Friday, November 18, 2011

Wide Angle: Sitcoms and Intelligent Design

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

Warning: minor spoilers ahead for Community and The Big Bang Theory

If only the strong survive in the Darwinian world of broadcast TV, then NBC’s Community is a delicate protozoa chugging along on little more than hope and mitochondrial proteins. The network’s recent decision to place the show on midseason hiatus is interpreted by many as a prelude to a cancellation. This, of course, has triggered a frenzy among Community’s fervent cult of superfans.

I don’t blame them. In an unprecedented era of television resurrection,1 a pre-emptive strike is the best strategy. Neither do I blame NBC – Community is one of the lowest-rated programs on a network where the bar for success is comparatively low. This is not so surprising when you consider the show’s propensity for massive shifts in its tone, its themes, and its character dynamics not just from season to season, but episode to episode. One week it’s a farcical re-enactment of Goodfellas; the next it’s about refusing to play pool in gym shorts. From a survival standpoint, Community has been foolishly reckless in refusing to adhere to traditional modes of TV storytelling.

For a show to reach the channel-surfing tribes seeking the uncomplicated apotheosis of comedic creation, it’s better to resemble a crowd-pleasing hit like The Big Bang Theory. The formulaic CBS sitcom continues to thrive in its fifth season, sometimes pulling in ratings that are five times better than Community’s. What fascinates me, however, are the foundational similarities between the two programs and how, despite this, they represent two completely opposite philosophies of televisual excellence.

Both Community and Big Bang are what I would call “assimilationist” sitcoms. American television has a long history of programming comedies that satisfy viewer curiosity about different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups. It’s not a straight line from Norman Lear and MTM Productions to, say, The George Lopez Show, but it seems like it’s easier for us to countenance diversity when it’s making us laugh.

The two shows in question here are not about anything so lofty as promoting racial understanding, but they both concern groups of societal misfits struggling to find individual acceptance. The people we are assimilating are no longer of a differing color or creed or national origin. We’ve done that heavy lifting already. Community and especially Big Bang are all about pursuing a new cultural goal: assimilating the geeks.2

At least Big Bang is a show that used to be about geek assimilation, back when it centered on the impractical social and romantic desires of Leonard (Johnny Galecki) who was almost like a single dad in the way he doted on his brilliant, socially awkward roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons). Today Big Bang is practically the Sheldon Show. Sitcoms are frequently retooled to take advantage of a breakout character’s unexpected appeal, but Sheldon’s mojo is derived from a strange mixture of the audience’s adoration and ridicule.

To wit, here are some recent Sheldon plots from the currently-airing fifth season: Sheldon lacks the guile to execute a successful Halloween prank; Sheldon finds it exasperating to comfort a female colleague (whose sexual propositions are frankly and tactlessly rejected); Sheldon is hysterically afraid of a bird then extremely possessive when he adopts it as his pet. This is the incredible thing about The Big Bang Theory. The less evolutionary potential it has displayed, the more successful it has become.

Community, on the other hand, has a fetish for refusing its cast the privilege of reaching any emotional plateaus or developmental stasis. Where Big Bang is an unending treadmill of interchangeable jokes and behaviors – a gag machine rooted in the precise design of its deity-like creators – Community is a stellar example of punctuated equilibrium in a TV show. The members of the Greendale gang may never fully abandon their identifying strengths and weaknesses, but in two-plus seasons have gradually subsumed them to forge a cohesive social unit in an atmosphere of intense social pressure.

This difference in ideology is most evident in how Community treats its own Sheldon, the aloof, pop culture-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi). Some critics have suggested that Sheldon is the first TV character to positively portray a person with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological condition on the autism spectrum. But Abed, while displaying very Sheldon-like behavior at times, would represent a much more well-rounded depiction of the disorder.3 His childlike repudiation of complex social interactions also has a disturbing side; last spring an entire episode was devoted to his prodding the assimilation-skeptic Jeff (Joel McHale) into a deep and meaningful conversation by staging an elaborate re-creation of the film My Dinner with Andre.

It’s important to note that I don’t view these differences as a conflict between “smart” and “dumb” comedy. The more accurate comparison is one of order and disorder. While its creative hook was initially an appeal to assimilationist desires, The Big Bang Theory has always been a fine-tuned universe where as the geeks are, so shall the geeks always be. Community was built for experimentation, finding excitement in the margin for error that accompanies messy human discovery. Leonard will always just roll his eyes at Sheldon, but Jeff and Abed may very well achieve a mutual understanding someday.

The reality of evolution is that some species will inevitably fail, unfit for their environment despite possessing certain special or unique qualities. Community was destined to scrap and struggle and collapse in a euphoric heap. The surprise is not that it may soon be canceled, but that it has lasted this long in the first place. Big Bang instead consolidated its position by refusing to budge from a time-tested, almost innate roadmap for long-term survival.

I don’t think this dichotomy is set in stone, though. Ambitious, risk-taking sitcoms like Community can still be encouraged on network TV. Much like the mammalian ancestor that crawled out of the primordial ooze, the odds are stacked against its success. But it can still succeed, however briefly. It can even survive long enough to flourish - these 50-65 episodes should be enough proof that intelligent design in television is, after all, just a theory.

1 7th Heaven, Jericho, Friday Night Lights, Damages, Medium, Scrubs, and the unkillable monster that is Family Guy, just to name some successes.

2 “Geek,” not “nerd.” Semantics are important to distinguish between willfully eccentric successes/strivers and amusingly contemptible losers/outsiders. Jerry Seinfeld was a geek. George Costanza was a nerd.

3 In this respect, The Big Bang Theory is to Community as The Jeffersons was to The Cosby Show.

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