I happened upon an episode of According to Jim last night (I swear, it was only because CTV ran it right after Stephen Colbert and I didn’t change the channel fast enough), and was instantly reminded why this show has become a bitter punchline, a three-word summary of all the reasons why the traditional sitcom collapsed. The opening scene had the fat slob husband (Jim Belushi) and his hot wife (Courtney Thorne-Smith) sharing a romantic dessert alone. But Jim gets his wife her favourite dessert, carrot cake, and he gets himself a dessert she doesn’t like, cherry pie. She gets upset because instead of buying something they could share, he bought something he knew she wouldn’t like so he could have the whole piece. Then this escalates into an argument, and finally into a food fight, and then I turned the episode off because I decided I could get more entertainment from getting into bed and counting the specks of lint on my pillow.
But that scene sort of summed up one of the things that helped kill the sitcom (for now anyway): overreaction. It’s not just According to Jim that does episodes where people get into huge fights over the most ridiculous and stupid things; that just happens to be the worst of the bunch. But ever since the ’90s, the sitcom was following this trend toward having characters get hysterical over the most useless trivia. At a time when dramas were increasingly dealing with bigger subjects and bigger themes, this approach looked anachronistic; but more importantly, it’s not funny to watch people fight over stuff that doesn’t matter, and it’s hard to like characters who do so.
Among the hit shows that created this trend were Seinfeld, where the characters would go to absurd lengths over meaningless things, and Everybody Loves Raymond, where the pattern of every episode was that a fight erupts over some small disagreement (over a can opener or whatever). Both of those shows built most of their stories out of little trivial things that happened in the writers’ lives.
Raymond in particular has been the model for every domestic sitcom that followed, and the formula for a post-Raymond scene is like this: two people seem okay, then some little thing comes up, one of the two (usually the husband) tries to dismiss it or says something insensitive, and then the other (usually the wife) challenges what he just said, and then this develops into a fight that lasts the entire 21 minutes.
But like most hit shows, Seinfeld and Raymond made this approach work for them even if their imitators didn’t understand why it worked for them. Seinfeld was basically a classic farce, like I Love Lucy, where every attempt to deal with a small problem just causes the problem to get bigger. Raymond always tried to show that the arguments about little things were really just a disguised way about arguing about big things; when the characters yelled at each other over a suit or a can opener, they eventually had to come to terms with the fact that they were actually mad about something that actually mattered. (The Office has the same thing going in its own quiet way; the stories may be small, but there are bigger things going on underneath.)
To generalize, I think a good sitcom will figure out ways to make sure that the characters’ reaction to events is not utterly absurd. There are different ways to do that. If the tone of the show is cartoony and surreal, like 30 Rock, then we accept that the characters will react in bizarre ways. If the tone of the show is more realistic, then the show has to find a way to signal to us that the characters have some important things on their minds, like Raymond did. Or the show can just try to tell more stories where something non-trivial is at stake. But for God’s sake, don’t have characters fight over cherry pie.
(That’s one reason I think that the death of the issue-oriented, “very special” sitcom was not entirely a good thing. At least that kind of storytelling meant that characters had something bigger to worry about than carrot cake.)