Apr 12, 2013

When Big Bangs fizzle

Which hit-sitcoms are on the way out?

Written by Chris Vlahonasios
Edited by Kyriaki Fuss

Some of the most popular sitcoms on TV today are at the top because they offer their audiences something new and, most importantly, different. These global hits are ones which provide unique entertainment and quickly developed a strong fan base. The key to their success, and the sitcoms before them, was audiences fell in love with the characters. However, as hard it is to reach the top, likewise it is easy to hit rock bottom.

There are several current sitcoms which have been entertaining audiences worldwide for years, and in some cases decades. Yet it seems even these comedy greats are beginning to haemorrhage just like their classic predecessors. So, who is on the way out? One needs to look at these shows during their prime, what is their current direction and whether they are doing anything to avoid cancellation.

The Big Bang Theory
Currently the most watched show in the world, The Big Bang Theory (BB) is a master of reaching out to the iGeneration. The characters are nerds, something not thought impossible to make popular. Yet they are fashionable and lovable making ‘smart the new sexy’.[1] This is due to the show’s ‘Us vs Them’ mentality; social outsiders ignored by the ‘popular’ people. However, it is probably due to this battle for social acceptance that makes audiences empathise with them.

Traditionally, sitcoms revolve around its main characters, in this case, Sheldon, Leonard and Penny, who are supported by Raj and Howard. Originally the only female character who was more of a supporting role to Leonard, Penny is the most valuable asset to BB. She provides the right comical chemistry, constantly baffling these geniuses with her fuzzy logic and functioning social skills. Quite often Sheldon and Penny are matched together and due to their contrasting personalities regularly lock horns: Sheldon teaching Penny physics or driving Penny to the hospital with a broken arm.

This traditional sitcom formula has been implemented in most episodes, including classics like the online Penny Blossom store, teaching Sheldon to drive and Sheldon becoming a mobile virtual presence device. However, since season 4, it appears this principle has not been followed. The characters and plots have become ‘fragmented’; that is to say, the supporting characters are not revolving around Sheldon, Leonard and Penny, but are going on their own ‘adventures’. For example, one of the earliest examples (season 3) was when Leonard and Penny attempted to ‘bring the spark back’ to their relationship with the aid of alcohol while the others tried to catch a cricket as part of a bet. Most recently, Howard and Raj spied on Sheldon who disappeared for 20 minutes every day, while at the same time, Penny finally says ‘I love you’ to Leonard.[2] These fragmented storylines reduce the comical chemistry between the characters – the winning formula which made the show so successful.

BB has taken some big risks in making some major changes. One of which regarded exposing Leonard’s secret crush on Penny, which eventually became a relationship. This potentially put the whole show’s dynamics in jeopardy, however, it was handled well and the storylines maintained the same structure as before. On the topic of new relationships, one needs to consider the inclusion of the additional female roles, Bernadette and Amy. These inclusions have worked surprisingly well, especially the character of Amy who is a sort of replacement for Penny in that she constantly puts Sheldon out of his comfort zone. However, with these new additions the show is beginning to feel a little too crowded.

A sitcom can handle major changes to its plot but it must be worked in seamlessly so as not to cause too many ripples. However, things can only last so long. Without denial BB has been slowly targeting a new audience. With the advent of Leonard and Penny’s relationship, then break-up, new lovers and eventual reunion BB feels more like a romantic comedy – a ‘romcom’. The show decided to give Howard a wife and Sheldon a girlfriend. Although it is realistic that people fall in and out of love, the appeal of the show is changing.

Originally BB targeted an audience within the 18-54 year old group with a focus on the 18-35 year old, male demographic.[3] This is a very lucrative market for the product placement of high-tech goods, movies, convenience foods, collectible novelties and brand association. If one looks at products promoted and the nature of earlier episodes they were appealing more for a male market. However, given the storylines are becoming more like a romcom, the show is now targeting a more female-based audience.

With the get-together then break-up of Leonard and Penny subtle changes were made to attract more female viewers. In The 21-second Excitation, as the guys are waiting in line to see the new director’s cut of Indiana Jones, Leonard is shown reading a copy of Eat, Pray, Love. This is not the type of book a young man in his late-twenties would be reading, but more so females. This was during the time when the book was made into the movie and screening in cinemas, a clever juxtaposition of scenery and product placement. Another example, in the ‘Sheldon teaches Penny Physics’ episode, Penny and Brundeette are shown having a direct conversation about PayLess Shoes – a plug for another female oriented product. However, it was not just the changes in product placement but episodes were becoming more and more relationship based. Such examples include Bernadette attempting to get along with Howard’s mother and Penny grappling with whether she wanted to return back to Leonard.

