Evolutionary Understandings of Broadcast Television
For the last hundred odd years, America’s greatest export has been its culture. Silver screen dreams and the wonders of excess have captured the imaginations of peoples across the world — and for good reason. American television can be wonderfully infused with both grandeur and insight; for every anemic Anger Management there’s a boundary pushing Nathan For You. American television, in great numbers, has the power not only to bore and offend but to move and change us. Hollywood might recycle more than Al Gore tells us we should, but the American television comedy scene is far from uninspired (or unloved).
Examining what makes so many laugh, week after week, says a lot about who we are. The iterative evolution of television comedy in America parallels the country’s march toward social progress and reflects the issues plaguing the national conscience. From the stability of the 1990s to the angst of the mid-2010s, the second golden age of television has not only consistently produced incredible (and many not so incredible) programs but has mirrored the changing mores of American society.
The 1990s brought with them the longest recorded economic expansion in U.S. history; the boom did eventually give way to bust, but for a time America was stable. It should come as no surprise that this was the time when the sitcom reigned supreme. Yes, there were other kinds of comedy and, no, not every sitcom had the critical chops of Mad Men, but by god were they in demand. Friends consistently averaged viewers in the twenty millions, as did Seinfeld by its end. Cheers started slow but became wildly popular. Frasier averaged around fifteen million viewers; Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens, around ten. Suffice it to say Americans loved their sitcoms, and why wouldn’t they?
Sitcoms of the 1990s were inoffensive and, depending on cast contracts, could be inexpensive as they often opted for few changes in set and had less of a focus on guest stars. These shows were so easily palatable because not only were they largely apolitical, avoiding controversial subjects, but they were even conservative. Shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, Home Improvement, etc. focused on the home and reasserted the classical (and problematic) gender roles of the wife as the homemaker and the husband as the provider; sex was transactional and could be withheld as a punishment. But the sitcoms of the 1990s were beloved precisely because they were ordinary, because they were comfortable. The relaxed opulence of American society in the1990s was the perfect counterpart to the sitcom. A good sitcom was like Martin’s recliner that so irked Frasier: it wasn’t always cool or edgy, but it was damn nice to cozy up with.
Come the new millennium, America was anything but comfortable. The War on Terror and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the sociopolitical landscape of the early 2000s; the stock market crash and following recession, the later 2000s. Massachusetts would legalize gay marriage in 2004, and in the following decade, the nation would transition from two terms under a Republican into two under a Democrat (and its first black president). For many Americans, the world quickly assumed a more paranoid, sinister guise, and for others longstanding traditions and ideologies were subject to change; for all Americans, what we liked to laugh at changed in accordance with our larger society.
Comedy began to politicize and the stance it took was overwhelmingly liberal. Television was also suffused with energy — quicker shots, more action, and a range of sets — and further blurred the line between comedy and drama. That 70s Show (and the pre-9/11 Freaks and Geeks) was tonally antiestablishment; Scrubs opted for showy spectacles of JD’s imagination and pauses in laughter allowed for the tugging of the heartstrings; Arrested Development became known for its wry brand of political and social commentary.
As foreign military excursions dragged on, Americans turned again to the ordinary for comfort. Opportunity was scant and as a result, Americans began to fetishize the workplace, thus beginning the halcyon days of the workplace comedy. The mid-2000s saw the advent of the Michael Schur/Greg Daniels brand of mockumentary humor with The Office (its British precursor not to be forgotten, doing much the same thing) and later Parks and Recreation (and even later Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the heyday of the workplace comedy was characterized by an emphasis on cringe comedy (like-minded British shows gained a cult following in America with Channel 4’s Peep Show, The IT Crowd, and The Inbetweeners) and larger than life displays that Americans could relate to while escaping from their daily lives — Monk and his various eccentricities, Bones with Dr. Brennan’s social ineptitude, 30 Rock and its SNL parody shenanigans, and the musically charged anxiety of Glee, to name a few.
Eerily reminiscent of the 1960s, the 2010s have been rife with social and civil injustice. The longtime crusade for gay rights reached a new milestone in 2015 with the Supreme Court deciding bans against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, and the death of Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson protests, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter campaign shed (and continues to shed) light on racial inequality in America’s criminal justice system. This rejection of the status quo manifested itself in television, giving voices (and audiences) to decidedly fringe showmakers, and lead to the widespread indie-ization of television comedy.
Comedy got weirder and viewers became more dispersed across shows. Moneymakers and critical darlings are often distinctly separate, but the 2010s have brought with them some of the most interesting and entertaining years of television yet. FX/FXX has given us the raunchy, introspective masterwork that is Louie, the vulgar one-upmanship of The League, the utter insanity of Archer, and the cynical (but often poignant) insight of You’re the Worst. Unimpaired by the restrictions of cable television, HBO has produced hit after hit with the very Sorkin The Newsroom, the disillusioned genius of Lena Dunham’s Girls, the British in sensibility Veep, and the hilarious satire that is Silicon Valley. Not to be forgotten is the new horizon that is streaming services; Netflix has found gems in Jenji Kohan’s Weeds successor Orange is the New Black and Aziz Ansari’s hip, stylish analog of Louie, Masters of None.
Television can’t be broken into neat, finite periods of time and will never fully retire a premise or genre. Heaps of sitcoms have been made since the 1990s that have been hugely popular, if not as critically acclaimed (Two and a Half Men, New Girl and How I Met Your Mother, for example); similarly, there are many anachronistic workplace (a la The Mindy Project) and indie-in-sensibility (Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, etc.) comedies. Furthermore, certainly not every scene, every line, or every joke of a television show is directly tied to society at large, but television is sure to follow social trends and doesn’t spring into existence independent of human influence. People write, direct, and produce the television shows we come to fall in love with, and people don’t exist in a vacuum; rather, we exist as a tiny subset of a larger culture that we are in turn products and consumers of. By examining what we like to laugh at and why we can arrive at a deeper understanding of ourselves and our society. Television is a snapshot of our culture at a given moment in history, and by looking back we can see how we’ve come to change and what we still want to change.