship snarkfest “The Soup,” leads the ensemble as Jeff Winger, an attorney of dubious repute who must return to school because his degree was invalidated. Jeff winds up in a study group with, you guessed it, a ragtag pack of misfits, who include: the well-meaning but humorless Britta, played with finesse and skill by Gillian Jacobs, the socially deficient film student Abed (Danny Pudi), the single African-American mother Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the former high school football star Troy (Donald Glover), the nerdy Annie (Alison Brie) and a remarkably toned-down Chevy Chase as Pierce, an oft-married, always obnoxious, moist-towelette tycoon.
While McHale is the leader of this multi-ring circus, he puts the brakes on his sardonic “Soup” persona to allow space for the other actors. Never does the viewer sense that any of the performers are pushing for a breakout performance. Rather, one is watching an ensemble at the peak of its powers, working together for the good of the show; as opposed to the primetime monstrosity of a handful of actors elbowing one another out of the way. Or maybe the show is just very well written.
The first-rate writing never compromises the inherent dignity of its characters for the sake of low humor. Too often in sitcoms, character development and complexity are sacrificed for a cheap laugh, destroying the credibility of character and to a lesser extent the show itself. Here each of the primary characters is handled intelligently by writers who appeal to the audience’s sense of identification and affection—not, as is often the case, to their sense of superiority and revulsion.
In this regard “Community” follows in the fresh footsteps of CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” another show that emphasizes the importance of interdependence among colleagues and friends outside the structure of the traditional family unit. A throwback stylistically (it’s shot primarily on a soundstage, using a laugh track), “How I Met Your Mother” seems like a relic when compared with more sophisticated shows like “Community” and “Family.” But like them, “How I Met Your Mother” is irreverent without being alienating. It reflects the caustic sensibility of contemporary culture, while demonstrating the necessity and joy each of its characters finds in being a member of a makeshift support network.
All these series tell of broken, lonely people hoping for something better. But instead of exploiting the characters’ weakness for the sake of a mean-spirited laugh, the shows celebrate the hope they find in relationships with each other and the grace they find in unlikely places. A recent episode of “Community” focused on a falling out between the culturally insensitive Pierce and the African-American Shirley. Instead of making a series of cringe-inducing racial jokes, the episode emphasized the solidarity of the two characters as they discover their commonalities as the senior members of the group. Most shows would not attempt such depth in character relationships and instead would yield to the infantile desire for a laugh.
Which brings me to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” While not nearly as ambitious intellectually as “Community,” “Sunny” cannot live up even to its own mediocre aspirations. It proves a cautionary tale for those who equate a lack of content restrictions on cable television with artistic freedom. In “Sunny” all that freedom allows for is undisciplined, mean-spirited humor infused with foul language.
Like “Community,” “Sunny” deconstructs the traditional “ragtag pack of misfits” convention. But whereas “Community” plays within the spirit of the tradition and never loses affection for its source, “Sunny” mocks it with neither the humor nor the sophistication to support this endeavor. The show focuses on a group of childhood chums working at a down-at-the-heels tavern in South Philadelphia. “The Gang,” as they call themselves, consists of: Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Charlie (Charlie Day), along with Dennis’s sister, Dee (Kaitlyn Olson), and Danny DeVito in the now seemingly requisite comedic stunt casting as Dennis and Dee’s morally bankrupt father. “The Gang” spend their days insulting one another and setting new standards for moral repulsiveness. These people do not seem to like one another; I cannot say I blame them.
The show would be helped by good writing and character delineation. As it is, each of the actors seems to be mouthing the words of a single stand-up comic. The show was conceived by its three lead actors, whose names are all over the credits. This might be part of the problem: the show feels like one big inside joke to which the audience is not privy.
The show’s graphic content and profanity will shock the first-time viewer. But after the shock wears off, the audience is left feeling as if it has watched the antics of a school bully, complete with the accompanying feelings of powerlessness and shame.
“Sunny” fails because of its contempt for its comedic ancestry. “Community” succeeds because of its affection for it. It is easier to present one-dimensional characters that repulse an audience within the parameters of a metanarrative than it is to create a group of lovable and loving, fully realized persons within that same structure. While “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is emblematic of all that is wrong with sitcoms in a post-Seinfeld era, hope and health for the genre spring forth in the beauty of communion like that found in “Community.”