This is not to say that the show is failing as there have been several great episodes: the hacking of Sheldon’s World of Warcraft account, the girl’s night out with Sheldon and Sheldon’s haircut. A prime example is The Weekend Vortex,[4] where Sheldon chooses to play the marathon of the new Star Wars online game with the guys rather than go to Amy’s aunt birthday. Despite being a ‘post-girlfriend’ episode the storyline was a return to form being tech- and pop-culture focussed with the characters interacting cohesively rather than splitting up.

However, the story-focus has definitely shifted away from being tech-savvy to relationship-based, and BB runs the risk of losing its original fans. At the same time, the show wants to expand its fanbase to include more female viewers, enabling greater diversity of product placement and storylines. If things are going to return to how they once were it does not appear it be happening anytime soon. In The Spoiler Alert Segmentation[5], which aired in America on 7th February 2013, Amy moves in with Sheldon after Leonard moves in with Penny, both to the dismay of Sheldon and Penny who were not ready for this ‘next level’. Meanwhile, Howard and Bernadette go out of town and Raj has dinner with Howard’s mother. Clearly, BB’s romcom formula and fragmented stories have become entrenched in the show.

The Big Bang Theory may only have a few seasons left, unless it balances the inclusion of extra characters and expansion of the female viewer-base with care and focus. The show has to cater the loyalty of its fans with its ambitious capitalisation of its marketability.

30 Rock
Having won several Golden Globes and numerous other awards, 30 Rock has been one of the most outrageous and original comedies in recent times. However, recently it was announced by the NBC network that the show would not be renewed for another season.[6] So, 30 Rock has come to an end, but was it all that surprising?

Created by Tina Fey, the show produced a style of humour which was very unique, but risky as it did not follow the conventional sitcom structure. Unpredictable and off-the-wall, this very witty sitcom was packed with tons of quirky, oddball moments that came thick and fast. There were memorable episodes, such as the prince’s birthday, sending Tracey Jordan into ‘space’ and Liz Lemon’s high school reunion. All episodes combined recent news stories, online trends, pop culture and flawed human beings into a highly satirical package.

However, it was in season 4 the show began to lose its way. Episodes were undercooked with plots that went nowhere. New characters were simply thrown in as a way of generating new stories, but not adding any real substance to the show. All these ‘innovations’ did not create the same laugh-out loud comedy 30 Rock was once famous for. The results were: Miss Lemon’s unsuccessful talkshow, her mother’s affair with Neil Armstrong and Jemma’s collaboration with Tracey to help him win various artists awards – all struggled to generate the laughs. The episodes just seemed to drag and one could not wait for the season to end. Another sign that the show was in trouble was the ‘Live Show’ episode with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Matt Damon doing cameos. This was purely a means of attracting publicity and lost viewers. This was a sign of a show that ran out of ideas.

A clever show, but perhaps too clever, too quickly. 30 Rock was once a bright star which shone very brightly, but only for a short time.

Modern Family
Most of Modern Family’s (MF) popularity is generated by its depiction of a gay couple and their adopted child – a controversial topic. Exploiting this ‘alternative family unit’ novelty and challenging viewers’ perceptions of the traditional family ideal, has been the show’s springboard gaining it instant popularity. The other drawcard has been the big, beautiful and loud Gloria with her strong Columbian accent and larger-than-life personality, adding to the show’s humour. Despite the stories lacking complexity and creativity, it is the unrealistic family scenarios and slapstick humour that has attracted its viewers. If it were not for the gay couple the show would have been just another boring, light-hearted family sitcom.

As a more recent addition to the airwaves it has not had enough time to make the same mistakes as other sitcoms. However, based on critics’ reviews the show seems to be wavering, as the stories of gay dads and dysfunctional children have been stretched to their limits. Despite being so different, really it is something seen before.

Another factor is the show’s portrayal of an idealised way of living. This is the showcasing of three types of wealth: the comfortable, white picket fence middle-class ‘traditional family’; the sophisticated and stylish ‘gay family’; and the rich, middle-age man with his new family. All three lifestyles are unrealistic, especially given economic state of America and not a true reflection of any ‘average family’. Maybe viewers will soon realise this but for now want to enjoy this false sense of ‘domestic bliss’. It is about selling a lifestyle – highly desired, but difficult to afford. This could be the show’s eventual downfall.

Although starting strong, Modern Family is sinking into the same mundane plots as other family-based sitcoms. Viewers have become acclimatised to the gay couple ‘thing’ and the show has little left to offer. It still has a few seasons before viewers find something else.

