Toward an Understanding of the Zeitgeist and its Implications for Contemporary American Escapades

October 4, 2007

For whatever reason, sitcoms don’t engender the same rabid following as dramas. The simplest explanation is probably because there aren’t many good sitcoms out there right now, with the Russian “Nanny” sadly unaired in the United States and the cancellation of the “Charlie Rose/Jim Lehrer Comedy-Variety-Super-Terrific-Happy Hour” (though including their titillating merger of “Jackass”-esque shenanigans and high-tech “Benny Hill” hijinks [recognized by AHD as an acceptable variant] is surely stretching the definition of a situational comedy). And with good sitcoms merely a Netflix click away, there really isn’t any great reason to tune into “Madman of the People”, “Boston Common”, “Union Square,” (How did NBC ever think that anything could replace “The Single Guy?”) or whatever crappy show networks use to fill in the gap of an otherwise decent line-up anymore.

Still, even at the height of their fame and popularity sitcoms do not garner the same support and love as their dramatic brethren. I would assume that one of the biggest reasons that sitcoms are not as beloved is that there (often) isn’t any carryover from week to week, thus making episodes easier to miss. These shows are also ultimately less rewarding as their hasn’t been a significant investiture of time and energy into the world of the characters. But perhaps there’s something still larger. Let’s consider what Aristotle says about Tragedy (i.e. the cancellation of “The Single Guy”) in the Poetics.

But again, tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best. (More advice for the aspiring scriptwriter can be found here).

Today, comedies try to inspire as much fear and pity as Tragedies. For evidence, just watch “Scrubs” where someone dies, teaching J.D. a valuable life lesson almost every episode. But while these moments may bond us to the characters, they lesson the show’s comedic impact.

I would also suggest that one of Sitcoms larger problems is its unwillingness to mirror reality and be a true reflection of society’s values vis-a-vis social criticism. Where is “The Wire” of sitcoms, the “Nip/Tuck” or even the “Ghost Whisperer” (values reflected: the American male’s love of Jennifer Love Hewitt)? “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is the closest sitcom we have with its terrific lampoons of American racial prejudices and class conflict, but the show is marginalized on and by the FX network.

Thankfully, there does appear to be a sitcom asking these kind of questions: Cavemen. Or, maybe not. The show was originally billed as an exploration of race relations, but the retooled version appears to be just a normal sitcom with cavemen, displaying none of the humor of the GEICO ads. The five minutes I watched were terrible and I didn’t even learn anything about car insurance. Cavemen also took itself more seriously than anything I’ve seen on TV since “Caroline in the City.” The creators seem to be doing whatever they can to distance themselves from the fact that they emerged from a commercial, when in reality they should be embracing it. Cavemen should be a send-up of American commercialism and advertising, not a clunky show about race relations.

Hopefully, the “Mr. Peanut goes to Washington” sitcom will have none of these problems.

2 Responses to “Toward an Understanding of the Zeitgeist and its Implications for Contemporary American Escapades”

  1. cicero Says:

    Worth pointing out that Aristotle thinks that morally degenerate write comedy, whereas the kalagathoi write tragedy, i.e. Aeschylus. Comedy will never be as popular because of the moral majority.

  2. dailysalad Says:

    Agreed, thanks for pointing it out. Sadly, it seems Aristotle’s reading of society was better than his reading of metaphysics.

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