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Jon Eig

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The New Abnormal: What Modern Sitcoms Can Learn From the Past

Posted: 05/20/2012 3:29 pm

The networks announced their 2012/13 seasons this week. Many years ago, this was a big event. It isn't anymore. But the media still trots out a few column inches on the new shows we can expect to see cancelled next fall. And I always look, hoping to find some vestige of brief, glorious part of America's cultural past.

Most current sitcoms can be traced to one of several family trees. You can still see the spawn of Lucy and Ricky in Mike and Molly, just as you can scratch The Middle hard enough and find Father Knows Best. The Seinfeld/Friends juggernaut is visible in the Fox hit The New Girl, among others. And workplace comedies that sprang from The Dick Van Dyke Show make up most of NBC's current line-up.

The networks' new shows mostly fall into these generic categories. Chances are, one or two will strike a chord, most will flounder. At this point, it's hard to care. But I do find myself cheered by several titles: ABC's The Neighbors, NBC's Save Me, and Fox's last second resurrection of Raising Hope.

These shows all have the chance to be absurdist, thereby bucking the overwhelming trend toward realism in American situational comedy that has ruled our networks for forty years. They almost certainly won't succeed. Other shows have tried and few have even gotten out of the starting gate, let alone made any significant impact. But there was a time -- a marvelous time -- in our past when absurdism had its day. We called this time The Sixties.

We all date The Sixties differently. JFK takes office -- 1961. He is assassinated -- 1963. The Beatles on Sullivan -- 1964. I use 1962 as my start date, when Paul William Henning launched The Beverly Hillbillies. That makes the decade of free love and protest fifty years old. That makes The Sixties old enough for an AARP card. What makes the Hillbillies so important? In the most turbulent of decades, a war was raging. Not over civil rights or Viet Nam. Not over the length of Mitt Romney's classmates' hair. In sitcoms across the land, youthful, at times childish, imagination was battling mature, adult responsibility. The Beverly Hillbillies was locked in a death struggle with The Andy Griffith Show.

From 1962 to 1964, the Hillbillies was the number one show in the country. It would maintain a strong showing for several more years, doing battle with more realistically-grounded comedies like Dick Van Dyke. Eventually, by the late sixties, Andy Griffith's small town sheriff would take over as number one, and absurdity would never reign again. Pretty soon, the '70s would dawn and television content would grow up in the living room of Archie Bunker's weathered Queens home. After All in the Family, relevance was in and aliens were out.

But throughout most of the decade, there was silly magic. Maybe it was because of the social and political turbulence, or maybe it was because of the drugs. Maybe it was because television was still relatively young and foolish. Millions of Americans tuned in faithfully each week to watch the supernatural and the absurd. Some of the shows were quite good. Some were truly awful. But they all made a cultural impression.

The absurdist sitcoms from The Sixties can be broken down into two broad camps. In the supernatural column, you could watch witches (Bewitched) and genies (I Dream of Jeannie). There were aliens (My Favorite Martian) and ghosts (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). Horses talked (Mr. Ed), as did cars (My Mother the Car). There were two distinct monster families (The Addams Family and The Munsters). And a nun could fly (need I say it, The Flying Nun).

Then there was absurdity in its even purer form -- real life situations in which character behavior was exaggerated to the point of farce, so that the real-life aspect of the premise was overwhelmed. The situations could be innocuous, as in the aforementioned Beverly Hillbillies, and its stablemate Green Acres (with the poster pet for sitcom absurdism, Arnold Ziffel). But often, the background situation was serious, covering the military (Gomer Pyle, USMC and F Troop), cold war espionage (Get Smart), castaways (Gilligan's Island) and POWs (Hogan's Heroes). Throw in The Monkees and Batman and you have 18 shows that had impact throughout a decade in which there were only three networks providing the vast majority of original programming.

Of course there has been the occasional Alf or 3rd Rock since then. Fox took the seed planted with The Flintstones and supercharged it with The Simpsons to develop an entire night's worth of absurdist, animated comedy. Animation allows for more suspension of disbelief, which may be why South Park is probably the purest distillation of the absurdist vibe. But those shows are few and far between. Maybe there's a good reason for that. I mean, I can't honestly say that I miss Herman's Head. But that won't keep me from hoping for Raising Hope, and keeping an eye open for The Neighbors and Save Me.

 
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