Two and a half Men
Many critics have pondered why this show managed to become as popular as it did. A shadow of its former self, Two and a half Men lacks any real creativity or wit. The show’s formula for each episode is a collection of ‘boob, fart and dick’ jokes, the lowest form of comedy. Yet this show has managed to find an audience, and a global one at that.

Perhaps its appeal is also due to the fact no other sitcom has pushed the limits of good taste or being as risky with sexual content so far before on TV. Yet it is amazing how such content has not cancelled the show. The way in which women are portrayed could be summed up into three groups: whores, psychos and lesbians. In Australia, the show is rated PG where some parental guidance is required for young children and was once broadcast in prime time. This is remarkable considering that most episodes are about Charles’ sexual exploits, Alan’s flatulence or the degradation of women.

However, the show’s period of dominating the airwaves has come to an end. Upon Charlie Sheen’s departure, due to his public meltdown, the show is now experiencing a very slow and painful death. His replacement, Ashton Kutcher, has not maintained the same audience loyalty, nor have they warmed to his character.

It is evitable this show will be axed as its popularity continues to plummet. It is a ‘miracle’ that Two and a half Men was not cancelled after its first season let alone ten. Without its star, the show will die within a season or two; however, episodes starring Charlie Sheen will continue to live in the form of repeats, forever. Lord have Mercy!

The Simpsons
With 24 seasons under its belt, The Simpsons is one of the longest running TV programs of all time.

Early on, The Simpsons played the safecard writing moralistic stories with some satire, such as Lisa’s substitute teacher or Bart dealing with the schoolyard bully Nelson. Soon after, the show focussed more on satire and pop-culture becoming what would be regarded as ‘classic Simpsons’. Each episode followed a standard formula: a small incident that would blow out of proportion and ensnare the Simpsons family, whilst making sharp and poignant observations about society. One classic episode was when Springfield opens their casino. The family was not initially involved until Homer got a job as a card dealer and Marge developed a gambling addiction. The show was always valued for its satirical and observational humour regarding everyday people and issues. The Simpsons were an average family whom viewers could relate with, in one way or another.

However, there was a prolonged period in the mid- to late-1990s in which the show moved away from its roots and tried new ideas. The creators and writing team made the same fatal mistake, as previous sitcoms, by giving supporting characters, such as Moe & Krusty the Clown, their own episodes in which the Simpsons family would ‘support’ them. These episodes included: Krusty meeting his estranged daughter, Mr Burns falling in love with Snake’s ex-girlfriend and Moe becoming a stand-up comedian. Again, these plots did not revolve around the key main characters of Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and Maggie. These episodes struggled to produce the same degree of humour or satire as earlier episodes. In additional, there were many ‘special guest’ stories where celebrities were invited more so for ratings – for example, when Homer stumbles across the home of Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin and Ron Howard. Then there were the all too many ‘song and dance’ episodes, such as the Shirley Bobbins nanny, and send-ups which were snippets of previous episodes meshed into ‘new’ ones. This severely damaged the show’s reputation.

As this was happening, new shows like South Park and Family Guy were growing in popularity. Although adult-based humour, they provided audiences the sharp satire that The Simpsons were once famous for. The Simpsons began losing out to these new dysfunctional-family/society animations. What probably gave the show’s producers confidence to continue was the huge success of The Simpsons Movie. It proved the show, as a brand, it was still a favourite with both old and new audiences.

However, what perhaps saved The Simpsons from being shut down was that the creators realised they needed to ‘update’ the family. That is, giving the family more updated technology, such as LED screens and internet access. This breathed some life back into the show enabling more current issues to be discussed, especially in today’s digitised world. One example was when Lisa created a Facebook-style social network to which the whole town become addicted. Another concerned America’s illegal immigration, portrayed in an episode where people of Norwegian heritage migrated to Springfield as cheap labour. The town then built a wall barring them from entering; this was an actual policy idea at the time in the US. These episodes were a return to the show’s true form.

So, why is The Simpsons still on air? Perhaps it is childhood nostalgia, the lucrative branding or it still achieves the minimal ratings desired by Fox Studios. The Simpsons will probably survive for several more seasons. However, a day will come when it will no longer be popular and become a mere afternoon filler.

[1] The Big Bang Theory – The Jerusalem Duality – episode 12, season 1 – said by Howard Wolowicz
[2] The Big Bang Theory – The 43 Peculiarly – episode 8, season 6
[3] http://www.snta.com/php/display.php?p=program&p_id=296
[4] The Big Bang Theory – The Weekend Vortex – episode 19, season 5
[5] The Big Bang Theory – The Spoiler Alert Segmentation – episode 15, season 6
[6] http://www.hypable.com/2012/12/04/nbc-announces-official-30-rock-end-date/

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