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The More Things Change, the More Sitcoms Remain the Same

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Holiday activities have receded and decorations have been shelved for another year as we make resolutions and return to our daily routines. That tug of war between how we want to see ourselves (getting there can be scary if not impossible) and how we actually are (ruts are simultaneously boring and comfortable because they are familiar) is played out in our daily lives just as it has been each week since the 1950s on television sitcoms.

While the popularity of the situation comedy may ebb and flow from decade to decade, there is no other type of television show that has been so popular over time. In fact, the genre predates TV as a successful genre on radio even if the term describing it is newer, appearing first in 1953 in a TV Guide article.

In the early days, family sitcoms dominated the form, and the advent of cable and online services made the Cleavers and the Andersons known to subsequent generations long after Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best left the airwaves.

Through the years, nuclear families have been complemented by all varieties of blended families (Family Affair to My Two Dads to Full House) to, work families (Car 54 Where are You? to M*A*S*H to The Office), and friend families (Laverne and Shirley to Cheers to Friends). Is it any surprise that we seem to see a resurgence of the family sitcom this season in terms of quantity if not quality?

Success breeds imitation, so it's not terribly surprising that the resurgence of the friend family in The Big Bang Theory and the extended nuclear family in Modern Family over the last couple of years have spawned hosts of imitators.

Another reason sitcoms with family themes persist on the network schedule is that this type of show can adapt to the times while still offering the comfort of the familiar. And, in these uncertain economic times with rising income inequality and contested cultural values, the sitcom feels reassuring because of its predictable format, especially when family structures are part of the mix.

Here are several broad patterns that mark sitcoms appearing as new series on 2013-2014 network schedules:

Conventional Family With A Twist: Michael J. Fox Show (Fox plays one of two new characters working in television news, and this sitcom dad is dealing with a chronic disease); Mom (one of the most dysfunctional TV families ever, so much so that it can be hard to laugh at times); Sean Saves The World (gay, divorced dad's teenage daughter moves in as he tries to juggle bad boss and annoying mom); and The Goldbergs (were the 1980s really this bad?).

Blended Family: Trophy Wife (man juggles two ex-wives, two biological children, one adopted child, and a considerably younger new wife -- wow).

Multigenerational Family Under One Roof: Dads (two video game developers scramble as their respective dads move in with them); The Millers (the second character working in TV news deals with his mother when she moves in after his parents split, and the show also features his sister and her family, his dad, and occasional appearances by grandparents).

Taking The Family To Work: The Crazy Ones (father-daughter advertising team on the creative side of a Chicago firm).

The Friend Family: Super Fun Night (blending the friend family and the work family in promising ways).

The Work Family: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (they are cops but not in the Barney Miller mode; is this an acquired taste?).

The familiarity of the form is comforting, and the fact that none of these contemporary families is as perfect as the Cleavers or the Andersons makes us feel better about ourselves.

The sitcom families of the mid-to-late 1950s set an ideal for achieving the American Dream dependent on fixing gender roles in cookie-cutter suburban settings while avoiding discussions of race or other types of "difference." And in some ways, this season is a throwback to that era: all of the new sitcoms are comprised of predominantly white, middle class casts.

Although many shows are rich with competing messages and opportunities to supply interpretations that conflict with dominant readings, television doesn't always tackle social issues as quickly as some viewers might like. Ultimately, however, the medium does help establish a new cultural normal.

After a backlash against the Amos 'n Andy Show that led to its cancellation in 1953, television entered a period of "whiteout" where African American characters appeared only in a few supporting or guest starring roles on sitcoms until Julia premiered in 1968. Controversial in some quarters because the show didn't address race, Julia is historical nonetheless for breaking the whiteout and paves the way for series that follow, including the most popular and enduring of the family sitcoms, The Cosby Show.

It would take even longer for television to broach sexuality with jokes about a straight man pretending to be gay so the landlord would let him share an apartment with two women in Three's Company, which premiered in 1976, and it would take over 20 years after that before an eponymous character could actually be gay on Will & Grace.

So, what are the hot button issues on the current crop of sitcoms? Disability (Michael J. Fox Show), alcoholism and teen pregnancy (Mom), gay parenting (Sean Saves the World), and obesity (Super Fun Night) probably come closest to eliciting a strong emotional response and -- potentially -- making choices that might come across to some viewers as controversial. But, in each case, these characters are protected to some degree by their place in the nuclear family, the extended family, and the friend family.

And, that's what comforts us and keeps us coming back for more. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ends its series run with most of Mary Richards' work family fired and leaving WJM after their last newscast. Before the final group hug, Mary tells her colleagues that she's been thinking about family -- "They're just people who make you feel less alone... and really loved" -- and telling them that they are her family.

Some of the sitcoms that debuted in the 2013-2014 season will make it, and most of them won't. The shows with the best chance of becoming iconic and helping us understand cultural touchstones of an era while also including elements that viewers can relate to across time will be those all of us can recognize through familiar, familial connections that bind us together even as we cocoon separately.

Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder are co-editors of The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed.