This is sort of a follow-up to an earlier post about how almost all TV dramas are actually melodramas, leaving the smaller stories to comedy (and hour-long “dramedies”). A corollary is that half-hour comedies don’t always deal with stories that are particularly lighthearted or lightweight. I’m not talking about Very Special Episodes, either; I’m talking about small stories that play as comedy, but deal with emotional issues that are very high-stakes for the characters involved. Because TV drama rarely deals with this kind of story, comedy has the field wide open, and some of the most successful comedies focus on things that are really, really significant to the people living through them, no matter how funny they may seem to us.
This was particularly true in the ’70s, when, as I like to point out, the sitcom was a more genuinely serious TV form than the hour-long weekly drama. The sixth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was just released on DVD, and looking at that set, it’s striking that almost every story could be done as a serious drama — though the lack of melodrama means that they probably wouldn’t be, even today. The season opener has Lou trying to go to his ex-wife’s remarriage without breaking down in depression and despair; another episode has Murray deciding that he’s fallen hopelessly in love with a woman he can never have (Mary); another episode ends with Sue Ann breaking down in tears after her boyfriend turns out to be unfaithful; and I haven’t even brought up the death of Chuckles the Clown. None of these episodes actually play as drama; they don’t even have completely serious scenes the way some sitcoms would have. But nearly all the episodes raise the stakes about as high as they can possibly go for characters who don’t lead particularly exciting lives. Some of the most successful sitcoms of all time, like All in the Family or Roseanne, have chosen a lot of their stories this way. You take stories that are small in the sense that they don’t have much impact on anyone beyond this family or office, but that are huge in terms of what they mean to the characters or the emotional fault lines they expose.
Even though non-melodramatic drama is not much more common on TV now than it was then, comedies have backed away from this to a large extent. The Office usually does it, or tries to; it’s the Greg Daniels method to try and connect the main story to some kind of deeper emotional issue. But a lot of comedies, both traditional and single-camera, get a lot of their stories from issues that are basically as small as the stories. The stories on Cougar Town or 30 Rock or Big Bang Theory will be tied to some kind of emotional issue with the characters; that’s just good TV structuring. But the issues are usually a little trivial, like when the brother and sister on Modern Family mildly worry that they’re not as close as they’d like to be. Even the quest of Ted from HIMYM to find a mate, no matter how much of an epic feel the narration tries to give it, is really just a guy whining about how he’s over 30 and hasn’t found the perfect girl yet.
That’s not a criticism of those shows, since many comedies can, do, and should find their stories in the minutia of everyday life; trivial things can be interesting too, and often are on these shows. But there aren’t a lot of shows that pick up the slack from TV drama, doing the small-scale, high-stakes stories that dramas won’t do.
I actually think one reason why Two and a Half Men is the most popular comedy on TV, despite the despicability of most of the characters, is precisely that it has a certain substance to it. Because the characters are constantly hurting each other, and because every story is built on the fact that they are truly miserable, damaged people, the stories tend to come from very dark places and deal with things that really matter to the characters — their broken-ness, their inability to love, their open hatred of their mother. It doesn’t make for a likable show, but it does make for a show that’s more substantial than most.
The show that it used to be paired with, Everybody Loves Raymond, was a show that took the same approach; every story would start with something small and seemingly trivial, but it always blew up into a bigger argument as the little thing became a proxy for a fight about some big, serious issue that had stunted the emotional growth of these sad people. Raymond was a better show than Men because it didn’t make its characters completely hateful, but once Raymond went off the air, Men became — strangely enough — the place TV viewers went to get some stories with meat to them, as opposed to stories about the tiny relationship problems of well-adjusted people, or the cartoonish and therefore less-relatable problems of the Arrested Development or 30 Rock gang.
Of course, there’s still plenty of room for someone to create a half-hour comedy show that has real substance and isn’t about a bunch of jerks. But it still seems that there’s a default assumption that a comedy should be about very little things that don’t really matter much in the characters’ lives. In fact, comedy often takes off most strongly when it’s about really dark or important problems played for laughs. Since hardly anybody’s going to do a drama about everyday problems, the door is still wide open for comedy to once again become the real drama of TV.