the panel discussion on sitcoms in which I participated, the question came up as to the future of the sitcom. Remember, prior to the appearance of The Cosby Show, the sitcom was thought to be an art form that was dead and buried. The ratings were dominated by hour-long dramas, and there was a serious question as to whether or not the format could rebound. It did, of course; in the wake of the renaissance triggered by Cosby, it seemed as if every stand-up comedian who'd ever gone to an open-mic night had his or her own sitcom.
Now, however, the pendulum has swung back again. There are maybe three sitcoms in the top 25; the genre once again has been overshadowed by scripted dramas and reality programs, and while the networks haven't stopped trying, many of today's sitcoms are crude, unfunny, or both. New sitcoms have found a home on cable, where the demands are lower and the number of episodes fewer, but the question remains: does the sitcom need to evolve in order to remain a viable television genre?
I addressed this at the very end of the program, and I don't blame you if you didn't sit through the entire show to get to it. You should; it's a very good program, with three intelligent, literate participants plus me, but I understand that it's also a long program, and you might not have time to make it all the way to the end. So I'll paraphrase what I said, and also expand on it a bit.
The long and short of it is that the television sitcom absolutely needs to change if it is going to survive. In discussing the -com part of sitcom, it's often easy to overlook the sit- part of the equation. And if we want to contemplate the future of the sitcom, its ability to attract and retain an audience, that is where we must begin.
The point I made in the program is that sitcoms have always been built around the interactions that occur within groups of people; over time, the groups may have changed, but the situations themselves remain. In the early days of television, those groups were often built along either ethnic (The Goldbergs) or economic (The Honeymooners) demographics. As the baby-boom continued, the relevant group became the family, almost always a family with children (Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show). The mother stayed at home in these families, and though the father had a job, that was seldom if ever shown.
That would change when the focus of the sitcom incorporated the workplace as well as (or instead of) home, first with The Phil Silvers Show, which was set on a military base, but most famously with The Dick Van Dyke Show, where Rob Petrie's co-workers were as important to the plot as Laura and Richie. This would continue in series from Barney Miller, where the office was a precinct house, to Hogan's Heroes, where it was a prisoner-of-war camp, to Room 222, where it was a school. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was built around a television station, but with a twist; as single women became more prevalent in the workplace, and as the birthrate shrank, we saw that a single woman and her single friends could form the basis of a situation, as could a married couple with no children (The Bob Newhart Show).
Eventually, the family was redefined, as it was in American society, and in a show like Cheers the group of regulars at the bar became a sort of family of misfits, while Friends and Seinfeld showcased a group of, well, friends, that had willingly chosen to share their lives together. The families that remained were either blended ones (The Brady Bunch, Two-and-a-Half Men) or dysfunctional (Married...With Children). And, of course, there was overlap, as many series incorporated two or more of these situations into their premise.
My point here is not a recitation of the history of the sitcom; rather, what I'm saying here is that the situation in a sitcom depends on that group of people, and in the individualistic, social-media-dominated society in which we live today, actual groups of people are becoming less and less common. More people are working or going to school online, more and more our friends are the ones we have on Facebook and Twitter. We can watch and listen to whatever we want whenever we want, which means there are fewer and fewer shared experiences, hence fewer and fewer interactions within groups. And without groups, I'd contend, you can't have a sitcom.
Look at the most popular programs on television today: most of them are either police procedurals (and their spinoffs), where a face-to-face workplace is required, or reality programs, in which an artificial family - but a family nonetheless - is created. Even when computer and/or social media experts are involved, it's a group of them, which gives the viewing audience their traditional group.
The disappearance of these groups isn't complete; it hasn't all happened at once, nor will it. These trends are only going to continue, however, which means the sitcom is going to have to evolve to incorporate them. After all, a series based on a group that, in real life, is exceedingly uncommon, is going to be hard for an audience to identify with, especially when they're sitting alone in their apartments watching on their laptops or iPads.
Let's not forget that sitcoms exist to entertain. Even dramedies, a genre I'm not inclined to favor, still have to be funny occasionally. And I'm not sure how entertaining it's going to be to watch characters swap emoticons, or trade texts, or sit around sharing memories on Skype. Talk about a static form of television!* Does this mean that future sitcoms will be built less around groups of people, that the situations depicted are going to have to undergo a radical transformation? And if that is the case, what will the new situation be? How will the writers illustrate it? Or will it be the look that changes, as screens are divided to show five or six people at the same time, all participating from different places, with on-screen text co-existing with the spoken word? Could we see a truly interactive sitcom, in which several characters are fully scripted and fleshed out, but giving the viewer the choice of which characters' plots to follow? These are radical redefinitions of what the contemporary sitcom looks like, but some current shows (Broad Street) already incorporate aspects of it. Can the sitcom survive without such a redefinition?
*It is, ironically, a far better situation for books and graphic stories, which require what is supposed to be the dying art of reading; it's much easier to depict social media in a book than on a television screen.
The major point here is that television, no matter how much influence it has in society, is not going to be able to dictate the terms of the situation comedy of the future. It will only be able to react, as is usually the case. It will be society, and not television, that defines how people interact, and what kinds of groups are formed. The success of the sitcom future will depend entirely on how well television is able to capture the new reality of human interaction, and how successful it is at making that an entertainment that people will want to watch.