In Which I Create a Grand Unified Theory In About Five Minutes

Todd asks:

I’d be interested in reading about why comedies that try to balance work and home life often write out the home life. I’m thinking, in particular, of Barney Miller and Spin City, but I’m sure you can think of others (to this day, I primarily know Carla Gugino for being in the first 13 episodes of that show).

You know, I’m having trouble thinking of others, though there certainly are. Well, I recall that Alice gave us a lot less of Alice’s son Tommy and a lot more of the diner as time went on. And you didn’t see as much of Mr. Kotter’s home life on Welcome Back, Kotter as time went on, to the point that the main function of Kotter’s wife (apart from being hot) was giving advice to the Sweathogs. Mary Tyler Moore was moving towards being mostly a workplace comedy even before Rhoda left; all that did was take away the question of why Rhoda spent so much time hanging out with Mary’s co-workers. (The cardinal rule of television friendship: the hero’s friends and family must always hang out with his other friends, even the ones who have nothing in common. In real life, people can have friends who never even meet each other, let alone hang out with each other, but on TV, Buddy and Sally will go to parties thrown by Rob’s next-door neighbours. In New Rochelle. Because hip writers from Manhattan love dentists from New Rochelle.) And when a show is about kids in school, and tries to balance their school lives with their home lives, the school scenes will eventually take up more and more of the episodes until we hardly even see their family.

Sometimes it happens the other way, though. Everybody Loves Raymond pretty clearly started out with the intention of making Ray’s work life, if not a big part of the show, at least a part of the show. In the first season he did sportswriter stuff and there were guest appearances by sports figures. By the second season they’d mostly dropped that, and it was another domestic comedy where the dad never seems to go to work. The early episodes of The Cosby Show sometimes hinted that Dr. Huxtable’s medical career and encounters with patients might play a bigger role in the show than it eventually did.

My grand unified based-on-absolutely-no-knowledge theory is this. As a show develops, it is pulled in the direction of being an ensemble show. The other characters surrounding the lead become more important and take up a larger portion of the storytelling. And audiences (particularly for comedies, but for other shows too) enjoy seeing characters in groups, with the greater variety that creates. When you have a group of characters, you can re-group them and develop the relationship of each character to each other character, or play two characters off against two other characters, and any combinations you want. Whereas if we just have two characters living together, we’ve got… two characters. One relationship.

What Barney Miller and Spin City had in common is that they were shows where the workplace was a booming ensemble and the home life was basically just two characters. Barney had a daughter who showed up once, but nobody liked her. The home scenes were really just Barney and his wife, and that one relationship couldn’t compete with the many relationships and personalities available at work. And Michael J. Fox on Spin City was living with his girlfriend Ashley, but she couldn’t compete with the storylines available at the office. (For the hero’s home life to be as interesting as his work life, his wife has to be so awesome that we would actually rather see him deal with her than anything else. She has to be Mary Tyler Moore, basically.) On the other hand, on Everybody Loves Raymond, it was the other way around: the group, the ensemble, was all at home, and Ray’s work life really had nobody in it. Same with Dr. Huxtable’s work life. As a show moves in more of an ensemble direction, it goes wherever the ensemble is.