July 29, 2015

Sitcoms with a message

The Sitcom Class Wars: The 20th Century, by Ray Starman, The Troy Book Makers, 208 pages, $15.95

In the long history of television, the preferred method of communicating social change is and always has been the sitcom.  From the Cold War era, when shows from The Honeymooners to The Goldbergs were used to demonstrate how America was indeed the land of opportunity, to All in the Family and The Jeffersons, programs that conveyed messages of racial and social equality, to contemporary series that deal with issues ranging from homosexuality to divorce, from death to disabilities, from the strength of the American household to the disintegration of the nuclear family, and spanning the economic divide from the wealthiest professionals to the earthiest blue-collar couples, it is the situation comedy that has best dealt with those most serious topics.

This is one constant.  The second is that the sitcom thrives on conflict, allowing these opposing viewpoints (whether taken seriously or not) to be aired out, often loudly and with great emotion, but also subtly and with regret.  The conflict is often generational, occurring within a family, but it can also be within an office, in a neighborhood, or in the middle of a WWII prisoner-of-war camp.  The venue of conflict adds an extra dimension, one of strata, pitting the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the employer and the employee, the conformist and the rebel.  It is, one way or another, a class war.

The format of the sitcom is perfect for such discussion: non-threatening, short enough (at 22 minutes) to keep an individual story from becoming too complicated, with a likable individual or family at the center, and leavened with humor to keep from becoming overly proselytizing.  This is not to say that dramas have ignored social issues or conflict.  The risk inherent,  however, was obvious - dramas too easily can wind up as depressing, sanctimonious, prone to very low ratings and very strong pressure from advertisers, or some combination of all four.  Is it any wonder, then, that the sitcom has become the lens through which America's class wars are observed?

Which is why a book such as Ray Starman's latest, The Sitcom Class Wars: The 20th Century is such a valuable asset to anyone interested in following the evolution of such discussions.  Taking an brief, objective look at sitcoms from the earliest post-World War II era to the present day, The Sitcom Class Wars explains how each of these shows captured the feel of a particular part of American social culture, portraying various aspects of the American experience, and how the class wars of the day played out within the show itself.  For example, in The Goldbergs, one of the earliest ethnic sitcoms, we see the glories of assimilation, as a Jewish family struggles (in a gentle, humorous way) with children casting off the old customs in favor of a new, uniquely American way of life.  We  also see firsthand how life in the city shapes the family (Starman points out that this was one of the first shows to specifically feature an urban, rather than suburban or rural, lifestyle), and how they deal with the new and unique challenges of the post-war era.  This gives us a vital understanding of post-war culture, and shows us the blueprint for family sitcoms of the future.

Starman makes some very astute observations as he surveys the sitcom landscape, often giving an additional level of gravitas to shows that today are taken more for nostalgic or sentimental value.  He calls Leave It to Beaver "smarter than it looked" in the way it took the two children, Wally and the Beaver, through the maze of adolescence and into the minefield of adult expectations, knowing what was expected of them but not quite understanding why.  Lost in the criticism of the show as corny or cute is that the dialogue was often witty and clever.  In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Starman illustrates the double-edged sword that was upper-middle class Rob Petrie's life.  Rob's next-door neighbor Jerry, a dentist, can afford to lose a patient or two without seriously endangering his practice; Rob, on the other hand, risks being out of work for a week or a year if The Alan Brady Show goes off the air.  While the Petries live the upper-middle-class lifestyle, complete with ranch house and mid-furnishings in the suburbs, his position - and their status in that class - is far more vulnerable than some.

By the time we get to The Jeffersons, we see the various American class wars played out in all their messy, glorious  variety.  There is the racial divide, obviously, with George Jefferson still trying to prove himself after all these years; though he has become a successful businessman, with a home filled with expensive objects meant to send the message that "I've made it," he still carries a chip on his shoulder, still with something to prove to others or himself, without any real ability to appreciate the very objects he's accumulated.  He has a son with a completely different outlook on life, a maid who shows him no respect whatsoever, a wife taller (and more level-headed than he is), and for all his success remains, as Starman says, "a stranger in a strange land."

The last entry in Starman's book is The King of Queens, and by that time we've had a full survey of the sitcom landscape, with the various inner conflicts from each show representing America in a microcosm.  The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the successes and the failures; they're all here to see, each one of them telling multiple stories from their own little worlds that unite to present the larger story of the nation as a whole.

This book can be read either from cover to cover, allowing the reader to look at the evolution over time of the class wars and their place in the national discussion, or as a reference guide that can be used to check out your favorite shows or eras.  There will be different ways in which one can interpret Starman's examples and theses as well; should you read this book, you might look at it in an entirely different way than I have, and challenge my assertions as to what Starman is trying to say.  But however you choose to do it, The Sitcom Class Wars is a book that belongs in your library if you're interested in how the sitcom serves as the mirror that America holds up to itself.

2 comments:

  1. It certainly sounds like an interesting read. IOf course, I always thought LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was a smart, well-written show (the relationship among the kids and between them and the adults was very natural). Does Starman address the urban/country conflict at the root of GREEN ACRES? It was always treated in a warped, funny way (and expanded from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES)--but it was there for all to see.

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  2. I do. Besides the eternal country mouse vs city mouse issue, the city slickers, especially Eddie Albert's character bales hay while dressed in a three piece business suit. The sympathetic viewer can chuckle at the urban couple whose ignorance of country ways are paramount. As I said in my book, despite good ratings CBS (the Tiffany network) dropped these shows thinking they had gone too Hee Haw to attract so-called more sophisticated audiences and the sponsors that would appeal to them.

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